New Turkey and the double failure of the non-European intellectual

When the west has monopolized everything signifying success, beauty, veracity, rationality, humanity, history – everything positive on this earth, what remains for those to become who feel wounded by the west?

Firat M. Haciahmetoglu
25 July 2016

Portrait of Ataturk at the 'Republic and Democracy Rally', Taksim square, Istanbul, Sunday, July 24, 2016. Petros Kardjias /Press Association. All rights reserved. The weather is hot, a little bit too hot maybe. But okay. It has been all rainy lately and now the sun is shining brightly. I am sitting in the middle of a square in a relatively small town in Europe with an ice-cold beer in my hand. The square is quite large, full of bars and cafés. Although it is Monday, it is replete with people. It is hard to find a place to sit. I did. I am quite happy.

I have been living in Europe for the last six years and I always find it fascinating how when the summer arrives, the entire town takes on the posture of a huge holiday resort. Life slows down and displays perhaps a superficial but still an intimate sense of peace, calm and serenity.

I sit in the middle of a town square in what resembles a huge holiday resort full of people of no matter what religion, descent, or colour. I look around, my gaze hidden behind my sun glasses. Around one of the tables on my right, I see seated an Indian family. Probably they came to visit their daughter who, I guess, is doing a PhD here. I bet they didn’t expect this weather here. Just next to that table, I see three women, each uniquely beautiful and rather bold. I then turn my head to the left. I see a young couple, sitting quite close to one another. From time to time, they resist kissing one another. Perhaps, they have just started to date. A little bit on the left, I see a table of five men drinking cola, smoking heavily and enjoying the sun. Just next to them, there is a group of quite original and pretentious ‘hipsters’. Then come two young girls, one white, and the other black. The latter wears a pullover and shorts, a combination designed to capture people’s attention. It succeeds. They sit and are immediately engrossed in a heated conversation.

I hear many languages, many people, much laughter.

Then I ask myself, why? Why is it so impossible to have this in the country where I was born? Why, I cannot help but wonder, is this very reality an impossible dream in Turkey? On what principle, on what ground, I wonder, should I be deprived of such a simple experience seemingly for ever? Why is it so hard to have something that other people don’t even think about it? It is a question that leads to one of the greatest whys: Why, I wonder, was I born in Turkey and not here?

It is a revolting question, carrying within itself a strong sense of mutiny commingled with self-pity, but against whom? Who is responsible and by what right and authority? Philosophy has an answer to such dislocating questions. It says ‘contingency’. It is all contingent. Nobody gets to choose where she or he was born. The ground of all grounds is ultimately groundless. Fair enough. Perhaps this should console me, for then I would be convinced that nobody deserves anything. She was born here, I was born there. So what? Yet, I do not feel consoled in the least. It might be true that fire burns just as a contingent fact, but it necessarily burns, of course, only those who cannot not touch it.

So contingency fails to comfort me. If it matters at all, it only makes it worse, for I still want to know. Why can they have this mosaic, this plurality and reciprocal respect, this peace and serenity, this beauty, without doing anything to deserve it? Was I cursed before I was born – why am I paying the price of something that I did not commit?

I imagine this very square in Turkey. I dislodge it and put it in a town in my country in order to ponder in my mind what would happen next. Immediately, the scene turns ‘red’. All the peace, calm and serenity cede their place to chaos, violence and hatred. I see people coming in groups, shouting either religious or nationalist statements as dark as their faces. I see that the police even accompany them, showing a timid support. There are no exceptions here, they are ‘the people’ of my country. There is only one minority here and it belongs to the square. In this land where democracy means having the right to hate, lynch and exclude, ‘the people’ judge the square on a different basis: for them, it consists of those foreigners who are speaking another language, of those women who think that they can wear what they want, of those couples who think that kissing the one you love is perfectly normal, of those who wear different clothes, of those who act differently – or, let me sum it up, of those who are different.

I want to know: why do they hate ‘us’ so much, what makes them so angry, so short of tolerance. I was also born there, so it cannot just be the place. If we don’t want to fall prey to age-old subjectivism, we should understand the conditions that make them act in the way they do – that is, how and why they are turned into such a people.

Two characteristics of our epoch, I suggest, mark these conditions. The first one is cosmopolitanism and globalization. Although some claim that the two have always been active, the degree and speed that they have reached in our epoch are undoubtedly unparalleled. The second is a ‘history’ that conveys a strong sense of injustice that has befallen the non-western part of the world. It is an irony that the rise of contingency coincides with that of globalization leaving no space for other ‘contingent’ forms of life except the very western and cosmopolitan one. History in the non-western part of the world continually brings to mind a ‘wound’ that lays bare the contrast between a so-called ‘golden past’ – when they did not have to hate anyone – and the poverty of the present. It is the past where justice is found.

The non-western world thus feels that an immense injustice has been done to them. They have been deprived of any and every virtue and possibility. No matter how much the western or the westernized intellectual tried to erase this wound, the result has always been a failure. The people of the non-western world refuse to forget. And it is not a coincidence perhaps that this tenacious refusal arises concomitantly with a west that absorbs every positive virtue that exists into its growing body. In effect, dignity becomes an impossible task for those who refuse to forget. Where there is not even a possibility for dignity, it must not be a surprise that otherwise perfectly good people turn into agents of annihilation.

This is to ask the following question – When the west has monopolized everything signifying success, beauty, veracity, rationality, humanity, history, everything positive on this earth, let me ask you what remains for those to become who feel wounded by the west?

A solution to this dilemma was to suggest that “there is no west or east.” To erase the memory of the wound, new transnational intellectuals saw fit to erase the alleged cause of the wound: the borders. If we erase the borders, they supposed, we erase the wound sustained by those borders.

These attempts not only failed, but also left utterly no space for the non-western world to exist. In an epoch where the borders of the west are erased in order to make nothing western (which rather made everything western), history, recalling Clausewitz, will certainly write how the good-will of the late twentieth century western/ized intellectuals had the exactly opposite consequence in the rest of the world.


Summer beer garden, June 2015. Flickr/ Beoir ireland. Some rights reserved.That said, however, it might seem that I am just another person wallowing in guilt by putting all the blame on the shoulders of the west; just another assuming, wrongly, that non-western people do not have any reason and conscience to reflect on their decisions and withhold from any action that would hurt the other. If I am granting no agency to non-western people, turning them into a blind force of history, isn’t it interesting how my being in a position to discern this and disclose it to you, still allows me to maintain some kind of upper hand as an active, reasonable agent of history. It seems that I can still drive history. Whereas they are poor puppets, I have a perspective now shared only by those who pull the strings. Yet, in its essence, it is precisely this very attitude, this desire to have an ahistorical point of view, this hubris, I believe, which pushes the non-western world to the edge of the extreme, of the abyss.

I realized some years ago that the problem consists no less in people like me than in those people whose so-called depravity I cannot make sense of. I realized that I have become the last means by which the non-western world is kept outside history and humanity. I realized that by failing to understand and by distancing myself from ‘them’, I ended up finding the cause of the problem in their essence. As such, I only contributed to the age-old othering of the non-western world. As a non-European, I have become the last resort of western hegemony.

Such a realization, however, does not change the fact that in Turkey, ‘the people’ would not tolerate such a square. It rather underlines that the struggle for a just world and dignity is no longer as straightforward as it used to be. We don’t have any position which can unambiguously explain to us what we ought to do on whichever side we find ourselves. The fight unfolds in multiple stages which all belong to history and humanity. It is no longer possible for one stage to be the protagonist. The wound, despite all attempts at healing (or, perhaps thanks to them) has spread. We have to learn now how to resolve the wound, not by more monocentralisation but, quite the opposite, by polycentralising the world, by clearing a space, another square, in which the other can emerge as the other.

I admit that although I am a non-European, I am not the other of Europe. The square has become my home but my admission mitigated the wound by whispering the fact that it is ‘they’ who ‘failed’ to enter the square.

To heal the wound, we should build new squares among which one can freely move, squares as dignified and great as the west itself. Only among such equally dignified squares can one maintain difference and heterogeneity and thereby overcome the hatred and ressentiment that stem from the fact that there is only one square in which one can exist. It is only on the basis of an entirely new understanding of our world that we can overcome the nihilism which drives us into self-annihilation; and this is only possible if we oppose, on the one hand, the contemporary cosmopolitanism which functions by way of excluding the others and, on the other, those who are devoured by the resentment fed by that wound and their nostalgia for a dignified past.

When I say ‘we’, I do assign a privileged, because historical, responsibility to those like me – ‘the westernized ones’. It is first and foremost this ‘we’ who have to fight in two stances, on the one hand, against the totalization of the west which poses ‘us against us’, i.e., against those who are excluded in order to pay our price to be included, and on the other, against those who are so entrenched in hatred and aversion that they would destroy the entire square including themselves rather than participate in a differential whole which would give place to a plurality of squares.

We have to build a world with many squares. Only where there are borders can a genuinely borderless world be possible. Such a world is, to be sure, not the one in which millions of people unidirectionally wait for the slightest chance to enter one square, that is to say, either to be already western or to become westernized. No, the world we build must be a world of equals, not of victors and losers which nobody explicitly talks about, but where everybody knows very well which one is which.

We have to build a world where to survive does not mean being western or westernized.

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