In her latest op-ed in Guardian, Elif Shafak writes about the importance of West’s public intellectuals to raise their voices against the trend of populism, nationalism, and isolationism: “ It is an unhappy country that hates its public intellectuals. Turkey, my motherland, is one such place. Increasingly today, intellectuals are demonized in pro-government media, trolled on social media, accused of being “traitors” or “collaborating with western powers,” put on trial, imprisoned or exiled. But one thing they are not is ignored. Turkey, just like Russia, has a long and depressing tradition of taking its intellectuals seriously and making them suffer for daring to think differently.
Here in the UK things are very different. Freedom of speech prevails, democracy is strong. Novelists are not sued for tackling controversial issues; academics are not expelled in their thousands, journalists are not put in jail en masse. Compared with their Turkish, Russian, Venezuelan, Pakistani or Chinese counterparts, British intellectuals have so much freedom. One would expect them to be aware of this privilege and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t.
There appears to be an interesting mapping of the world in some people’s minds. According to this, feminists and activists for freedom of speech and human rights are only needed in those parts of the world where things are dire, and democracy is visibly under attack. What seems arrogant to me is the presumption that intellectuals are needed in backward countries whereas over here in the developed, democratic West we are beyond all those “petty troubles”.
In the new “Trump World Order” more and more people across the west realize that the rights and liberties that they have taken for granted for so long might, in truth, have to be defended passionately and urgently.
We have entered a new era in world history. Liberal democracy is widely under threat. There is a dangerous discourse brewing outside the borders of Europe that claims: “Democracy is not suitable for either the Middle East or the East”. Isolationists are proposing new social models in which democracy, human rights, freedom of speech are all dispensable, and all that matters is economic stability. They do not understand that undemocratic nations are deeply unhappy nations and cannot be stable in any way.
Turkey, Hungary, Poland … case after case shows us that democracy is more fragile than we realized. It is not a material possession that some countries have while others have not; rather, it is an ecosystem that needs to be continuously protected, nourished and cared for. And today, faced with populist movements and tribalist discourses, this ecosystem is threatened. If we do not speak up for basic human rights and pluralistic values, then we run the risk of losing them one by one. Turkey holds important lessons as to how countries can go backward with bewildering speed. What happened over there can happen anywhere.”
Shafak believes that “Intellectuals should be bold and loud and yes, offensive. It is high time to stop denigrating the term. At least out of respect for those people who pay a heavy price in other parts of the world just to be a public intellectual.”
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- Elif Shafak is an award-winning novelist and political scientist. She is the author of 10 novels, including The Forty Rules of Love and The Bastard of Istanbul. An advocate for women’s rights and LGBT rights and freedom of speech, she has been awarded Chevalier des Arts and des Lettres.