Murat Belge

(by Simone Perotti)

“Ours is a complex history …”. The interview with Murat Belge, who I meet at the Italian Cultural Institute, is one that I have been looking forward to since he confirmed it, and indeed I am not disappointed. A journalist, translator, a person who has always actively participated in the political debate, a professor of comparative literature, Murat Belge is an authentic representative of the freedom of thought which characterises all sound cultures.

“We came from an empire, and passed from trying to organize a society by forcing radical Westernization and modernization, through a succession of coup d’etat, to a democracy that seems to be moving quickly toward a presidential authoritarian republic. In other words, from minority rule to majority rule.” A precise synthesis of a span of eras in a nutshell. That makes him the first university professor with the ability to give a lucid synthesis that I have ever known.

“With Kemalism you would wake up in the morning and find that the alphabet had changed, words had changed, an avalanche of laws changed people’s lives. I understand some of the intentions, but it was a case of forcing the real circumstances and the necessary gradual evolution of a people. This led to a great deal of resentment. The approach was somewhat Jacobin, if you get my meaning.” It is quite clear, even by reading his biography, that Murat Belge does not agree with the spirit of the historical process. But as a true libertarian, shortly after we realise that his opinion of the situation that followed is not a tender one. “We are a land, a typically hybrid people, that is influenced by the attracting forces between East and West, between majorities and minorities. The AKP of the current President has been able to weather many of these drifts and is moving quickly towards decided changes, which are in a certain sense, epoch-making. With the result that we find ourselves at a new crossroad in history, and have to face many unpleasant and important points. The Kurdish situation is one of these.”

I ask him if an intellectual like him does not perhaps have a decisive role in showing the way, or at least the problems. He admits his embarrassment very honestly: “I have always known how to deal with the authorities, but I truly do not know how to deal with the majority.” I am reminded, rightly or wrongly, of a verse by Jannacci (editor’s note: Enzo Jannacci, an italian singer and writer): I have no problem with Berlusconi as such, I have a problem with the Berlusconi in me.

I tell him, as he well knows, that many Islamic and in any case Middle Eastern observers, believe that Erdogan’s approach is possibly the right mix between the West and Islam, and a way of getting two apparently irreconcilable spirits to live together. I ask him what he thinks: “I’m not sure that this is the right mix. It was, until some time ago, but now things are changing.” We talk a little longer about politics and the current political parties, such as the Kurdish-inspired party, whose leader is considered to be very effective, very credible, and thus able to bring the minority to 10%, which would allow them to hold the balance of power in parliament. We then discuss the economy, where despite the good economic condition of the country, there appears to be a downturn (export and agriculture, for example) that may have a significant impact on consensus.

I ask him about the Mediterranean: “The westernisation of the past decades has moreover led to a capitalist system, which is not surprising, it was predictable. But people take very little notice of reference systems. Moreover, the pervasive influence of Islamic culture tends to cover these things to a certain extent. However, I believe in the values of the Mediterranean, I agree with you when you say that they should be restored and once again placed at the centre of a possible political and cultural rebirth. People do not seem to realise this opportunity very clearly. North-Western and Islamic models focus attention elsewhere.” And then adds, to make sure that I have understood this properly: “Needless to say I have more in common with a Moroccan or an Egyptian, even when I do not agree with what they say, than with a person from Finland…”. How can one disagree with him.

Religion, after all, is the crust of the problems.” And on this we are on the same wavelength, I call it a uniform, he calls it the crust, even more poetically. “The real problem is the economy, or rather, well-being. And to that you add resentment, discontent, protests, power, everything takes the other shape of the religious issue, which of course has very little to do with it. Anyone who does not understand that, is quite wrong.”

Can intellectuals influence this change? “Well, it’s difficult to explain: when the Country became open to travel, international exchanges, within the Westernization process, it was inevitable to approach capitalism. Even if some came home disappointed by their travels and experiences. As though they expected something more, as though they could see the faults of the system. Most of these were Kemalists, so that maybe one can also understand why. In general, however, intellectuals may have a role, it all depends on how honest they are in their studies and what they propose.”

And what about young people? “It seems to me that after the 2013 protests, something is moving. Even if more groups appeared in the streets in time but they did not unite to become a movement. Initially it was simply a protest about the trees, very limited. Then it became something else, so that almost all the oppositions took to the streets, even if the different groups of opponents did not communicate much with each other and did not create a system. The good thing is that there was at least a minimum of internal opposition to the ruling party. Young people in any case came forward, the generation of the 80s for example, and they have become aware of a number of problems. Most people do not have a very good opinion of young people, those who take Selfies, those who constantly surf the web, those who are superficial. I do not agree with that. I see a great deal of diversity, and that is good. They have a good sense of humour, they are people who study, who represent the future.” And then he adds: “On the other hand, I believe that politics is of a very low level. Anyone who has a minimum of respect for him or herself is certainly not going into the political arena.”

We come back to the question of the Mediterranean: “We, in the Mediterranean, have a certain lifestyle. We always enjoyed life, the sea, the land. We should not feel guilty about this, which is something that often deep down some would want us to be. The ideology of hard work and the pursuit of money is wrong and that culture has led to disastrous consequences, we see them every day. Moreover, it has failed, given the prevailing crisis, which is not transitory. As Max Weber said, in that culture there is almost a fear to enjoy things, it is not human.

But are you optimistic, Professor? “I am generally not inclined to optimism…”

Who are the Knights of Light? Murat Belge takes time to reply, understanding that this is a point blank question, but not an unchallenging one. Then, quite frankly, he expresses himself with extraordinary intellectual aperture: “I do not believe in a culture of ethnic groups nor in a culture of religions, but in a culture of ideas and values. The Knights of Light are in the international community. There is a network of people, scattered everywhere, who use their brains, who are far-sighted, who have the necessary culture to understand the processes and criticise errors. People who are very aware that this international system of ideas is not necessarily located in the west, but includes the Mediterranean seas of South America as much as the thought of the East. It is an international system based on a democratic and human culture, which does not characterise many Western cultures, but thankfully does characterise many others”.