Interview with Zülfü Livaneli

"The EU Has Treated Turkey Unfairly"

Zülfü Livaneli is one of the Turkey's most influential intellectuals. Hülya Sancak talked to him about his new film about Mustafa Atatürk, democracy and xenophobia in Turkey and the relationship between Turkey and the EU

Zülfü Livaneli (photo:
Zülfü Livaneli: Behind the xenophobia and anti-European sentiment in Turkey lies a sense of having been deceived

​​ Did you find it difficult to transpose an historic figure such as Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, to the cinema screen?

Zülfü Livaneli: It wasn't that easy of course. After all, Atatürk is like a Holy Grail in Turkey; everyone has his own perception of Atatürk. For some he's like a statue, and they get angry with you for showing any human traits. For some however, he's an unpopular figure, and if you show Atatürk's good characteristics, then you're criticised for having divinised him.

In my film I applied a method to avoid the potential pitfalls of a biographical film: I choose a subjective narrative perspective, telling the story through the eyes of Salih Bozok, an old friend of Atatürk.

So, it's not "your" Atatürk...

Livaneli: I have portrayed Salih Bozok's Atatürk. Salih Bozok has been a friend of Atatürk since he was six years old, and kills himself following Atatürk's death, because he cannot imagine life without him. I have introduced Atatürk from his perspective, and that is a subjective viewpoint.

CHP Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (photo: AP)
Against bureaucracy and hysteria: the new leader of the Republican People's Party, Kemal Kılıcdaroğlu

​​ We could talk about your film for a long time. But as a well-known representative of Turkey's left-wing tradition I would like to ask you whether a social-democratic ideology in the European sense exists in Turkey?

Livaneli: No it doesn't, because all European social-democratic parties emerged from the labour movement. In Turkey, on the other hand, it arose as the first party of the new republic founded by soldiers. It was the 1960s before it announced that it was "left of centre". So the evolutionary process of social democracy in Turkey is totally different.

When I was a member of parliament for the CHP, I tried very hard to keep the party on a social democratic course. But I discovered that this wasn't possible, and I left. But now, with the new head of the party Kemal Kılıcdaroğlu, I am hopeful again.

Will the CHP become a social democratic party with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu at the helm?

Livaneli: He's a good friend of mine. I think if he doesn't lose himself in the party organisation, he can do it; I'd like to believe that. He is a person of integrity, but the party organisation has broken down and is under huge strain. As long as he's not hindered by party bureaucracy and hysterical individuals who want to pursue their own career ambitions, then he can achieve this.

Armenien Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamer Island in the Van Lake, East Anatolian (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Critical view of Turkey's policy towards the Armenian issue: For decades, says Zülfü Livaneli, Turkey pursued a policy of denial, burying its head in the sand

​​ Turkey has been battling for years with the unresolved Armenian issue. How do you view the situation, do you think Turkey is taking the right steps?

Livaneli: No, Turkey is not taking the necessary steps. For decades, it pursued a policy of denial, burying its head in the sand. But you can't say that the Turks turned around one day and arbitrarily killed the Armenians. It wasn't like that. We can talk about these things without any shame. But what we've been pursuing up to now, this policy of detraction, has made everything difficult for us on an international level.

Can the Kurdish issue also be regarded in this context?

Livaneli: For a long time, the Kurdish people and its culture were denied. Then the military putsch came in 1980. At the time, inmates in the prison at Diyarbakir were treated inhumanely and cruelly tortured. All this made the problem worse.

Now, today, I don't believe that the Kurdish citizens of the republic, the majority of the Kurdish people, want to break away from Turkey. They just want their language and their culture to be accepted. That is not a political demand but a basic human right. One must respect the mother tongue of a people. But whenever I raise my voice on this issue, I am criticised.

Turkish Kurds at a rally in Istanbul (photo: AP)
Turks and Kurds, citizens of one nation: "We must accentuate 98 percent of what we have in common, not the 2 percent that divides us"

​​ Still, we are all citizens of this country, who listen to the same music, who have the same taste, who support the same football teams; we must accentuate 98 percent of what we have in common, not the 2 percent that divides us.

What is your view of the latest developments between Israel and Turkey?

Livaneli: On the one hand, Israel has committed a crime against humanity. It should be deplored by the entire world and the necessary action taken. Secondly, the Israeli government had said that the Red Cross or Red Crescent could bring supplies to Gaza. This means that a civilian initiative moving around with boats in the conflict area is going to be unsafe from the outset. It's tantamount to saying: "If you kill me, I can use it as propaganda." I think the Turkish government made a mistake here.

Following these recent events, is it fair to say that Turkey has changed its course, and that there are increasingly Islamic currents in the country?

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: AP)
Destruction of Turkey's political tradition: Zülfü Livaneli says Erdogan's AKP has started a process of Islamisation

​​ Livaneli: Yes, one can observe a process of Islamisation and a rapprochement with the Middle East in Turkey. The government has destroyed Turkey's political tradition, and this is a mistake. Turkey's political tradition was to distance itself from the Middle East. This is grounded in the experience of the Ottoman Empire.

But the government has drawn Turkey to the Middle East: whilst telling the Europeans "we'll come to you", the nation has pushed itself eastwards. Eight years ago we tried to make all this clear to our European and German friends, but they didn't understand us. All the government talked about was Europe, but in actual fact, they want to Islamise Turkey. By siding with Hamas and Ahmedinejad, Turkey has lost its old position.

Previously, Yasser Arafat thanked Turkey because it enjoyed good relations with Israel, which meant it could adopt a mediation role as a neutral country. He said it was helpful to the Palestinian cause. But now Turkey has lost its neutrality, it has gone over to the Arab side and people call out anti-Semitic slogans on the streets.

And it is the government that has caused this. They have made mistakes, and I don't know how they're going to put everything right again.

Is anti-Semitism becoming more widespread in Turkey?

​​ Livaneli: Yes, it is. Not just anti-Semitism, but also other kids of xenophobia: anti-American, anti-European voices are growing ever louder. Our people were not like this before, but they have been made to be like this.

How do you assess of the EU's policy towards Turkey and its prospective EU accession?

Livaneli: The EU has treated Turkey unfairly. For some time, it gave the nation too much hope. That was followed by huge disappointment. It is all rather like a one-sided love affair.

Our government has exploited this process. When a date for negotiation talks was set, they sold it to the nation as though it were a declaration of accession, and celebrated it with fireworks. But then came the disappointment. And behind the xenophobia and anti-European statements lies this sense of having been deceived. That's why membership of the EU isn't as popular as it was in Turkey.

Interview by Hülya Sancak

© 2010

Translation: Nina Coon

Zülfü Livaneli (b. 1946) is a popular Turkish folk musician, a novelist, newspaper columnist and a film director who has been highly popular for decades. He is also a prominent left-wing and social-democrat politician and was a member of the Turkish parliament for one term.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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