***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Selahattin Demirtas
I write this as a political prisoner in a high-security prison in Edirne, Turkey. I imagine most of you will have never received a letter from prison before, so I would like you to think of this preface as just that: a letter written to you from prison.
I was arrested one year and ten months ago while I was a member of the Turkish parliament and the cochairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, known as the HDP, for which nearly six million people voted in Turkey’s last election. I am among the tens of thousands of dissidents who have been targeted by punitive measures normalized under the state of emergency. The government has so far started 102 investigations and filed 34 separate court cases against me. If it has its way, I will face 183 years in prison.
In Western countries, prison is generally thought of as a place where people are punished for their crimes. In Turkey, however, it is a different matter. Behind these walls, there is now a considerable population of qualified and educated people who could serve the needs of any modern, decent-size country. As a human rights lawyer—one who has tirelessly reported rights violations in Turkey’s prisons for a number of years—it is with complete certainty and considerable sorrow that I tell you that, since becoming a lawyer in 1998, I have never known rights to be abused as frequently and consistently as they are now. Turkey has become a country in which those who stand up to the rising authoritarianism in the government—dissidents who share tweets considered critical of the current regime, university students who wave protest banners, journalists who truthfully report the news, academics who sign petitions calling for peace, and members of parliament acting in the public interest— quickly find themselves incarcerated. The government believes that this policy of collective punishment will suppress the millions of dissidents “on the outside,” who are living in a semi-open prison as it is. And so in the nearly two years that I have been imprisoned, there has never been any question in my mind as to why I am here. Like many other dissidents held in Turkey’s prisons, I, too, am paying a necessary price in the name of peace and democratization. Even if I were forced to spend my entire life behind bars, my belief in the right to defend peace, democracy, and human rights would not waver.
In today’s world, literature and politics are thought of as two separate realms, yet I’ve never subscribed to this view. What readers or voters expect from the writer and politician are, in essence, the same: to be inspired. Both are expected to create meaning and to observe their societies closely and reflect upon the issues that those societies face. All in all, there is little difference between the responsibility borne by politicians, particularly those living under oppressive regimes, and intellectuals who prioritize the good of society.
The truth is, I have always believed, both as a politician and a writer, that our struggle must be carried out on two levels. The first is an intellectual struggle fought in the field of language, an area that naturally includes literature. We do this in order to reclaim the concepts of peace, democracy, and human rights, concepts that are being eroded day by day, caught as they are within the insincere boundaries of governments and institutional politics. It is said these concepts are what differentiate the developed world from oppressive regimes, West from East, yet in Western governments they are all too often sacrificed at the altar of political and economic interests. This is precisely what lies at the heart of the political crises raging throughout the world as I write.
Today we find ourselves grappling with a political discourse twisted beyond recognition, with political demands forcefully silenced in the name of peace and stability, and regimes that trample on civil liberties and rig elections as “developing democracies.” Some may think it naive to turn our attention to the role of literature in the midst of such troubles. I would beg to differ. Literature—the art form that arguably comprises the backbone of any culture—remains not only at the vanguard of critical thinking but serves as a catalyst for the thoughts and feelings that in turn create political change. Let us not forget that as long as we continue to breathe life into words, those words will not abandon us.
We must restore to literature its transformative role. We have the capability to create a new language around the concepts of peace, democracy, and human rights, and the values inherent to each. But to do so, political activism alone is not enough: we must also engage intellectually and artistically. If we are sincere in our mission, though, we should start by being honest with ourselves. For it is not only government policies that are to blame for the crisis of democracy, but societies themselves, which are insufficiently organized and therefore unable to balance the power of governments. And so it is by discovering a new way of speaking that we can combat the rise of populism in the developed world, and the authoritarian regimes that are increasing both in number and severity throughout the rest of the world.
In many countries today, and especially in the Middle East, the constraints of gender, religion, and ethnic identities weigh very heavily upon us. As a means of survival, we become withdrawn. Shackled by society, we begin to isolate ourselves. What we need is new forms of struggle, to break free from the chains that confine us, and to tear down the walls that hold us in. Yet it is impossible for us to decide alone just how this new method of resistance should take shape.
Creativity is a collaborative process. Throughout history, the fight for justice and equality owes its innovation to the interaction of ideas, emotions, and collective action. In other words, it is the deeds of men and women, unafraid to make sacrifices for the sake of progressive politics and receptive to new ideas, that have changed the world. Despite the issues that face us today, democracy remains alive and well in many countries. And those institutions responsible for keeping democracy alive, which foster peace and protect human rights, did not arise spontaneously. They were built on a history of social struggle rife with sacrifice and negotiation. Just as the women’s movement has faced numerous pressures throughout history as it transformed from one wave to the next, or how the civil rights movement paid dearly to dismantle racially discriminatory policies, those people under authoritarian regimes today are paying a high price, too, for freedom and democracy. It is up to us to create a new path founded on a nonviolent belief in civil resistance, which does not hesitate to make sacrifices in the fight against oppressive policies. And so, too, must we create a universal language of politics that will speak to the hearts and minds of those living both in the developed world and under authoritarian regimes. I truly believe that it will be the women, the young, and the oppressed people of both the East and the West who will lead the fight to end injustice and inequality and be the creators of this new language.
This book is a collection of stories about everyday people, written by a politician fighting for freedom and equality, after being unjustly imprisoned by an authoritarian regime. It contains short fragments from my own past, which have resurfaced in my memory while I’ve been here in prison. Most politicians believe they speak great truths with their lengthy, grandiose statements. I, on the other hand, have always believed in the power of human stories. I am trapped inside these four walls, but I know that there are thousands of Demirtaşes right now, working the fields. Demirtaş is down in the mines, at the factories. He is at the lecture halls, at the squares, at the rallies. He is at the construction sites. Demirtaş is at strikes, in the resistance. He has just been fired. Demirtaş is unemployed and poor. He is young, he is a woman, he is a child. He is Turkish, he is Kurdish, he is Circassian. He is Alawite. He is Sunni. No matter what he is, he is hopeful and vigorous. What lies at the heart of my relationship with politics is not lofty ideals or abstractions, but ordinary people: ordinary people who are capable of changing the world.
August 17, 2018