The Urgency of a Cosmopolitan Ideal as Nationalism Surges
Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist and author “The Bastard of Istanbul.”
ISTANBUL—Along the southern coast of the Black Sea in a city called Sinop, the statue of an old man welcomes visitors from far and wide. Holding up a lantern he squints ahead, as though searching for something he has lost. He is none other than Diogenes the Cynic, the philosopher described by Plato as “Socrates gone mad.”
Behind him loom the remnants of an ancient castle, a section of which was turned into a prison. Numerous political prisoners have been incarcerated here, including some of Turkey’s well-known poets and novelists. I have always found the contrast striking. On the one hand there is Diogenes, a free spirit who clearly enjoyed going against the grain. On the other hand, there is the penal institution whose primary purpose is to entrench the authority of the nation-state. Diogenes has his back turned to the castle walls, as if he wishes to see them no more.
Diogenes, born in 412 BC, regarded himself as an inhabitant of the world—a position he pitted against citizenship of the city-state. Ever since then “cosmopolitanism” has been a part of our lexicon, although what exactly the term means has never been as open to debate as it is today. Given the myriad interpretations as to what cosmopolitanism is, it might be worth starting with what it isn’t. This will inevitably lead us to nation-state and its identity politics.
Every nation-state has nationalism as its underlying ideology. One might object that not every nation-state is nationalistic in the same way. How could we compare democratic, liberal, gender-egalitarian (relatively) Sweden with totalitarian, patriarchal North Korea? While that is true to a large extent, it is also true that there can be no nation-state, East or West, without a degree of flag-waving jingoism.
This requires the systematic legitimization of a dichotomy between a supposed-us and a supposed-them, and the assumption that “us” is better than “them.” All countries produce this hackneyed pattern time and again. However, if a regime is based on a well-functioning democracy and a robust civil society, other discourses can counterbalance the one-sidedness of nationalism. If the state in concern is far from being democratic and pluralistic, then chauvinism emerges as the dominant discourse.
One of the most cherished slogans of Turkish ultra-nationalism is “love it or leave it!” You can come across this motto everywhere from football stadiums to street graffiti to social media. The tone is aggressive, high-handed and unyielding. An anonymous voice orders people to make a choice once-and-for-all: “If you love your motherland, you should not criticize it. If you insist on criticizing, it means you are not patriotic enough, in which case just pack up and go away.”
PURE VS. CONTAMINATED NEIGHBORHOODS | In a popular novel that has been made into a TV drama, the two neighborhoods of Istanbul are diametrically set apart: the cosmopolitan Pera and Harbiye, and the traditional Fatih. The latter stands for purity. It is the abode of Muslim culture, homogeneity, honesty and virtue.
In contrast, the former represents hybridity since it is here where cultures and languages and cuisines mingle. Thus Pera is portrayed as the source of debauchery, immorality, vice and sexually transmitted diseases. The message is clear. Select sameness over diversity. Select purity over hybridity. Those who make the wrong choice are deprived of their dignity. But the loss is bigger for women. They lose their modesty.
In a similar vein, Le Front National in France describes one of its main aims as to defend everything that is French against the mixture of cultures and people. Like the Turkish far right, so does the French far right see cosmopolitanism as an erosion of national identity and therefore, a menace.
Anti-cosmopolitanism thrives upon fear. Through its distorted lens, facts can be twisted, perceptions warped. A sexual or ethnic or religious minority that doesn’t compose even a speck of the population can be depicted as a major threat.
The oldest Greek newspaper in Turkey, Apoyevmatini, sells only 600 copies, given that the Greek minority has shrunk dramatically. Still, when the statue of Diogenes was erected, it sparked off debates. Some were upset that “a Greek philosopher” was being honored in Turkish land.
The local head of the nationalist MHP party objected that “a man who was half naked and reported to masturbate on the streets” should be given recognition. That the statue was carrying a lantern to allude to how Diogenes had been looking for an honest man, was an insult to the decent people of Sinop. He further added that the incident reminded him of one of the forces that wanted to establish a Greek state in the Black Sea region.
Nationalism is adept at being powerful and playing the victim at the same time. Hungarian far-right Jobbik members often talk about “taking back their country” from Jews and Roma.
Rejecting Western liberal values and the European Union, Jobbik leaders claim that Hungary has had a double identity, being both Western and Eastern, and it is time to choose. The party increased its votes over the last years, shocking international observers. In a world of shifting alliances and profuse ambiguities, simplicity and straightforwardness are the greatest appeal of totalitarian narratives. They offer clarity to the perplexed.
Time and again, people suspected of being “cosmopolites” have been accused of being both rootless (not loving one’s country) and heartless (not respecting one’s ancestors). The same propaganda was used in the anti-cosmopolitanism campaigns in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Most, but not all, of these campaigns targeted the Jewish population who were regarded as having complex belongings and thus not being patriotic enough.
While nationalism thinks, speaks and commands in “either-or” terms, cosmopolitanism believes it is possible to be “both...and...” While nationalism uses exclamation marks, cosmopolitanism ends each sentence with a comma.
From a cosmopolitan perspective, every human being has multiple affiliations. A child born in the Netherlands to Moroccan parents does not need to choose either “Islam” or “Europe,” despite what the likes of Geert Wilders claim. One can be simultaneously Muslim and European and so much more.
An elderly Armenian in the diaspora can feel attached to multiple places; to America or Australia where he migrated, to Armenia where he perhaps plans to be buried and still to Anatolia, from where his entire family was forcefully deported. Rather than reducing human beings to a single label, cosmopolitanism insists on the reality of blended selfhoods.
But it remains to define who is a cosmopolite. Is it someone who lives in multicultural megacities such as New York, London or Berlin? Is it someone who has more than one ethnic or racial heritage? Does having a Jamaican father and a French mother automatically make one a cosmopolitan? The answer to all is “no.”
Being a cosmopolite requires less hybridity than it means the appreciation of hybridity. It requires consciousness instead of blood and genes. Living in Brooklyn or Kreuzberg does not render one a cosmopolitan. If there is no mental/moral bridge between “I” and “humanity,” there is no real cosmopolitanism. For this to exist, there has to be an understanding, and as Paul Rabinow said “an understanding suspicious of its own imperial tendencies.”
Pankaj Mishra’s profound and powerful essay shows how we all are at a crossroads. None of the conventional ideologies of yesterday has the power to energize and address today’s forms of political mobilization. There might be no normality in the non-Western world, as Mishra rightly says, but it is not only because of the legacy of imperialism but also because of lack of meritocracy, intolerance for diversity and top-down authoritarianism, all of which are present in Turkey, which has not been colonized in its history and is still not normal.
COSMOPOLITANISM IS NOT MULTICULTURALISM | Cosmopolitanism is not multiculturalism. Nor is it a romantic version of humanism or monolithic universalism. It is equally important to recognize that cosmopolitanism is not a foreign idea imported to the non-Western world in order to advance liberal capitalism and its values.
The idea of being interconnected with fellow human beings is inherent in multiple Eastern cultures and traditions, including Islamic mysticism. The Sufi poet Rumi used to talk about living like a drawing compass. One leg of the compass would be based in the religion into which he was born while the other leg would spin together with all 72 nations. It was possible to be from “here” and “everywhere.” It was possible to blend the local and the universal.
Cosmopolitanism lost strength and credibility when it tried to balance itself on one leg. A new cosmopolitanism can stand up on both feet.
Instead of reducing ourselves to the binary opposition of identity politics, we need to do the exact opposite: multiply our attachments and affiliations. I am an Istanbulite and there is a part of me that is from the Aegean and the Middle East and Asia and the Balkans and East Europe and Europe and from nowhere and a global soul. The more definitions linked to the individual, the bigger the chance of my selfhood to overlap with someone else’s selfhood. Overlapping selfhoods bring people closer and reduce tension, hatred and chauvinism. It is harder to hate another person when we believe we have much in common.
But why insist on the value of cosmopolitanism when the concept and the theory can be abandoned altogether? The answer is because it is one of the best antidotes that humanity has come up with to the ongoing craze of xenophobia and bigotry. We don’t have anything better to replace it with. Not yet. As Martha Nussbaum said the emergence of world citizens challenges “the spirit of identity politics which holds that one’s primary affiliation is with one’s local group.”
Fifteen years ago there was much optimism that in an increasingly globalized world, nationalism and religiosity would wither away vis-a-vis interdependence. That did not happen.
While it is true that information technologies, easier transportation and capital mobility connect us like never before, ultranationalism and fundamentalism are on the rise.
A single economic crisis is enough to turn even the most logical and moderate among us into xenophobes. The financial problems and political failures within EU nurtured a series of far-right movements across the continent. In Russia, India, Japan, Indonesia, across the Middle East and South America and Africa “the fear of the Other” is rampant. As Etienne Balibar once said, borders might be vacillating but that doesn’t mean they are disappearing. If, as Balibar explains, borders are no longer the shores of politics, the need for a global civil society is an urgent one.
Cosmopolitanism is not a bygone aspiration that can easily be discarded. It is an urgency. In a world characterized by economic and political interconnectivity but intellectual isolationism, cosmopolitanism whispers into our ears that there is another path.
While extremists on all sides tell us that we are essentially and irretrievably different and have little, if anything, in common, the idea of universal citizenship sheds light on our common humanity. It might sound like an idealistic dream, but those of us coming from parts of the world that witnessed the demise of cosmopolitan ethics know well that the price of losing the dream is a major one.