Arts and Turkey: Break or burn

Arts and Turkey: Break or burn

Nazlan Ertan
The arson attack earlier this week against the theater academy and cultural center owned by actor/director Müjdat Gezen brings us back to the old question: Is there a growing threat to art and culture in Turkey?

According to Freemuse, an international group which advocates for artistic freedoms, the reply is an unconditional “yes.” Turkey jumped from 12th place in 2015 to seventh in 2016. The group’s 2016 report maintains that the censorship against art and artists have increased globally, with registered cases showing an increase of 119 percent. These include “serious violations” such as killings, attacks, imprisonment and threats and “acts of censorship.” 

In the case of Turkey, the report cites 23 registered cases of serious violations and 13 registered acts of censorship. Turkey, along with China, enjoys a third status: countries that urge censorship outside their own borders.

Freemuse’s registered 23 serious violations of artistic freedom of expression in Turkey include 11 artists behind bars, the prosecution of seven artists, attacks on three artists and artworks and the persecution of or threat to two artists. It also cites that numerous artists have been investigated and fired from their positions at public art institutions in the wake of the coup attack, as well as the cancellation of four concerts by pop star Sıla Gençoğlu over comments she made on the attempted coup. Seven members of the popular folk-rock band Grup Yorum were charged with resisting and insulting police and being members of a terrorist group.

Turkish artists are also targets of the non-state actors, the “angry mobs” who oppose what the artists say and do – and feel encouraged by the political context to take censorship and punishment into their own hands. The case of the arson attack against theater academy belonging to Gezen, a comedian of ribald jokes of the 1970s who became a hard-core critic of the government in the last decade, is in that category.

Gezen has long been an object of hate for conservatives, particularly the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) youth branches and the conservative daily Yeni Akit, and it is easy to see why. Gezen has not minced words in his opposition to the current government and their supporters. Several ministers have sued him for insults and won, only to be told by Gezen that “he is not foolish enough to pay them.” His style and sense of humor have even irked those who support his views. Ekşi Sözlük, Turkey’s online satirical “Devil’s Dictionary,” had an entry on Gezen titled “why Kemalists are so deficient when it comes to good jokes.”  

But the world has moved on from the days of shouting “off with his head” when we do not like the joke – or burn down the theater if we do not like the play.

The arson attack against the Müjdat Gezen Theater Academy caused many to rally behind him – from the political opposition to press associations. The public prosecutor announced that it would place high priority on bringing the assailant, who was captured on camera, before the law. Gezen said he would sue Yeni Akit and AKP heavyweight Burhan Kuzu for remarks that created the atmosphere of hate against him.

In the flurry of support statements after the attack, the government has been conspicuously quiet. A statement from Culture Minister Nabi Avcı, a one liner citing “provocation” and happiness that there were no deaths, only came two days later, after probing by CHP İzmir deputy Zeynep Altıok, whose father, poet Metin Altıok, was burnt to death by an angry mob in the infamous Sivas massacre of 1993.

Altıok’s letter to Avcı, a long and touching one, cited the attacks against art “from Artvin to İzmir” and asked the government to ensure that the assailants were severely punished. So far, this hardly seems to be the case in previous assaults – such as the attackers of art galleries in Istanbul or a local man who destroyed a wooden sculpture by Amancio Gonzalez Andres entitled “Musician” in İzmir, on the grounds that it was obscene. Pianist Fazıl Say’s concert was interrupted, also in İzmir, by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar,” condemning the pianist for holding a concert when there were many Turkish soldiers dying.

The government and its members cannot be held responsible for the acts of nongovernmental actors, but neither should they create an atmosphere, by word and deed, that angry mobs feel encouraged to attack art and culture so easily.