Turkey’s ‘culture war’: Anger grows as string of events cancelled

As AK Party-run cities and districts cancel events, critics say the gov’t is waging a ‘culture war’ ahead of elections.

Vedat Sakman, a veteran artist
Critics and analysts say that the cancellations likely stem from a pre-election strategy on the part of President Erdogan [File: Yasin Akgul/AFP]

Istanbul, Turkey – It is the height of spring in Turkey, and with that comes a flurry of concerts and outdoor festivals to complement the pleasant weather.

But in recent weeks, a string of events have been cancelled by cities and districts run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), leading critics and analysts to accuse the government of attempting to wage a “culture war” in the run-up to next year’s general elections.

The first widely publicised cancellation occurred on May 9 when the governor of the Central Anatolian province of Eskisehir banned all outdoor events for 15 days on the grounds that “terrorist groups were preparing demonstrations”. Eskisehir is known as a lively college town with brimming nightlife and while the city municipality is run by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the provincial governor, like all others in Turkey, was appointed by the president.

The ban effectively cancelled a large festival which was scheduled to take place in Eskisehir between May 12-15, featuring some of the country’s most popular singers.

Meanwhile, iconic Kurdish singer Aynur Dogan’s concert on May 20 in the province of Kocaeli was cancelled on the basis that the event was “not appropriate,” while folk musician Niyazi Koyuncu’s concert in the Istanbul district of Pendik scheduled for May 25 was banned on the grounds that Koyuncu – who is known for being opposed to the government – did not share the “value judgements and views” of the municipality.

Despite enjoying a surge in popularity, singer Melek Mosso’s June 3 concert at a festival in the western city of Isparta was axed by the municipality after two youth associations released a statement alleging that Mosso “encourages immorality,” urging that her show be shut down. Another Kurdish singer, Mem Ararat, had his concert in Bursa cancelled by the provincial governorate for reasons of “public safety”.

“Cancelling concerts by Kurdish singers plays into the recent surge in nationalist, anti-Kurd and xenophobic bent of a lot of the AKP’s rhetoric and policy – an outgrowth of their partnership with the [far-right] MHP – but the general idea of taking the fight to pop music is striking in a country that generally has viewed pop music as an apolitical venue,” James Ryan, Associate Director at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, told Al Jazeera.

“There are a lot of AKP voters who watch Eurovision, listen to [doyenne singer] Sezen Aksu, watch [the popular contest show] O Ses Turkiye, and I’m sure there were at least some AKP-aligned voters who held tickets to the concerts by Dogan, Ararat, Koyuncu and Mosso,” Ryan added.

The Directorate of Communications did not respond to a request for comment by Al Jazeera.

But Hilal Kaplan, journalist and columnist for the pro-government Sabah newspaper, said the two organisations that urged for the cancellation of Mosso’s concert in Isparta are, in fact, linked to the Felicity (Saadet) Party, which is among the six opposition parties belonging to a coalition alongside the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“The Saadet Party positions itself in a more religious and more reflexive place than the AK Party. Moreover, after Melek Mosso’s concert was cancelled in Isparta, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism arranged a stage for Melek Mosso to give a concert in Istanbul. Thus by organising a concert for her in Istanbul, the government has created a much larger sphere of influence than in a small Anatolian city,” she told Al Jazeera.

“So it would be misleading to ignore these facts and claim that the events were cancelled by the government.”

Meanwhile, spring festivals take place at numerous universities throughout the country but this year live music performances at the gatherings at Middle East Technical University in the capital of Ankara and Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul were cancelled, officially because three Turkish soldiers were killed in a recent military operation targeting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both universities are led by rectors who have been appointed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“It’s hard to know the exact motivation behind [all] these cancellations, which is even more disturbing, but I think it’s related to the election climate we are about to enter,” said James Hakan Dedeoglu, a publisher of the independent music magazine Bant and long an active figure in the Istanbul music scene booking and promoting concerts.

“It seems to me it is a way for the forces in the government to show they can do whatever they want. Especially when it comes to answering the needs and requests of the conservative population. And they need to consolidate their voters, especially in this current disastrous economic downturn,” he told Al Jazeera.

Other analysts agree that the cancellations likely stem from a pre-election strategy on the part of President Erdogan, who has slipped in the polls due to Turkey’s ailing economy, with general and presidential elections set for June 2023.

“With the growth being down and inflation nearing triple digits – the highest since Erdogan came to power – and other economic indicators not looking very good, I think Erdogan is going to double down on the culture wars aspect of his brand,” Soner Cagaptay, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Al Jazeera.

The government has firmly defended its economic record and its controversial interest rate policies, arguing that lower rates will lower inflation and will boost economic growth, exports and jobs – and Erdogan said in a statement on June 6 that Turkey does not technically have a problem with inflation, but with a high cost of living.

And some argue that the cancellations are not linked to a top-down policy imposed by the ruling party.

“The decisions to cancel the concerts and festivals are definitely not the decisions of the government, they are personal decisions made by provincial or district administrators, mayors, governors and district governors,” Tulay Demir, journalist and columnist for Daily Sabah, told Al Jazeera.

“It is definitely not government policy, it is being portrayed by the opposition as if it were government policy.”

But for music publisher and promoter Dedeoglu, the wave of cancellations is deeply worrying.

“[It’s] a horrific and systematic thing the government is doing. And even if this is a temporary and stupid political act, the harm it does to society will last a long time.”

Ironically, the concert bans and ensuing outrage have probably generated a bit of the Streisand effect, in which an attempt to suppress something only brings more attention to it. Melek Mosso continues to perform for large crowds across the country, while Aynur Dogan played on May 28 to a packed house at Istanbul’s pre-eminent outdoor venue, the Cemil Topuzlu Open Air Theatre, singing Kurdish songs to thousands of fans.

“It was a dream, my heart soared from excitement and I was thunderstruck,” wrote Dogan in a heartfelt tweet featuring photos of her Istanbul performance, an indication that music can be difficult to silence when there is a dedicated audience for it.

“Every beautiful word that could be uttered lost its meaning at that moment. Your eyes and faces were more beautiful than a thousand roses and you became thousands of hearts.”

Source: Al Jazeera