© Thomas Pullin
Turning Point: Elections in Europe give wind to right-wing nationalist movements.
In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi’s voter-sanctioned authoritarianism and the Polish and Hungarian governments’ rejection of liberal values, and of migrants, the consensus is that there is a new nationalist, illiberal wave washing over the Earth.
As ever, we must resist authoritarian instincts that restrict our liberties, demonize anybody who appears to be different and — as is happening in Turkey — outlaw freedom of expression, judiciary independence and pluralism. We must stand unflinchingly in defense of our dearest values: women’s rights, freedom of thought, academic liberties.
But we must also ask how this illiberal wind has taken hold in spite of our well-intentioned avowal of egalitarianism and humanism. Why does our side keep losing elections?
One of the joys of being a novelist is that it allows you to see and write from both sides of a problem, to inhabit opposing perspectives even as they remain so violently at odds with each other. I wrote my novel “A Strangeness in my Mind” to explore and describe the world of a street vendor, an everyman, on the streets of Istanbul, without ignoring his religiosity. To omit something as important as religion, even if the writer doesn’t identify with it as the character does, risks catching readers off-guard when the character’s inspiration, the real lower class, begins to vote for Islamist political parties. The power of such movements seems stronger to us when we confuse our liberal fantasies with reality.
Just as I try to explore conflicting perspectives while writing, the current American incarnation of multiculturalism, which advocates immigrants adding their unique backgrounds to a new culture rather than abandoning their history in order to assimilate, can encourage people to fight burgeoning authoritarianism. By learning to understand one another more fully, we remain calm in the assurance that we know our neighbors, regardless of how different they may be.
It was during my first trip to New York, in 1985, when I realized that multiculturalism enabled us to live alongside people of different religious and cultural backgrounds without having to shed our own heritage. Back then, this form of tolerance had not yet been conflated with the notion of cultural relativism. The concept of multiculturalism was essential to the American “melting pot,” in which people of disparate faiths and cultures came together and were forged into one nation.
It challenged those who would have pitted communities against each other to live instead in harmony, in the same country, in the same cities and on the same streets. People of different cultures could keep the traditions that governed their religious beliefs, social mores, and everyday habits, as long as they recognized that those values were relative.
To me, the American way of integrating religious minorities into wider society still seems far more effective than European methods. Muslim immigrants to the United States appear much happier and more comfortable than Muslims in France. I believe multiculturalism has been much better than laïcité, the secular French model, at safeguarding the freedom of religion. High school students in France aren’t allowed to wear headscarves to classes — not unlike university students in Turkey, as I described in my novel “Snow.”
Political Islam has exploited this seeming intolerance to consolidate its power and influence in Turkey. In the 1990s, I was — as I still am — convinced that multiculturalism had the power to soften some of Turkey’s eternal conflicts: between tradition and modernity; secularism and Islam; East and West. I anticipated multiculturalism bolstering Turkish democracy, already so diminished by those same conflicts, by military coups justified in the name of secularism and by the periodic disbanding of political parties. In the early 2000s, I argued that joining the European Union would benefit Turkish democracy and Europe both, and that absorbing more than 60 million Muslims would transform Europe into a multicultural society like the United States.
Thirty-two years since that first trip to New York, none of my hopes have been fulfilled. But my faith remains, in part because I haven’t forgotten that these disappointments are rooted in the historically nationalist mindsets found in both Turkey and Europe.
Indeed, we can trace such modern sentiments back at least a century. In April 1914, the French author André Gide wrote in his diary: “… for too long I thought that there was more than one civilization, more than one culture that could rightfully claim our love and deserve our enthusiasm. Now I know that our Occidental (I was about to say French) civilization is not only the most beautiful; I believe — I know — that it is the only one.”
Gide’s original openness morphed into chauvinism, triggered by his negative impressions of Istanbul on a trip there in 1914. The Turkish intellectuals who at the time advocated for the country’s Westernization were distressed by Gide’s words. But to respond in kind would have agitated nationalist sentiments on both sides and further cut Turkey off from the West.
Forty years spent writing novels and trying to understand people different from me have taught me the same thing: to remain calm in the face of these easterly and westerly, historic and contemporary forces. The illiberal winds we face today are not so strong as to sweep all logic away. Let us not forget that Hillary Clinton won 2.5 million more votes than Donald Trump; in Britain, the notion of Brexit has become tinged with regret; in Turkey, Erdogan’s authoritarianism was endorsed by only a paper-thin margin in April’s vote to cement his power.
Comprehending these forces requires us to recognize why other people might disagree with our most deeply held convictions. Doing so is not a cure-all for either newly born nationalist movements or generational enmity, but it can both keep us calm and help us to endure. In this endeavor, the novelist and the multiculturalist share a similar approach, one based on imagining and understanding the humanity of people who are not like us.
Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. His novel “My Name Is Red” won the 2003 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has been translated into more than sixty languages.
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate