Artists in Turkey

Erdogan′s new targets

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is cracking down on artists, strongly rejecting any criticism, even from those with conservative backing. But what does he hope to gain from the increasingly aggressive tirades? By Aram Ekin Duran

The most recent verbal feud involving the Turkish president sounds amusing at first. Film star Rutkay Aziz, 72, had a suggestion for Erdogan: "the president should try listening to Mozart and Beethoven. It might do him some good."

And, since the president opposes drinking alcohol, journalist Yilmaz Ozdil wrote in a column for the Kemalist-nationalist daily "Sozcu": "If Tayyip Erdogan had drunk just one beer, the situation in Turkey would be much better today."

Erdogan's response to both comments, given in front of AKP delegates at the beginning of January, refused to see the funny side: "trying to coerce a president whose disposition and attitude is unambiguous into drinking beer or listening to Mozart is the epitome of fascism."

"The epitome of fascism"

Aziz's reaction came via Turkish Arti TV broadcaster, which is based in Cologne, Germany. He never offered a piece of advice to Erdogan, he says. "I was told that Erdogan was going to visit a concert by world-famous pianist Fazil Say. What did I think about that? I replied that that was a very good idea. He'd be able to listen to Mozart and Beethoven. That would do him good."

Aziz is unable to understand why Erdogan called him a fascist: "It's impossible to fathom what is meant by fascism in this case. Am I a fascist? Is Mozart a fascist? If the latter was the case, I'd be in favour of protecting Mozart in the name of humanity." For Aziz, the case is closed. "I have drawn a line under the whole affair and do not wish to make any further comments."

Deniz Cakir, an actress who regularly appears in a popular TV series, became a target of Erdogan's wrath after engaging in a war of words with women wearing headscarves, a story that was picked up by newspapers close to the government.

The president went on to accuse Cakir of having told women with headscarves to "leave for Saudi Arabia." And this, said Erdogan once more, "is nothing but pure fascism. That's the attitude of the Republican People's Party CHP." The social democratic and Kemalist CHP is the largest opposition party in Turkey. The Public Prosecutor's Office has now launched an investigation against Deniz Cakir regarding accusations of "slander".

It's possible that the actual incident was quite different from the version disseminated by Erdogan and Turkish public prosecutors. After all, Cakir wrote on Twitter: "What has been stated in public is not true."

"Defamation of the president, threat of revolt and murder"

At the end of December 2018, Turkey's cultural scene was rocked by an even more far-reaching incident. Mujdat Gezen, 76 and Metin Akpinar, 78, are two of the country's acting legends; their films and theatre appearances are appreciated by conservatives and progressives alike. The two veterans have distanced themselves from current government policies. Appearing on Halk TV, a broadcaster close to the opposition, they directed critical remarks at the president. Erdogan subsequently labelled them "would-be artists." 

But presidential ridicule was not all that Gezen and Akpinar were to face. An official investigation was launched against them, on grounds of "defamation of the president, threat of revolt and murder."

Following questioning, the two actors were released — but they have not been allowed to leave Turkey. Their passports have been confiscated and once a week they have to report to the police. The Public Prosecutor's Office submitted a report on its investigation into "incitement to armed rebellion against the government of the Republic of Turkey."

"Incitement to armed rebellion"? What was it the two actors had actually said? "The only way of overcoming polarisation and chaos is through democracy," Akpinar had said on "The People's Arena" television programme. "If we don't succeed, we might see the same things that happen in all kinds of fascism. The ringleader will even be suspended by one of his legs, or he'll be poisoned in a dungeon."

Similarly, his colleague Gezen had not called for a revolt, but had criticised Erdogan: "he berates all and sundry, permanently raising his finger and telling everyone to know their limits. I'm telling you, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, you cannot put our love of our fatherland to the test. Know your limits."

Turks rally in support of Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Morenatti)Supporters rally
Victory at the ballot box is all important: Erdogan "is well aware that a climate of fear plays into the hands of the existing government, because a society in fear will always support the existing system. Harsh words directed at artists and launching investigations against them sends the message that criticising the government comes at a high price," says Gulfem Saydan Sanver, Pollie Award recipient of the American Association of Political Consultants

Theatre critic Atilla Dorsay commented that in all democratic countries, government and civil society alike respect the role of artists. It is only dictatorial regimes that try to oppress them: "artists who levy even the slightest criticism at the government are condemned from pulpits, in courtrooms and in prison — that is the sad reality of Turkey."

Capitalising on polarisation

Erdogan, for his part, is increasingly directing aggression at cultural and artistic figures — despite the fact that the country is experiencing politically and economically rough times. Gulfem Saydan Sanver, Pollie Award recipient of the American Association of Political Consultants, says that has to do with the up-coming local elections.

During previous election campaigns, Erdogan consistently tried to position himself at the centre of every discussion, Sanver explained. "If we look at the outcome of the most recent elections, we see that Erdogan benefits from the polarisation of society he foments. Publicly accusing those artists is a part of that strategy."

Erdogan is creating the impression that society's conservative circles are under threat. For one thing, he is trying to consolidate his own electorate; for another thing, he is barring the opposition from taking their message to the people.

"In addition, Erdogan wants to hush up the repercussions of the economic crisis," Sanver said. "He is well aware that a climate of fear plays into the hands of the existing government, because a society in fear will always support the existing system. Harsh words directed at artists and launching investigations against them sends the message that criticising the government comes at a high price."

Aram Ekin Duran

© Deutsche Welle 2019

 

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