The Update: The curtain goes down on modern Turkey, 29.05.2012


The Kemalist revolution can be blamed for an endless list of crimes, mostly imaginary, yet one must not forget it dragged a society in a three hundred year stupor to the modern age within a generation.  After the Meiji restoration in Japan, and post-Mao cultural and economic recovery in China, Mr. Kemal Ataturk’s work stands out as one the most effective modernization drives of all times.

Mr. Erdogan came to power with the promise of preserving what is good in Ataturk’s work and dispensing with the hubris, such as the alleged discrimination against religion and the unhealthy focus on secularism and nationalism.  Not this author, but a broad coalition in the society believed in his promise, granting him a third term at the helm.  Boy, were they fooled.  Erdogan has never intended to improve on Ataturk’s work.  His disguised purpose all along was to turn Turkey into a Sheriah society, albeit with a modern economy.

Thanks to him, women are once again shunned in the workplace, education is turned over to imams, segregation of public facilities and alcohol bans have been cropping up in many provinces in the interior of Anatolia, as hate crimes against Alevites have once again risen to decade-highs.


However, the best proof of his intentions is his treatment of visual arts, which Moslem scholars largely forbid as “sinful”.  Under very flimsy pretexts, he decided to shut down all publicly funded theatres in Turkey.  Of course, they will be “privatized”, but let’s face it.  Who is going to buy them in a country where in more than 40 provinces there are no movie theatres? State-funded theatres were the only beacon of modernity in the interiorAnatolia, where the clock is rapidly ticking back to Middle Ages.

Let’s hear what the Guardian has to say about Erdogan’s crusade against the performing arts[1]:

“Erdogan, who dabbled in amateur dramatics as a student, has a reputation for wearing his heart on his sleeve. But his tirades against “arrogant, alcoholic actors” and an arts establishment he claims holds ordinary people in contempt have shocked Turkey.

Theatres cannot take government subsidies and then criticise the hand that feeds them, he said. “They have started to humiliate and look down on us and all conservatives.”

Actors took to the streets in protest after civil servants were handed artistic control of Istanbul theatres overnight last month in a separate row over an “obscene” play.

“If support is needed, then we the government can support the plays we want,” Erdogan said. “I am privatising the theatre. No theatres are being run by the state in almost any developed country. Here there is freedom. When we privatise the theatres you can play whatever you want. Sorry, but you cannot get your salary from the municipality and then criticise the management. There is no such absurdity.”

He railed against the “despotic arrogance” of intellectuals who always think they know best: “For God’s sake, who are you? From where do you get the authority to express opinions on every issue, to argue that you know everything? Are theatres your monopoly in this country? Are arts your monopoly? These days are gone.”

Sumeyye Erdogan

What some are calling “Turkey’s culture war” began in April last year when his youngest daughter, Sümeyye Erdogan, 30, walked out of a performance of Young Osman at the Ankara state theatre. Its story of a young, reforming sultan overthrown by a boorish military has a rich echo for the Erdogans and the AK party, who have broken the army’s hold onTurkey. What exactly happened during an improvised sequence when the uncouth soldier’s growl at the audience is still disputed, but she claims she was humiliated by an actor, Tolga Tuncer, who picked on her because she was wearing a headscarf, mimicking her chewing gum and making offensive “haka-style” gestures at her.

Sümeyye Erdogan went to university overseas – studying in the US and at the London School of Economics – because headscarves were banned at the time in Turkish academic institutions. In an impassioned letter to Tuncer on Facebook, she appealed for the kind of tolerance she was accorded in Britain and theUS. “As an artist you should be first to treat people who are different with respect … you had better get used to people with headscarves. Half of the people of Turkey are women and many of them wear headscarves. I don’t want to live my life fighting you. I will continue to love art and theatre and continue attending the theatre with my headscarf.”

Ertugrul Gunay, Minister of Culture

Suspended and summoned before the culture minister, who said actors had “no right to interact with their audiences”, Tuncer refused to apologise for his actions, which he said were part of the play, but said he was sorry she had been offended. He claimed he did not know who she was and picked on her only because she was in the front row and was chewing gum.

Then last month’s controversy over an allegedly obscene play was used by Istanbul’s mayor, an Erdogan protege, to take artistic control of its municipal theatres after a religiously conservative playwright condemned Chilean playwright Marco Antonio de la Parra’s Daily Obscene Secrets without seeing it as “vulgarity at the hands of the state”. The play, an attack on the values of Chile’s military dictatorship, which had much in common with the Turkish generals who once locked Erdogan up, had been performed more than 70 times without protest, but is now being removed from the repertoire.

Arts organisations described the attacks as a “pointless witchhunt”, pointing out that the theatre is subsidised in almost every developed country and thatTurkey’s state theatres are the fullest inEurope, thanks to low prices and a mostly traditional repertoire that appeals to conservative and religious audiences in the governing AK party’s Anatolian heartlands.

The crisis deepened this week asIstanbul’s theatre festival opened. Its director, Dr Dikmen Gürün, appealed for calm and said that cuts would be a disaster for small town Anatolia, where most stages are subsidised. Others say it will hit the Turkish TV industry, which relies on theatres to train actors for its series, which have huge followings throughout the Balkans and the Middle East”.

The author is not an art historian, but he recollects only three societies which tried to define what art is and more importantly what good art is, banning the rest:  Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China. Mr. Erdogan always yearned to make a name for himself in the history books and his wish seems to have been granted in a “genie out of the lamp” way. When state-funded theatres close their curtains, it will also be curtain time for modern life in most of Turkey.

Ahmet Altan

You may find this  evidence about Erdogan’s true intentions somewhat contrived. Ok, here is a more concrete one.  Let’s introduce Mr.  Ahmet Altan, the scion of the Altan family.  His father Çetin Altan was a former Labor Party deputy and one of the heroes of the Turkish socialist movement, who spent many years in prison.  His older brother Mehmet Altan is a renowned sociologist and one of the leading advocates Turkey’s  accession to EU.

Ahmet  Altan is known for his best selling novels, as well as his work as the Editor in Chief of daily Taraf, where he published much of the (fabricated) evidence in Ergenekon cases.  For 8 years Ahmet Altan stood by Erdogan, defending his every move, claiming that Erdogan would bring true democracy to Turkey.   He seems to have had a change of heart.  Here is a recent article by him[2]:

“We had a hard time believing it. We thought it was slip of the tongue.  We thought it was dictated incorrectly. No, he repeated it again the next day.

He (Erdogan), began as “one nation, one state, one flag” when describing the “red lines” (founding principles) of Turkish state, and finished with the phrase “one religion”.

We could debate the other “ones”.

But, when you say “one (a common) religion is a redline for the state”, you are committing a felony.

This is officially abandoning the secularity principle.  This is an open violation of the Constitution and the laws of the land.

Just as it is a crime to murder, it is also  a crime to pronounce “that the redlines of the Turkish Republicis one religion”. It is crime to define the principal attributes of the  state via a religion, to insinuate that all beliefs outside that ”one religion” are illegal, to imply that citizens will be forced to follow the ”one religion selected by the state”.

If you ask me, what Erdogan committed is more grievous crime than murder.

Because, if one man were to attempt to change the secular foundations of state, this society will be divided immediately.  A worse  fate than Lebanon will await Turkey.

First when we said “Secularity is not enough, we need to become more democratic”, Erdogan seemed to support this view. Nowadays? He seems to says “never mind the democracy, and we will give up on secularism”.

Good morning Mr. Altan, good night Turkey.

Atilla Yesilada

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One Response to The Update: The curtain goes down on modern Turkey, 29.05.2012

  1. Pingback: » Nobody’s business, including the Turks’

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