A year before the parliamentary and presidential elections, the Turkish governing party AKP is in a riot, and not just over the NATO dispute. Turkey is being overwhelmed by a wave of censorship of cultural events: concerts are banned, theatrical performances are banned, and pictures are taken down in museums. The AKP wants to use the Kulturkampf to mobilize conservative voters.
Last week alone, several concerts were banned by the AKP authorities. Such a performance by pop singer Melek Mosso in southern Turkey’s Isparta: Conservative groups had criticized the artist’s strapless dresses as “immoral”. At the Middle East University in Ankara, the rectorate banned several concerts at a music festival on the grounds that Turkish soldiers had died in northern Iraq the day before and music should therefore be stopped. The AKP administration justified a performance ban against the rock musician Niyazi Koyuncu in Pendik on the southern outskirts of Istanbul with the fact that the artist “does not represent the values and views of the city administration”.
The wave of censorship began with the ban on a concert by the Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan, an internationally renowned artist with a powerful voice. She is also known to a German audience from the film “Crossing the Bridge”. Dogan wanted to perform in Kocaeli, in western Turkey, but the city administration considered the concert “inappropriate” – a general term used by Turkish authorities for bans.
What the local politicians didn’t like in this case were Dogan’s Kurdish texts, although the Kurdish language has not been officially banned in Turkey for years. Since then, there have been bans against Kurdish artists. The Kurdish opera singer Pervin Chakar complained that she couldn’t find a concert hall anywhere.
In the meantime, the avalanche of prohibitions has spread beyond Kurdish culture to other artists. Niyazi Koyuncu, for example, belongs to the Lasa ethnic minority from the Black Sea coast; his late brother Kazim Koyuncu shaped Turkish folk rock with his fusion of folk and rock music. A concert by the Turkish folk musician Apolas Lermi was also banned because he had previously protested against a performance ban for a Greek musician.
A four-day rock festival, the “Anadolu Fest” in Eskisehir in western Turkey, was canceled two days before the start when tens of thousands of tickets were sold – to protect public order, as the provincial governor’s office explained. Conservative circles criticize such events as harmful to young people because alcohol and drugs are consumed there. Nationwide, there is still a complete ban on music in Turkey from one hour after midnight; Officially, the authorities justify this with the Covid pandemic, but President Erdogan described it as protecting the population from harassment.
The visual arts are not spared from this climate. Under pressure from AKP politicians, an Istanbul museum took down a mural by artist Ersin Karabulut last week. The picture from his series “Monsterland” shows monsters eating tourists in a fictional tourist country. It was not the fate of the tourists that bothered the politicians of the ruling party, but the penis on a monster.
The ruling party probably uses the bans on the one hand to polarize society. She wants to rally her Islamic conservative supporters and mobilize against the opposition, which is portrayed as traitorous and immoral. The AKP has miserable poll numbers because of the desolate economic situation and is therefore fueling popular anger against “immorality” on social media.
On the other hand, long-standing AKP expert Rusen Cakir from the analysis platform Medyascope suspects that the governing party may be looking for revenge because it hasn’t managed to build its own cultural scene in twenty years in power. The government is frustrated that most cultural workers in the country are opposed to it, says Cakir. There are also folk musicians and actors who have their picture taken with President Erdogan. But the majority of Turkish artists and cultural workers reject the regime because it continues to restrict the freedoms that are vital for art. Critical culture workers in Turkey are looking into the abyss.