Historian Hamit Bozarslan, whose new book “Crisis, Violence, De-Civilization” investigates the history of crises and violence, talks about how crisis turns to violence in Syria, Algeria and elsewhere.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I was particularly shaken by what happened in Syria and Mali. But we are also witnessing a sort of vexing of Western democracies and of civilization in general. When I say “civilization” I don’t mean a specific civilization such as Chinese, Islamic or Western, I mean the process of civilization per se. This doesn’t mean that societies have no way out as long as they don’t succumb to a retreat or collapse panic. We still have significant resources and capacity for resisting such a scenario.
You believe that 9/11 was a turning point…
Though it was a singular affair, it was part of the narrative. Certain Arab nations had not fully collapsed back then. The rise of populism in Europe was in starting stages. Obama was elected -twice, after Bush, which was an opportunity for multiculturalism and an open world. So, 9/11 at the time looked like it could be overcome. But instead we had the USA intervening in Iraq which kick started this current period of de-civilization.
What do you exactly mean by de-civilization?
To get to that we have to have a universal definition for civilization. You can actually calculate the level of civilization by the trust people show for the time and the place. As a member of the teaching staff, I know for a fact that my graduate students will be arguing for their theses in June or September. De-civilization is the absence of such a trust resulting in not planning for the future. In Syria, for example, the society collapsed in tandem with the collapse of the state. In 2013-2014, when ISIS was just about to rise, there were at least 1200 militias in the country. Following the crisis Syria has 7 million refugees, 6 million displaced peoples and at least half a million dead. We can argue that Syrian society has been physically eliminated. We can name these mass events as examples of de-civilization.
You say that one of the factors contributing to de-civilization is the destruction of a society’s cognitive faculties. How do you explain that?
Well, there are a lot of examples with Trump’s “fake news” narrative and the dishonest campaign for Brexit being prime Western examples. The Arab world is full of them too. Most researchers claim that the Iraqi society has not had a collective memory since 1958. They have gone through too many coups, massacres, wars and destruction. With traumas like those piling on, the society starts to lose its collective memory. I believe Syria is going through the same stages now.
Do you sense a similar danger in societal exhaustion?
In Turkey the society can be said to be stupefied. There are too many things happening along with the doing away of the administration, the state, and also the elimination of a whole class of luminaires, researchers and journalists. President Erdogan is constantly implying that we are at war, but it is getting harder and harder to keep up with who. Who was our enemy yesterday? Who is it today? Who will be our enemies tomorrow? This situation is closely connected with the destruction of a society’s cognitive abilities. That’s what happened in Iraq earlier, and it is what is happening in Syria today. I am in awe of Syrian intellectuals who are still managing to stand in the way of this total destruction. Some work on meticulously listing the events that took place in Syria, others work to document the murders committed by the regime and the jihadi groups. And not just to lay the foundations of a future lawsuit, they are doing it for the benefit of the society only.
You do not limit yourself to war-torn countries like Syria, Somalia and Libya. Instead you also meditate over Europe. How do you compare the two?
There is no thing as singular history. A de-civilization in one corner of the world effects the times and places of everyone in the world. Democracies are not afraid of crises. Trump’s America is a good example of a functioning elective system versus non-democratic practices. Same goes for certain eastern European countries. In democracies such as ours, just like it happened during the 2008 economic crisis, crises are used as pretenses for imposing unjust economic policies and hegemonic endgames. That’s when fatalism becomes the only viable regime. The fact that you have institutionalized democracy does not mean that you are immune from the dangerous effects of conspiracy theories. Even if you have regular elections, you may still face a situation where those in power busk in the ignorance of the voting public and accuse the opposition for being traitors. And once you have treason in your narrative, the most crucial pillar of democracy -the right to dissent, is thrown out of the window. If opposing views cannot be heard, you have tyranny.
Can we also talk about a democratic exhaustion in Europe?
Of course. It is evident in voting percentages. Again, it has to do with imagination. There is nothing worse than fatalism that thrives on the routine and the lack of projects for the future. There is also the exhaustion of politicians to consider. Just like their constituency, the politicians are forced to deal with everyday issues and completely give up on coming up with new policies. Then, the elections are just there to eliminate the worse case scenario and the democratic system becomes barren. This is the other side of democracy: it gives you a sense of security, but on the other hand it produces a bureaucratic system that can tire the masses.
How can we re-instill citizen’s consciousness?
I am saddened by the lack of platforms for debate -and I am not alone. The press is but a stop along the way, what is important is to produce new platforms for debate. Fatalism has become a nightmare for Turkey, and we see less and less people writing and commenting. We used to have labor unions, educational professionals commenting on the current state. Intellectualism should not be limited to universities. In the 70s we used to debate about everything, though militancy was a side effect. We must resist the idea that everything is going to collapse. Believing that is to give up hope and resist for change. My book is calling for an end for the current fatalism that has engulfed Turkey.