INTERVIEW WITH LATIF TAS, MARIE-SKLODOWSKA-CURIE GLOBAL FELLOW AND VISITING SCHOLAR AT MAXWELL SCHOOL OF CITIZENSHIP AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Thank you very much Dr. Latif Tas for accepting to be interviewed. I’m going to combine ques- tions one and two, and ask about your educational and professional background, as well as the research you are currently undertaking.
I was born in Kars, a city in eastern Turkey, which used to have a multiethnic, multilingual and multireli- gious population. The city municipality shares borders with four countries and one disputed territory: Turkey, Iran, Georgia, Armenia, and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic. I don’t know if a similar city exists in the world, but it was one of the cities where pluralism coexisted, where Kurds, Turks, Azeris, Armenians, Terekemes, Turkmen, Georgians, Chechens, Russians, and even some Germans lived peace- fully side by side; where many mixed families flourished. Having spent your childhood in such a diverse environment as I did, certainly shapes an individual’s identity. Kars is not just the city where I was born; it is the place that created my pluralistic identity and belief in tolerance, pluralism, and the coexistence of difference within any given society. These principles have been my guide, first during my many years in journalism and more recently, over the past 10 years, in the context of my academic work.
As an academic, I have been researching different dimensions of socio-legal, political, and armed conflict in the Middle East and Europe for the last 10 years. The politics of citizenship, diaspora mobilizations, migration, gender, transnationalism, and peace negotiations have been the central subjects of my work. Through multi-sited and comparative ethnographic studies completed in Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, Germany, and the UK, my research has focused mainly on the Turkish-Kurdish case.
I began a Ph.D. in law at Queen Mary, University of London, in 2009, upon completion of a second master’s degree in legal research on migration, integration, and the process of resettlement. For this achievement, I was awarded the grade distinction and the prize of best masters research dissertation for 2009. My Ph.D. thesis offered a historically grounded ethnographic assessment of the politics of multiple laws and the alternative dispute resolution practices of Kurds living in Turkey and in the UK. It explored why and how Kurds often prefer to solve their disputes within their own community using their own customary laws, rather than approaching or cooperating with the police or state courts. I directly observed around 500 unofficial Kurdish court processes during my research. The research findings have been published in several high-ranking international journals and my book, Legal Pluralism in Action: Dispute Resolution and the Kurdish Peace Committee, was published by Routledge / Ashgate in 2014.
My doctoral research did not only focus on the religious dimension of alternative laws. When we look at customary laws, wegenerally think they are predominantly based on religious beliefs, but this is not in fact true. The Kurdish case, for example, illus- trates how customary practices are also based on secular beliefs and national identity politics. I examined the Kurdish case from the Ottoman Empire’s Millet practice to the present day. Their statelessness and weak citizenship within the countries where they live has led Kurds to create their own alternative political, legal, and economic institutions.
There is a normalization of majoritarian hegemony almost everywhere, and I think this is one of the biggest problems and failures of modern democratic states and their institutions. To be entitled to a passport and citizenship does not mean that everyone enjoys the same rights. An individual’s life chances are influenced by their ethnic and religious background as well as their gender. Inequality and slavery may have ended officially, but in practice the state treats people differently according to inherited societal codes. Even voluntary or forced assimilation has not changed these codes for several generations. You could still be discrimi-nated against because of your grandparent’s background, ethnicity, and religion. This creates a significant barrier to achieving real and fair equality, and does not leave much alternative for discriminated people but to create their own solutions. This also brings us to focus more on borderless politics and borderless justice.
Upon finishing my Ph.D. in 2012, I completed a one-year post-doctoral research position with the Forum Transregionale Stu-dien, Wissenschaftskolleg at Humboldt University in Berlin. During my time in Germany, I built upon my doctoral studies and extensively researched about alternative politics and justice systems, and an article on ‘The Myth of the Ottoman Millet System: Its Treatment of Kurds and a Discussion of Territorial and Non-Territorial Autonomy” is published by the International Journal on Minority and Group Rights in 2014.
In 2013, I was invited to SOAS, University of London, by my previous mentor Prof. Werner Menski and this marked the begin-ning of my academic life at SOAS. Aside from teaching about multiculturalism, secularism, comparative law and politics, conflict and peace process in the Middle East and Turkish-Kurdish politics, I also prepared my first book and a few articles for publica- tion during my time at SOAS.
In 2014, I was appointed by the University of Oxford as a research fellow and consultant to work on their Diasporas’ Programme, titled “(Re)Conceptualising stateless diasporas in the European Union.” My research examined how statelessness and citizen- ship regimes have been constructed historically and within contemporary contexts. A working paper and article of my research, which critically engages with the limits and problems of international laws when it comes to the subject of citizenship and state-lessness, was later published by the Oxford Migration Institute and the Cambridge University journal, International Journal of Law in Context, in 2016. In between my time at SOAS and Oxford University, I was also a visiting scholar at the Department of Law and Anthropology, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. During my time at MPI my research fo-cused on citizenship, migration, and refugee regimes in the European Union, and recent Turkish political development, and their effects on Turkish and Kurdish conflicts and peace process. A few articles on these issues was published by Open Democracy. After my time and research experience with the University of Oxford, I began a new joint research project in 2015 with Prof.Nadje Al-Ali at the Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS. Our research examines the gendered dimensions of the Turkish-Kurdish peace negotiations, relations between feminism and nationalism, and Kurdish diaspora mobilization. We know and hear a lotabout how Kurdish fighters, especially female fighters, are resisting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but we generally fail to consider thewider ideological and political context and history of Kurdish women’s armed struggle and political mobilization. We also do notoften consider carefully what gender freedom actually means. Gender freedom is not just a battle to win. There are many levels and many barriers, not just created by the state but also by society, as well as religious and cultural beliefs. For example, we have discovered that Kurdish women actually experience double, even triple, layers of discrimination because of the very patriarchal and masculine social environment within which they live. Our joint research tries to answer some of these very difficult and complicated questions, and a few articles resulting from our research to date are in process of being published by very important international peer-review journals.
Now here in Syracuse, I have started my new role and research as a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellow at the MaxwellSchool. My new project, which focuses on the politics of transnationalism, justice, and gender in the Middle East and Europe, isfunded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement number 703201. SOAS (London), Syracuse University, and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (Hal- le, Germany) are all hosting my research project and this is the first time that both SOAS and Syracuse University have hosted one of these prestigious Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellowships. I will be spending the next three years between Syracuse, London, and Halle. I am expanding my previous research to examine more closely transnational politics and justice, which will also form part of my new book. This research outcome will form an important contribution to understanding comparative poli- tics and justice in the Middle East and Europe.
Before entering into academia and completing my Ph.D. in law, I not only worked as a journalist for almost 10 years for differ-ent Turkish newspapers, I also studied journalism and completed my first master’s degree in TV and Journalism. This degreeconsidered the disconnection between society and political power, and I used the 1940s Frankfurt School of philosophy’s approach to analyze societal and political alienation. In doing so, I found many similarities between the 1940s condition and the present day. Societal ignorance, divisive politics, a lack of freedom of the media and rule of law, internal and external con- flicts, and the creation of new borders are themes common to both periods. These issues were one of the main reasons why I stopped working as a journalist in Turkey in 2004 and moved to London to begin a new career in academia. The foundations of Turkish President Erdogan’s current authoritarian regime were already in place in 2004, and it was not difficult to predict at this time the effect these symptoms would have on Turkey’s fragile democracy.
Your research also covers the late Ottoman period. For those of us who are less familiar with that era of Turkey’s his- tory, could you please tell us a little bit more about major changes and continuities between the Turkish Republic and its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire?
First of all, I’m not a historian, and I have to admit this limitation. But yes, I study and write about the late Ottoman’s political and socio-legal processes from the 1840s onwards, their relations with religious and ethnic minorities, and establishment of the political and legal foundations of the modern Turkish Republic. I mainly focus on the millet practice and its implications formodern day relations with Turkey’s minority communities. This pluralistic, decentralized system of local self-governance was in place until the middle of the 19th century, during which time it was a significant factor in keeping one of the largest, multi- lingual, multiethnic and multifaith empires together. It was only once the Ottomans began to centralize political power, taking it away from local (previous autonomous) communities and forcing them to assimilate, did the empire start to collapse andultimately crash. This is an important example of how an ignorant ruling class can destroy its own institutions and existence. The Ottoman example also shows how states are not usually destroyed by outsiders—even in the present day—but instead by their own political blindness. Other notable examples include Iraq, Syria, Yugoslavia, Libya, and Turkey today. We cannot just blame outsiders for destroying states. This usually is caused by corrupt politicians and ruling elite, pervasive state corruption and clientelism, short-sighted politics, and strong assimilationist state policies.
The Turkification and Sunnification-based nationalism of the late Ottoman period destroyed the centuries-old Empire for- ever. The late Ottoman ruling elites and Sultans forgot that Ottomans were not just Turks and Sunnis. Ottoman society was multiethnic, multilingual, multi-cultural and multireligious, and stretched across three different continents. You need a differ- ent type of governance structure to manage this kind of diversity.
When the Turkish Republic was first established as a nation state, the 1921 constitution was very pluralistic. Initially, Ataturk and his friends were clever and pragmatic enough to understand the importance of creating a new state that could represent all. But, of course, after the war of independence in 1923, like many other politicians and states, they forget their early promis- es. They created only majoritarian-based state policies. From 1924 onwards, Turkey adopted those same centralized policies that destroyed the empire and which are destroying modern Turkey today. Many ethnic and religious minorities, especially Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Assyrians, and other Christian groups, as well as Jews, have not been accommodated into these narrow state structures. The present problems facing Turkey and its authoritarian leadership are not new; they have their roots in the Republic’s early foundations.
Besides your work on the late Ottoman era, you’re also an expert on the Kurdish conflict. What are the challenges facing researchers who study ongoing conflicts? How much can they maintain and balance impartiality as a re- searcher and their own personal political standpoints?
Of course, this is a very important question. Where there are multiple conflicts and proxy wars, where researchers and jour- nalists are increasingly becoming targets in 21st century conflicts, it is difficult to carry out research. But it is not impossible. Many places in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and even Europe are experiencing active conflict or intolerable regimes, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Congo, Colombia, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus, and Hungary.
I think all significant research requires three important backbones: ethics, appropriate methodology, and recognition of limita-tions. These are very important criteria for social science, and especially for research on social, political, and military conflict. I taught classes on research methodology and ethics while I was completing my Ph.D. at Queen Mary, University of London. I have also been carrying out research on sensitive political and cultural topics, often within active conflict and post-conflict environments, for almost 10 years and have faced many difficult contexts.
There are many ways to carry out research. Fieldwork is very important, but it is not the only approach. Researchers do not have much control over the fieldwork environments within which they operate and the people they talk to. It is not just a question of researchers being careful: geographic, political, and human conditions, conflict and financial limitations also affect the result of many research projects. Scholars are not soldiers or politicians. They don’t have guns to protect themselves. They research, think, read, investigate, write, and publish. These are our only weapons. But in dangerous conditions these limitations should not stop a scholar from carrying out their research. We might not be able to visit a particular research site because of active conflict, but we can look at the issue from a different angle. We can adjust our research questions, examine other elements of the conflict or situation. Even if you are able to visit your research site, spend a year there and interview hundreds of people, this still does not guarantee that your research will be sufficiently balanced and comprehensive. It will still have limitations.
It remains important for us to question the environment from different angles, whether we can be physically present there or not. For example, for my current research project I completed fieldwork in some cities of Turkey, such as Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Istanbul in 2015 and 2016. However, the security situation has deteriorated even further since I carried out the interviews and it is very difficult to complete follow-up research there today because it is no longer safe.
Safety is another important element of the research. Many universities do not allow their researchers to go to conflict zones. These limitations are something out of our hands, but the researcher should always find alternative ways of completing their research. We cannot just stop because the conflict continues and authoritarian regimes put limitations on us. Sometimes researchers should stop and rethink about their main research question and focus if the barriers continue. We need to use alternative com- munication technologies such Skype to carry out our interviews and to analyze the situation from an impartial outsider’s per- spective. We can follow some, but maybe not all, daily activity in Mardin and Diyarbakir, for example, from London and Berlin easily through the social networks we create. For this reason, our field research community and gatekeepers are very important, and we need to increase our networks and keep in touch with them from time to time—not just for our benefit, but also for theirs. We can do this by sharing our research outcomes and publications with them or offering to give a talk to their local area or com- munity. We need gatekeepers for our own safety and that of our research, for accessing difficult information. We need to have gatekeepers from different ethnic, religious, gender, and age backgrounds. But when we write or share our research data we should always protect our gatekeepers’ identities and reputations, not just our interviewees.’
Language is another important element of any socio-ethnographic research. If you don’t speak the local language of your re-search field and community, then it is very difficult to find the main vein of the problem that you are looking for. For example, when I observed the Kurdish alternative peace process, if I couldn’t speak Kurdish I would not have been able to grasp many of the things they were talking about, especially negotiations between judges, and between clients and judges. Language is a central part of any ethnographic research. I recommend that the researcher learns the language of their research subjects before beginning any project.
Of course, to be either an insider or an outsider brings advantages and disadvantages. To stay neutral and to not go native is very difficult to achieve and maintain, but it is very important for the sake of the research. Alternatively, you could just stay on the side of the activists and become emotionally involved in the subject matter, which many people do and which I respect, but then youcan no longer call yourself an impartial researcher.
We move to our last question. I would like to ask about the role of the media in the politics of western societies. How do the media influence western political developments in the Middle East? What are the similarities and differences between the role of the media in the West and in the Middle East?
The power of the media has increased significantly since the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when the Nazi regime used this opportunityfor their own propaganda purposes. It was the biggest opportunity for the Nazi regime to show the world what kind of system they were creating and how “great” it was. It was also the beginning of political manipulation and one-sided news. Since then we have experienced the different sides of the media. It has been a great benefit for many of us to receive real-time news from different parts of the world; from inside the White House, to the protest movements in Tiananmen, Tahrir, and Taksim squares. It was the power of the media that forced President Nixon to resign. Watergate was an important landmark, a great success of the independent media against state-based corruption. It was the media that showed us the fast changes in the Eastern Bloc and the tanks in Moscow during the early 1990s. People have been actively taking part in political and policy processes with the help and support of the media. The media can easily create a contradictory black and white response to similar actions: while the western media may criticize the policies and activities of Assad, they stay silent or are even supportive of other authoritarian leaders such as Erdogan. While all of us are talking about Syria and Iraq because of what the media shows us, we are also totally ignoring what is going on in Yemen, Bahrain, and Turkey because of ignorance or cooperation of the western media with these regimes. This shows how the media can become an important agent of dictatorial regimes around the world.
We should also appreciate that we get to know and hear mainly what others want us to know and hear. Of course, there is se-lection and limitation of what stories receive airtime. When media outlets have significant business connections with different power holders, you cannot expect to receive an independent judgment from them. Sadly, many western media outlets, includ- ing well-known progressive ones such as CNN, the BBC, the Guardian, New York Times, and Le Monde, cannot claim to be full independent and free today. There has been an increase in radical right-wing politics in western countries recently and the media has played an important role in this radicalization. The UK had Brexit last year. Many politicians openly and clearly lied to the public. They said, “We are going to invest an additional €350 million, the UK’s weekly contribution to the EU’s budget, into the National Health System (NHS).” It was a clear lie, but the media did not challenge it before the referendum.
When we look at the Middle East, the condition of the media is actually worse than in the West. For example in Turkey, espe-cially over the past few years, it is no longer possible to talk about the freedom of the media. The majority of Turkish television stations, newspapers and online media outlets are controlled directly or indirectly by the government or their controlled busi- ness people. The number of TV and radio channels, newspapers, and online sites are very high, but almost all deliver the samemessages for the same aim. Not just in Turkey, but in many other Middle Eastern countries the situation is also deteriorating. The biased media is misleading the public on many important issues. The limited media freedom and oppression we are facing is almost as bad as what it was during the 1930s. As in the 1930s, the current media position will be remembered as one of the most biased, shameful, and misleading in history. A criminal dictator’s needs and ambitions are seen to be more important than thousands of people’s lives, many cities, and even a whole country. A dictator’s propaganda can receive significant media coverage, but the destruction of many cities, the loss of thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners cannot find a minute of coverage. Real-life facts have been swapped with “alternative” and biased facts by the media. This type of coverage has destroyed any moral and ethical value that society has and we should also be blamed for watching these lies and buying into them. There is no possibility, politically or financially, for an independent media to survive in many coun- tries, to challenge this. Many journalists are in now prison. Not just their independent work and journalistic integrity, but their lives are in danger.
Of course, under such conditions you will only hear state propaganda. And the results of elections are becoming meaningless.Under such conditions any element of democracy, the rule of law, and political opposition can be destroyed. For all these to survive and flourish you need to have a free and independent media to hold the government and public institutions to account, to inform citizens with the facts, and to create space for alternative viewpoints, politics, and policies. To have no news is better than to only have fake news. We need to question the news we receive, every channel we watch. Social media has also many fake news and problems, but it also provides us with the ability to create our own news and democ- ratize media, so it is a double-edged sword.