Sevan Nisanyan

Sevan Nisanyan: ‘It is Agonizing to Witness What’s Happening in Turkey’


By Eylem Yilmaz

ATHENS (Ahval) — Turkish-Armenian author and linguist Sevan Nisanyan, living in exile on the Greek island of Samos since July 2017, published his book Halim ile Selim (Halim and Selim) in Turkish this month.

A one-time supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Nisanyan was sentenced in 2014 to 17 years in prison on nine separate counts — including 13 months for insulting the Prophet Mohammed and more than eight years for violating zoning laws. But three years later, Nisanyan announced on Twitter that he had escaped and surfaced in Greece, where he was granted asylum.

Nisanyan, well known for this etymological Turkish dictionary and many travel guides became a very controversial figure in Turkey after he published his book entitled The Wrong Republic, which questioned taboos about the Turkish Republic and its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Outraged Turkish secularists criticized him for attacking Ataturk and not understanding the principles and accomplishments of the republic.

His new book, Halim and Selim, appears to follow suit, except this time it might draw the wrath of pious Turks rather than secularists. The new book discusses the existence of god(s), atheism, the religious foundations of morality, the relationship between reason and belief, and the future of religion in the contemporary world.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

We interviewed Nisanyan about his new book, his etymological dictionary, Turkish politics and the Turkish Republic. The interview was published originally on November 25.

Q: An updated version of your Turkish dictionary has republished. Some on social media have criticized you for writing a Turkish dictionary as an Armenian. What kind of reactions did you get? Are you surprised by the negative comments?

A: Many people have been using the Nisanyan Dictionary for many years with recognition and respect. These people, in particular, appreciated the new version of the dictionary. Unfortunately, there are some ignorant and biased people on social media, and it is almost impossible to reach them. All we can say is that this dictionary is not something that appeals to them.

That said, this dictionary is the largest of its kind for Turkish. Regarding both the scope and content. In that sense, I’m at ease.

There were various criticisms of the first editions of the dictionary, some of them justified. But at the end of the day, this is a massive undertaking that I have to do and with limited resources. But I agree that the older versions had some weaknesses, mainly about ancient Turkish and Turkology. I tried to fix that in this new edition.

Q: The first etymology dictionary of the Turkish language was written by an Armenian, Bedros Keresteciyan. Later Agop Dilafar, another Armenian researcher published a Turkish-language dictionary and now you. Why do you think Armenians are interested in the Turkish language?

Topics: Turkey

A: Many Armenians since the beginning of the 19th century worked on Turkish lexicography. But it is very understandable since the primary language Armenians used in Anatolia was Turkish. Hence, the Turkish language does not only belong to the Turks. It is the Armenians’ language as well. There are many Armenian literary works written in Turkish, it is very natural for Armenians to be interested in the Turkish language.

Another possibility is perhaps that Armenians can be more objective while doing their research, away from some nationalist prejudices. In that sense, maybe we have a small advantage.

Q: What does this say about Armenian and Turkish intellectuals? 

A: Unfortunately, cultural life in Turkey has been a held captive by a political and ideological obsession. There is no doubt that a person who can save himself. Of course, there are exceptions. There are some objective minded people. It is too few for a country of 80 million though.

I have never considered myself only Armenian. I am a person who can carry many national identities simultaneously. I spent most of my life in Turkey, I communicated with Turks, lived in Turkish surroundings. Hence, I don’t necessarily identify as an Armenian only.”

Q: Your new book Halim and Selim discusses issues that are considered taboo in Turkey — about gods and religions. What do you think about secularism and religion in Turkey?

A: I tried to create a calm and rational platform for discussion. I strived to create a broad conversation about religion, regarding metaphysical, logical, cultural and social aspects of it. Both sides in this argument, both the pious and secularists have a tendency to shout, scream and try to silence the other. I tried to steer clear from that. I’m not a traditional Turkish secularist. I’m trying to approach the problem from a different angle. I also am not a religious person either.

And I definitely don’t have an Islamic religious sensitivity. I want to repeat something I said about the dictionary. I’m trying to keep a distance to the subject and stay objective. I believe doing so serves the country, because very few people do this. Indeed very few in Turkey have an objective perspective. I can’t judge whether or not I am succeeding, but I am trying to do it.

What can I say about secularism and religiosity; unfortunately, I think it is an absurd, ludicrous fight. I find it disturbing and disheartening. I find it a bit worrying that people drown in this sea of anger and hatred. It is polarizing.

The Nisanyan Dictionary

Q: If you compare the attitude towards religion of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, what differences do you see?

A: Turkey had its biggest test of religious fanaticism in its history between 1840 and 1870 … The Ottoman Empire overtook some very radical transformation efforts during its last 60-70 years. They tried to gather Ottoman citizens around a non-religious, Turkish identity and failed miserably. All these efforts caused carnage, slaughter and purges. Turkey, founded on the remains of the Ottoman Empire, naturally has naturally been reactionary towards traditional Islam. The Turkish Republic tried to suppress, destroy and prohibit religious Islam while creating secularism that required an almost equal amount of devotion. The result was polarization.

For 60 to 70 years, political expressions of Islamic belief were banned, condemned and anathematized. We see the results today. It caused a massive reaction. The situation we’re in right now is a disaster. Turkey, under the leadership of our current government today has started an effort to return to the ignorance of medieval times. It is agonizing to witness. Turkey is better than this. Maybe it’s not the best country in the world, but it doesn’t have to be so broken either.

Q: What do you think is the main issue?

A: Ignorance. I don’t mean only the religious groups, the ‘white Turks’ that consider themselves superior are equally ignorant. This mutual ignorance, however, leads to an ignorant squabble. This is a fact. Apart from that, it is tough to manage a country where ignorance is pervasive. Turkey is not an easy country to govern. Hence, the leaders of Turkey prefer to use brute force to control the land. It is a vicious circle.”

Q: How do you react to discussions about the republic and reintroducing the oath of loyalty to the republic in elementary schools?

A: The republic has always been discussed, the same problems, the same issues, the same topics. It was the same thing in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I haven’t heard anything new this year. It is the same things all over. It is a frustrating debate. As for the weekly student pledges, it is idolizing a totalitarian regime. They’re trying to replace one type of idolatry with another, it is ridiculous.

The discussion on this issue aims to disguise another debate. I think the regime has two poles and two owners. There are the supporters of the old order, the Kemalists and then there are the populists disguised as Islamists. These two have appeared to be at peace with each other since the July 2016 coup attempt, but as far as I can understand, now they’re showing some teeth towards each other. What can I say? Best of luck to both.

Q: Why do you think they are showing hostility towards each other right now?

A: There’s a power struggle. Maybe President Erdogan is feeling weak due to an impending economic crisis. Therefore, they are checking each other out.

They’re making calculations to see if they can hit each other at their weakest. That’s what I see.

Q: Why would President Erdogan feel weak?

A: Any other government in a democracy would have a hard time staying in power after events like the Gezi Park protests or the corruption allegations of December 2013. Erdogan’s government looked like it was about to crumble, but he recovered. He may have compromised and agreed to do certain things to stay in power. The most apparent proof of such a reconciliation is the abandonment of the Kurdish peace talks. Another was the release of the arrested secularists accused of plotting against the Turkish government.

A third proof is the green-lighting of a massive purge, perhaps demanded by the Turkish military.

These were the moves that Erdogan had to move away from his former political positions. In this sense, it was a defeat for Erdogan. But Erdogan is a powerful politician; he indeed is an exceptional political leader who, at least for now, was able to turn this defeat into political victory. It is intriguing.

Q: But Erdogan is ruling Turkey with executive orders and many journalists, lawmakers, academicians are in prison. He even defies the Constitutional Court, does he not?

A: No doubt the situation in Turkey right now is deplorable. It looks very authoritarian. There is no rule of law, freedom of speech, free press. It is heartbreaking. When I said exceptional, I meant as a strategist, as an ideologist. Otherwise, I am aware of the damage he is doing to the country. I don’t approve of Erdogan’s policies. Recognizing his abilities is one thing, supporting them is another. Until 2013, I thought Erdogan was on a more right track than the others. Since 2013, Turkey has turned into a disaster scene. We’re in a terrible situation. I meant, I recognize that he is skilled, because he’s a smart, brilliant politician.

Q: The Atatürk period was a single party era. Do you think we have a single party system now? How do you compare the two presidencies?

A: They’re very similar. Both regarding structure and personality the two periods are very similar. The paths they chose and the evolution of their governances are almost identical as well. Three major Turkish leaders in the last 120 years; Sultan Abdülhamit, Mustafa Kemal and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have many similarities regarding the quality of the regime.

There are quiet periods in Turkish history where an illusion of democracy, freedom, pluralism starts blooming. Then a strong leader appears and puts a halt to it. That usually is the only option of that leader. In all three cases, we see this very clearly. It looks like that is the only way this country can be governed. As a matter of fact, none of these leaders exhibits any trace of a political belief or ideological coherence. All three are purely pragmatic politicians. They did what their power enabled them to do. Their rhetoric is very similar as well.

Q: In the early years of President Erdogan’s rule there was hope for Turkey joining the European Union. Why do you think Turkey is still struggling to join the EU?

A: For a period of time Turkey there was the hope of joining the European Union. It was an impossible hope. But that hope brought a lot of positive things to Turkey. But quickly, from 2006 onwards, both parties realized that it was just a dream. Turkey will not join the EU, and the EU cannot afford Turkey joining the union. Politically it is impossible. If there were a referendum on it, not even 5 percent of the EU population would vote to accept Turkey into the union. Hence Turkey was forced to give up on its dream.

Currently Turkey, I believe, is looking for a new foreign policy strategy. Maybe the government already has a foreign policy strategy, I don’t know. But honestly, I don’t think that Turkey’s foreign policy is that bad. Under these conditions, I think the government is performing just fine.

Q: Today Turkish foreign policy is moving towards Eurasia. And some criticize Turkey’s Syria policy. What is your take on that?

A: Let me ask you: Let’s say you’re running the country. Turkey’s traditional foreign policy partners have been in Europe and America. Europe is failing. Europe has almost no say on world affairs. Its economy is in serious trouble. Conflicts among themselves are at a hazardous level at this point. Britain is leaving the union. What America is trying to do in the Middle East is unclear. They’re doing a lot of weird things; they are apparently losing their control over Iraq and Syria and the Middle East in general. What would you do if you were the president of Turkey in this case? When you look Turkey’s foreign policy from this point of view, despite some mistakes, not everything the government is doing is wrong. It would be unfair to say that. After all, if you can have a summit in Istanbul with the presidents of France, Germany and Russia, and not invite the United States, you are doing something right.

Q: I would like to ask you about the detained journalists and activists. Osman Kavala, a political activist, has been jailed for more than a year now. What is your stance on this?

A: Many intellectuals have been detained in recent years. They have been jailed, persecuted and silenced. The journalist Ahmet Altan is a very respectable person. He truly is a dignified, intelligent, rational and righteous person. I want to emphasize righteous.

Another person jail is Osman Kavala. Osman Kavala has been a close friend of mine for years. He is an extremely valuable person, righteous as well. Both of these people were imprisoned on false accusations. A country where these people are in prison cannot be considered a civilized country. This proves that there is no rule of law in this country. I don’t know who wants these people in prison, but it may not be the first name you think of.

Q: Are you saying that it might not be Erdogan?

A: I’m just saying what we see might not be the whole picture. We argued for years that we have a form of dictatorship in Turkey. We noted that there are some people who are ideological, and corrupt. We argued that Turkey should take the scalpel and cut out the tumor. And we hoped that the government would do that. Hence, we supported Tayyip Erdogan. Unfortunately, time has proven us wrong. Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts in turned out to be inadequate. And the former groups returned to power, and they are more powerfully than before. That’s what is happening.

Q: You supported the 2010 Constitutional change. Now, when you look back, would you still support it?

A: Without a doubt. We didn’t know the results would be like this. Nobody could have known. Turkey needed that constitutional change. Because it was the constitution of a corrupt regime. Thousands of people were jailed and executed under that constitution. These people robbed public banks.

A government promises to change course, of course you support it. It was unclear if they had the power and will to change course. After all, they couldn’t or didn’t, or they never intended to. I don’t know. But yes, I believe supporting the government was the right thing to do in 2010, and I stand by my decision.

Q: I’d like to get your view on the local elections. You have criticized the HDP’s performance during the presidential elections. How can a party whose co-chairs are in prison compete in elections?

A: First of all, I didn’t criticize the HDP. That’s not true. I expected that they would get more votes, yes. But it is apparent that this was not a fair election. We are talking about a party with many of its deputies, co-chairs and members are behind bars. We’re talking about cities that have been destroyed and bombed. Of course, they couldn’t perform. Criticism is the wrong word there. I didn’t criticize them. I just said I’m sorry that they didn’t perform better … I think our only choice is to hope that this will pass as well.”

Q: Do you think the pro-minority HDP or other civil society organizations could be a precursor for a new movement in Turkey?

A: I do not think that the conditions in Turkey right now are conducive for a serious democratic movement to flourish. I believe we’ll have to wait for a while.



Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: