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  Nobel Laureates Plus



Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, is this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This interview with Nobel Laureates Plus editor Nathan Gardels originally appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of NPQ but is particularly relevant this week during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Turkey.

By Orhan Pamuk

Nathan Gardels: The Muslim presence in Europe is not only about immigrants but about Turkey's accession to the European Union. Must Turkey itself become “mock European” — something the radical Islamists and nationalists in Turkey ridicule — in order to gain accession?

Orhan Pamuk: In my novel, “Snow,” the Islamists in the town of Kars make fun of Ka, the poet from Istanbul who lives in Frankfurt, for looking down on his own people and wanting to be European.

That is not my view. They are not right. For over a 100 years Turkey has made an ultra-effort to Westernize itself. Those conservatives, Islamists or anti-Westerners who resent that change call us liberal secularists “mock Europeans” and imitators. I don't buy this. Turkey has Westernized and modernized in its own way — outside of Europe. We are already way beyond being “mock Europeans.”

The other point in my novel, though, is that if people resent going down this path of Westernization, you should not bomb them or kill them. You should not feel contempt for them and call them stupid. You have to understand the resentment and the anger and engage it. You have to have compassion for their fear and insecurity.

If you want to globalize the world, you have to do this. It is a tough job. You just can't put them down as idiots like (the late Italian journalist) Oriana Fallaci or others who have a very simplistic understanding of my part of the world. There has to be a distinction between trying to move a civilization forward and just having an insulting attitude toward people, even if they are angry and full of politically incorrect rhetoric.

Nathan Gardels: As immigrants from Muslim countries become large minorities throughout Europe, and if Turkey joins the European Union, won't Europe have “two souls,” like the ambivalent characters in “Snow”?

Orhan Pamuk: Yes, two souls. That is our common future, in Turkey and in Europe. If Turkey's going to be a part of Europe, say in 15 years, it should definitely change radically. But so should Europe. Europe should reinvent, rethink itself as a more democratic, multi-religious, self-confident society, based not on religion and a fairy-tale history but a tolerant anti-nationalist vision.

Gardels: Yet in your novel, the protagonist, Ka, who has “two souls,” ends up tragically being shot by Islamists in Frankfurt. His two souls trip over each other because, at some level, they are incompatible. Is that a risk for Turkey and Europe, too?

Pamuk: There have been so many authoritarian politicians over the years trying to impose one soul on Turkey, one way of life or mode of being. Some wanted to impose Western secularism by military means; some wanted Turkey to be eternally traditional and Islamic. This approach destroyed democracy in Turkey. It was responsible for the coups in the 1980s. To have two souls is a good thing. That is the way people really are. We have to understand, that, just like a person, a country can have two souls. These souls are continuously in dialogue with each other, sparring with each other and changing each other. To have democracy is precisely to have this dialogue between these two souls.

Gardels: Still, at some level, isn't a postmodern society that disbelieves in any absolute truths incompatible with a civilization based on faith in one Absolute truth?

Pamuk: This idea of incompatibility of Islam with modernity or with secularism is an argument that adopts the fundamentalist logic. Liberals, democrats or Western thinkers should stop making general, vulgar essentialist observations on Islam every time they come up with some new problem, most of which is partly their making, too. The whole history of Islam under the Ottoman Empire has been a synthesis of the Book and what is happening in history, in the world.

Islam is not a pure thing in and of itself, but related to the world and to history. Islam has long been influenced by the presence of Europe and the presence of the world situation. There is no pure Islam out there in a vacuum. Only the fundamentalists believe that.

Look at what has happened now in Turkey. We once had an Islamic fundamentalist party, which has now converted into a more or less Western-style party whose historic mission is to take Turkey into Europe, and it is backed by the people! This approach is sober and compelling to most Turks today.

Gardels: Three years ago, in Davos, at the World Economic Forum, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the moderate Muslim leader of Turkey, hosted a reception with his wife, whose head was covered. The reception featured the Turkish beauty queen (uncovered) who had just won the Miss World contest in London after it had been forced to leave Nigeria because of protests by radical Islamists. Is this the image of the new Turkey?

Pamuk: Yes. Indeed, one of the joys of being a writer in Turkey these days is that all kinds of unintentionally ironical images abound. They are fun to watch and fun to write about. Both sides are a bit embarrassed: an Islamic politician with a beauty queen; the strange creature of a beauty queen backed by a Muslim prime minister — not a typical sight.

This says a lot about where things are in reality. More of this will come about. And that makes me happy. Once we can smile at these ironies, the tensions will mellow.

(c) 2006 Nobel Laureates Plus
Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC. (11/28/06)