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Elif Shafak: This is Not a clash between civilizations or religions*

by - 15 February

Credit: Zeynel Abidin

Elif Shafak is Turkey's most-read woman writer and an award-winning novelist. She writes in both English and Turkish, and has published 13 books, nine of which are novels, including: The Bastard of Istanbul, The Forty Rules of Love, Honour and her nonfiction memoir Black Milk. Her books have been translated into more than forty languages.

Shafak blends Western and Eastern traditions of storytelling, bringing out the voices of women, minorities, subcultures, immigrants and global souls. Defying cliches and transcending boundaries her works draws on different cultures and cities, and reflects a strong interest in history, philosophy, culture, mysticism, intercultural dialogue and gender equality. 

Shafak is a public speaker and works with The London Speaker Bureau. She is regularly invited to give talks in major universities, corporations, international organizations, festivals and charities both in the UK and across the world. 

Shafak is also a political scientist and a commentator. She has written for several international daily & weekly publications, including The Financial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, Die Zeit, La Repubblica,The Independent, Newsweek and Time.  

Ms. Shafak, in your new book The Architect’s Apprentice one of the first lessons that the great architect Sinan gave to his apprentices was: „Destroying a bridge was easier than building it: it takes time, skill and patience to create, yet only moments to demolish”. Did we destroy the bridge of tolerance and peaceful coexistence in Europe?

We are destroying the bridge of peaceful coexistence, brick by brick. Every racist, xenophobic or extremist remark or act pulls another brick from that precious bridge. But there are also people who are trying to build new bridges or repair old ones. So there is a constant struggle at the moment. This is Not a clash between civilizations or religions. The real clash is between those who believe in coexistence, democracy, pluralism AND those who want to divide the world into “us” versus “them”.

You are born in Strasbourg, you’ve lived across Europe and America and now you divide your time between Istanbul and London. You know well both worlds. Where did we go wrong with the communication with the Other? And is this a question of miscommunication at all?
As the mystics used to say, we are all interconnected through invisible threads. Until recently, there was too much focus on financial and economic connectivity. But many people don’t understand that our stories, our futures and our destinies are also interconnected. The unhappiness of someone living in Pakistan affects the life of someone living in Canada. All extremist ideologies breed each other. Anti-Western narrative strengthens Islamophobia and Islamophobia strengthens Anti-western  narrative. We need to get out of this vicious circle. We need to remember that whatever our background, we are, and must become, world citizens.

How could we live alongside people of a different cultural background?

This is a big challenge, it is not easy. But let’s, for a moment, consider the opposite model. Is it better to live with people who are exactly like us? Is it better to be surrounded with our mirror image all the time? This might give a sense of comfort and safety at the beginning but it is suffocating and dangerous. Also it is a fake safety. Fascism is a desire for absolute sameness. Whereas literature, philosophy, creativity, and democracy are all strengthened by diversity. It is diversity that helps us to move forward, not sameness. We can have common values (pluralistic democracy, freedom of speech, gender equality) and respect cultural differences at the same time. Not easy, I know. But we cannot abandon this important ideal. Because the alternative will be horribly wrong. History is proof of that.

You were charged with insulting „Turkishness” in your novel The Bastard of Istanbul. Many times you have said that „words can get you into trouble”. What constitutes free expression and should there be limits to free speech if it is perceived as offensive by some? Could we speak openly to all human differences?

As a Turkish writer “freedom of speech” and “freedom of imagination” are precious to me. Yet I believe we are making a grave mistake by focusing on the word “offence,” and questioning whether art can be offensive or people have a right to be offended. We are stuck in a mental trap as long as we cannot manage to discuss “violence” and “offence” separately.
We need to divorce the two notions. It is perfectly human to be offended in the face of mockery, opprobrium or slander. That is understandable. Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Christians or agnostics … we can all feel offended by something someone says, writes or does. But that is where the line must be drawn. It is totally inhuman and unacceptable to resort to violence and shed blood in response.
The response to a book is another book. The response to an article is writing a counter-article. The response to cartoons is more cartoons, not less. Words need to be answered with words. This is a simple but a fundamental truth that we failed to teach to the younger generations and ourselves.

*1st part of my recent interview with Elif Shafak
Read the second one here

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