"FANTAZISTAN: The Land Where Everything is Real," from the Ottomagoria series (), installation (all images courtesy of the artist)

xurban_collective (Guven Incirlioglu & Hakan Topal), “Evacuation #1: The Sacred Evacuation” (2010) (all images courtesy of the artist)

In her nuanced 1963 report for The New Yorker, Hannah Arendt writes about the trial of Nazi lieutenant-colonel Adolf Eichmann, who portrayed himself to the court not as a psychotic “abnormal monster,” but as an ordinary man who took his job very seriously, acting with conviction while committing the most abhorrent crimes. Eichmann repeatedly told the court that he did not hate the Jewish people and that he was simply obedient to the law and his leader. For Arendt, the Eichmann trial showed that fascist ideology provides meaning for the common man who is enabled to execute horrible offences against humanity. As she put it: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic; that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

While Turkey leans toward a totalitarian regime, it is impossible not to compare the rise of Islamists with the rise of the Nazis. The banality of evil that Arendt so elegantly expressed is all too evident in Turkey’s current state of affairs, which is being brought to an authoritarian standstill by “moderate Islamists.”

President Erdoğan and his allies increasingly use Islamism and nationalism to amplify social fault lines. Fearing that he would lose power in the June 2015 elections, Erdoğan sank the already fragile peace process with the Kurds. Unfortunately, the Kurdish guerilla group PKK mindlessly played into his hands, escalating the tension and compromising the role of HDP, the new Kurdish political party, in Turkish politics. In return, Erdoğan intensified his unjustified war against the Kurdish people, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, entire neighborhoods being erased from the map, and nearly half a million people forced to evacuate their homes.

To pressure the Kurds, AKP’s officials and pundits are making explicit comparisons with the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused the Kurds of acting like “Armenian gangs and collaborating with Russia,” referencing a pre-1915 era when Armenian nationalists conjoined with Russian invaders in Eastern Anatolia.


Furthermore, while the world is preoccupied with seemingly endless terrorist attacks, Erdogan and his government are using this moment of upheaval as an opportunity to undermine democratic opposition. Academics, artists, and journalists who demand a transparent, democratic, and peaceful country are being relentlessly demonized and prosecuted. Currently a witch-hunt is under way that employs the fear of terror as justification to control and shut down newspaper and TV stations. Journalists have been fired. Prominent intellectuals who raise the slightest concern are labeled enemies of the state. Art organizations, universities, and other democratic institutions are pressured to follow orders.

Even under these dire circumstances, artists, academics, unions, and students continue to demand that the government return to the peace process with the Kurds. In a series of campaigns, the art community asked art organizations to be a platform for peace in times of war, and scholars petitioned the Turkish government to stop its aggression and give the peace process a chance. The response was sinister. Just this week, four academics who signed a statement demanding peace were prosecuted and put into solitary confinement — while ISIS militants roam freely in and out of the country. Hundreds of scholars are currently under investigation, and some have been fired.

The situation within the art world is far from optimistic. The arts center Akbank Sanat, a subsidiary of the Sabanci Corporation, recently censored an exhibition that deals with war and peace. A large part of the problem is that almost all art organizations in Turkey belong to either large banks or corporations, so in times of crisis, they are unable to provide salient platforms for diverse voices. For that reason, although they may have the best intentions, art administrators and cultural workers who are part of these institutions are understandably afraid of their jobs and well-being, and so keep a low profile.

Turkey’s progressive left has criticized the rise of Islamist fascism for decades, while the country has gradually fallen into a political abyss. Erdoğan and his allies quash demands for political representation, cultural recognition, and justice. Once Islamists had skillfully mobilized the poor and gained enough political control, they began attacking the secular and democratic underpinnings of society. But most importantly, beyond the limits of national borders, Erdoğan has openly supported Islamists in Syria, Palestine, Nigeria, Sudan, and elsewhere, sending funds or arms in order to help him achieve his neo-Ottoman colonial dreams. At the moment, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, two prominent journalists from Cumhuriyet newspapers, are being prosecuted for disclosing Turkish Intelligence’s illegal weapons shipment to Syria, most probably to Al Qaeda.

The Middle East has undergone a nearly endless barrage of tragedies, and ISIS is a major symptom of this turmoil. Authoritarian leaders, religious orthodoxies, sectarian divides, and the shameless exploitation of natural resources has put society in shambles. When violence is celebrated, evil consumes good and insurgency turns into a kind of distortion of civilization. We have to find a way to break this vicious cycle. But can we still imagine a better future? Is recovery (and lasting peace) possible for the Middle East and the rest of the world? How can we achieve this monumental task? Will the Western world simply save itself, letting the Middle East crumble under its own weight, as they have been doing since colonial times?

Today, Europe is making the same mistakes that the Bush administration did right after 9/11. To cite just one example: Amid refugee crises and terror attacks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her allies turned away from Erdogan’s human rights violations and recently signed a shady deal that essentially awards Turkey the right to keep already stigmatized refugees out of Europe.

But what can Western states do? Considering the recent Paris and Brussels attacks, aren’t they victims as well? Yes — but let’s pause a minute. If we want to reach a form of justice and peace that transgresses the idea of victims and revenge, oppressor and oppressed, societies need to think and work together to achieve a peaceful global future.

The radical hybridization of cultures and communities is a monumental task. We have to move past our xenophobic anxieties, yet we must proceed with caution. First we need to stop talking about “moderates” as an alternative to radical Islamists. The idea of the “moderate” is nonsense, a Western fiction that masks the core of the problem, which is neoconservatism. “Moderates” use neoliberal and radical ideas at the same time, packaging and selling a particular right-wing agenda, from privatization to creationism, from exploitation of natural resources to attacking abortion rights. In short, “moderates” are a sham.

Topal, "FANTAZISTAN: The Land Where Everything is Real" from The Ottomagoria series, installation

Hakan Topal, “FANTAZISTAN: The Land Where Everything is Real,” from the Ottomagoria series (2010), installation view

By posing for photo-ops with non-elected imams and conservative “community leaders” — the very “moderates” of whom I speak — Western liberals and social democrats may be attempting to emphasize an assumed peaceful version of Islam, but by doing so, they are actively undermining a long history of heterodox and secular Muslim traditions. Secular Muslims have already been peaceful, diverse, and much more spiritual than those who purport to conform to moderate orthodoxies (Salafists et al.). They understand well the importance of living together with other cultures, and they occasionally drink wine and raki and enjoy life just like everybody else.

Let me be clear: Muslims are as diverse as their Christian and Jewish counterparts. In contrast to those right-wing “Muslim community leaders” who eagerly pose for the media with big smiles on their faces, millions of Muslims demand that their real democratic representatives be open-minded, less judgmental, and compassionate. But since the 1980s, neoconservatism has relentlessly pushed Islam toward a particular dogmatism, instrumentalizing it for political purposes to attack the common underpinnings of social life. The completion of this Islamist colonization of the public sphere can only happen by eliminating dissidenting voices. For that reason, let’s rethink our allies in the war against Islamists and come back to the crucial question: What can we do next?

The historical example of Germany is particularly interesting. After that country’s drastic social, political, and cultural failure, German society was literally forced to conduct radical transformations, from its educational system to its military, from democratic mechanisms to cultural institutions. After the absolute devastation of the Second World War, the Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO) was established to heal the wounds of war. Over the next 50 years, 8 million European youth participated over 100,000 programs, including summer camps, school exchange programs, artist-in-residencies, and language schools. One could argue that these large-scale social-cultural programs fostered European culture far beyond a limited nationalistic visions.

Therefore: Why not develop a similar large-scale exchange program between Middle Eastern countries, North Africa, the United States, and Europe?

Imagine if we had already done so! The world could be a much better place by now. After 9/11, people around the world sympathized with Americans, sharing their pain in a most compassionate way. But the Bush administration bluntly ruined the opportunity to embrace the world. Now, 13 years after the Iraq war, we are experiencing its terrible consequences. It is clear that terror can no longer be contained within the Middle East, and Islamists have become extremely successful at disseminating a “victimized Muslim” narrative. We must disprove this bogus story.

As part of my Evacuation series (2009–12) with xurban_collective, I did fieldwork in Berlin, Antwerp, Vienna, and New York, visiting masjids and martial arts centers. in contrast to unions, student associations, and political parties, these membership-based so-called “community centers” reflect a departure from participatory hybrid framework. In a post-industrial Europe, these non-democratic spaces provide a sense of belonging to immigrant youth. In return, some stigmatized immigrant subjects adopt a mixture of readily available religious, anti-modernist, anti-European sentiments. Through these spaces, Islamists provide a sense of belonging and conviction to the ordinary person. We must recognize the how Islamism is fostered within these cracks of conservatism.

Topal, “EVACUATION #1: THE SACRED EVACUATION” (2010), installation view

xurban_collective, “Evacuation #1: The Sacred Evacuation” (2010), installation view

For this reason, it is necessary to critically reinvigorate modern public institutions, such as high schools, liberal arts colleges, museums, and factories, all of which provide much-needed social hybridity and participatory frameworks. Imagine that instead of sending millions of soldiers to Iraq and spending trillions of dollars in public money, the United States government had activated the State Department to expand international exchange programs, provide scholarships to Muslim youth, or create new job programs for thousands of unemployed people. Delivering support for such programs and assisting the youth is much cheaper than fighting the perpetual war on terror. We all must act together against Islamism, bigotry, fascism, and racism. Giving in to xenophobia and closing the borders to refugees is a dreadful mistake.

European racists, American neoconservatives, and Islamists act like a mob, amplifying each other’s ideological claims of conspiracies. Before it’s too late, Western societies need to recognize the need to steadfastly support secular-democratic currents in Syria, Turkey, and everywhere else. In times of extreme oppression, instead of making questionable deals with the “moderates,” we need to start providing immediate and steadfast support for free-thinking artists, scholars, and journalists, focusing on moving toward a better future for all.

Finally, while from Greece to Holland, France to the United States, and Turkey to Germany, the right wing is gaining the full steam, as Arendt rightly pointed out, we can identify the manifestation of “extreme evil” in its most mundane forms. Today we see it expressed in Trump’s screeds against Muslims, Erdogan’s attacks on free speech, Marine Le Pen’s hatred for Arabs. When these everyday appearances turn into a mass celebration for ordinary people, it is time to act.

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Hakan Topal (born in Turkey) is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He was the co-founder of international art collective, xurban_collective (2000-12). Trained as a civil engineer (BS), he continued...