Can Bahadır Yüce writes on self-censorship and the destruction on books in Turkey.

A few weeks ago, Turkey’s education minister, Ziya Selçuk, announced that the government had closed 2,284 schools since July 2016’s attempted coup. Last week, Selçuk declared, in Orwellian fashion, that 301,878 books had been destroyed by his ministry in the same period. Although reaction to these reports was significant on social media, the government-controlled press largely overlooked them.

The Erdoğan regime’s campaign against educational institutions and books is connected to its notorious crackdown on the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, and those linked to his movement. But the purge goes far beyond a single group or ideology. Last week, the government ordered the confiscation of a number of books, including the biography of Hikmet Kıvılcımlı, an influential Turkish communist who died in 1971. We, the Turkish public, are no longer surprised when an academic is fired or a journalist is jailed; what we see, every day, is an aggressive campaign of anti-intellectualism.

The recent crackdown, like most state-sponsored suppression, has had its fair share of absurdity. As the Guardian reported earlier this month, almost two million textbooks have been destroyed and reprinted for referencing ‘Pennsylvania’, the US state where Gülen now lives. A maths book was banned for featuring Gülen’s initials in a question containing the words ‘from point F to point G’. Such anecdotes could be lifted from the stories of Aziz Nesin, the great humourist of modern Turkish literature; instead, they are real and serious and unironic.

The actions of the Turkish government confirm that authoritarian regimes lack a sense of humour, and are clueless as to how laughable they look.

I want to draw attention to a neglected aspect of the government’s war on books: the real number of destroyed books is much higher than official estimates because people are hiding, removing and burning books they consider ‘dangerous’ to keep at home. It’s not an act of paranoia; it’s a legitimate fear where possessing a book is a reason to be detained in today’s Turkey. History has taught us that the first goal of fascism is to create a climate of fear. This fear is so dominant in Turkey that stories about fingerprints found on books have been part of the mainstream news. So while the Turkish state has been ceaselessly destroying reading materials, many people have been dumping books themselves out of fear.

It’s impossible to know exact numbers, but I am confident in saying that millions of books have perished in this way during the regime’s purge of its dissidents. I am confident, because I was the editor of Turkey’s most widely-circulated book review until 2016, when it was also shut down by the government. I have received messages from readers detailing their experiences of burying, burning, or dumping books from their bookshelves. Perhaps people have found relief by sharing their stories of losing books with an editor. Perhaps my writings on this topic encouraged them. A friend told me that, days after the attempted coup in 2016, he dumped his books one by one in different dustbins to avoid suspicion. Another apologetically wrote to me saying that he had needed to get rid of hundreds of books and magazines, including his entire collection of Kitap Zamanı, the book supplement that I used to edit. Readers sent me photos of their beloved bookshelves – left behind or dumped, never to be recovered. One told me that he threw away a multivolume encyclopedia set because the publication was sponsored by a dissident newspaper. A teacher shared the list of books she took with her while fleeing the country as if she were confiding a great secret.

Turkey has a long history of silencing authors and censoring books for political and religious reasons. When we look back over the decades, the range of books and authors that have been censored and suppressed is appalling. Needless to say, these efforts proved futile in the long-run. 

But today feels different, more absolute. I believe that the success of Turkey’s oppressive regime lies in its ability to push people to perform self-censorship. Today’s suppression is also more wide-ranging in attempting to control cyberspace, too. The Guardian piece refers to an online news outlet, Kronos27. It is a website launched two years ago with a few friends (all exiled journalists) to resist government censorship. We began as Kronos News, but our name has changed frequently. The government has blocked access to our website from Turkey several times and, each time, we add a new number and buy a new domain name. At the time of writing, we are Kronos28.

In Turkish history, most censorship cases have dealt with particular books and authors. Today’s war on books is different – it’s unselective.

It feels like, this time, the government is taking aim at the very idea of the book. A book is a space for practicing intellectual freedom, nurturing imagination, fulfilling dreams – and is therefore a threat to the regime. In Turkey, Islamist populism translates into blatant anti-intellectualism; it is the the mainstream ideology of Erdoğan regime.

Today’s Turkey will occupy a special rank in the list of notorious censorship regimes. History has not been kind and will continue not to be to those responsible for the destruction of books. We still have a chance to be on the right side of history by continuing, however many times more than 28 it takes, to stand up to them.

Can Bahadır Yüce is a poet and academic. He teaches history at the University of Tennessee.

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