You think American politics is a mess? Check out Turkey

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: It's often said that after Israel, Turkey is the Middle East's other functioning democracy and a model for other Muslim nations to follow. But Turkey is a political mess right now. The country's government is beset by a corruption scandal and critics have long accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK party of acting in authoritarian ways in a quest to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. But Erdogan says it's all a plot against him. Elif Shafak is a Turkish author who divides her time between London and Istanbul. She says Turkey these days is a polarized place, almost beyond repair, and it makes our political squabbles look relatively minor.

Elif Shafak: When we look at what's going on in the States right now, it also might seem quite polarizing in many ways. However, when politics is polarizing in America, it does not affect the system on every level, because at the end of the day it is a well established democracy. It doesn't affect the media, the judiciary and the institutions, and therefore individual citizens, the way it affects people in Turkey.

Werman: Many say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts himself as kind of a strongman, almost a king some would say. You've called this Turkish tendency to follow strongmen a "baba complex." Explain what you mean.

Shafak: I think it's a very general attitude. Not only in politics, but in almost every area of life in Turkey, we see this baba, the quest for this baba. Baba is the patriarch. Baba is the male figure, is a strong male personality - to save us. I find that quite undemocratic in its essence. We have to remember that Turkey is a country that has been modernized, westernized, from the top down. It's the work of the elites, lots of national ?? are like that. But for us to be able to talk about a true democracy, things have to be more at grassroots level. There has to be a very strong and colorful, multilayered, civil society and things need to work bottom up rather than top down.

Werman: Ataturk, as some of our listeners will remember, is the founding father of Turkey, if you will. Ataturk left a vision of a secular Turkey, but Prime Minister Erdogan is often criticized of wanting to turn the country into an Islamic state. Do you think religion is part of the problem in Turkish politics? Some concerned commentators claim that Islam is actually incompatible with democracy.

Shafak: I do not agree that Islam is incompatible with Western democracy. In my opinion, we have to focus on the political regime. We have to focus on the system, the structure. For me, the main problem in Turkey is authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is not something that solely comes from the conservatives. Now, the irony is, if everybody who comes to power keeps repeating the same authoritarian tendencies, how are we ever going to get out of this vicious circle? Turkey is not a typical authoritarian regime, but clearly it is not a mature democracy either. It is somewhere in between. Or perhaps, it's a democracy with authoritarian tendencies. More and more people, unfortunately, believe in a clash of civilizations, in a clash of religions, or cultures.

In my opinion, hardliners everywhere are breeding hardliners elsewhere. So in other words, anti western sentiments throughout the Middle East are creating Islamophobia in Europe. Islamophobia in Europe or in the Western world is creating more anti western sentiments elsewhere. These things go hand in hand. Hardliners, or fundamentalists of all religions, should be best friends, because they see the world in exactly the same black and white terms. I believe we are a society of collective amnesia. Our connection with history is full of ruptures.

Werman: Do you think Turkey can come back from the abyss, Elif?

Shafak: We must. We have to. But the only way to do that, in my opinion, the only path forward, is first to form a new constitution, much more liberal, democratic, pluralistic constitution. I'm hoping we will start to hear more and more female voices, because we urgently need that.

Werman: Elif Shafak, the author of 9 novels, most recently "Honor." Thanks for your thoughts. We really appreciate it.

Shafak: Thank you.