Sevan Nişanyan: It is agonising to witness what’s happening in Turkey

Turkish-Armenian author and linguist Sevan Nişanyan, 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 Erdoğan, Nişanyan 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, Nişanyan announced on Twitter that he had escaped and surfaced in Greece, where he was granted asylum.

Nişanyan, 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 criticised 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.

We interviewed Nişanyan about his new book, his etymological dictionary, Turkish politics and the Turkish Republic.

Q: An updated version of your Turkish dictionary has republished. Some on social media have criticised 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 Nişanyan 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?

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 polarising.”

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 polarisation.

For 60 to 70 years, political expressions of Islamic belief were banned, condemned and anathematised. 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 agonising 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.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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