How Erdogan Reoriented Turkish Culture to Maintain His Power

As the final sun set before the first round of voting in the most difficult election of his two-decade rule, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Hagia Sophia for evening prayers – and to remind his voters that What did they do?

For nearly a thousand years the domed cathedral had been the center of Orthodox Christianity. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it became one of the finest mosques in the Islamic world. In the 1930s, the new Turkish Republic declared it a museum, and for nearly a century its Christian and Muslim histories made it Turkey’s most visited cultural site.

President Erdogan was not so ecumenical: he turned it back into a mosque in 2020. When Turks return to the ballot box this Sunday for a presidential election, they will vote on the political ideology behind this cultural metamorphosis.

Join the crowds at the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque now, leaving your shoes on the new tall racks in the inner narthex, and you can catch a glimpse of the mosaic of Christ and the Virgin, now carefully draped with white curtains. The famous marble floors are upholstered with thick turquoise carpets. The sound is louder. The light is bright, thanks to the golden chandelier. At the entrance, in a simple frame, is a presidential proclamation: a monumental change over the country’s secular century, and an affirmation of a new Turkey worthy of its Ottoman heyday.

“Hagia Sophia is the crown of this neo-Ottoman dream,” he said Edham EldimProfessor of History at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “It is essentially a transition into a realm of political and ideological battles, debates, political ideas, a very primitive understanding of history and the past.”

If 21st century politics is marked by the eminence of culture and identity over economics and class, it could be said to have been born here in Turkey, home to one of the longest culture wars of them all. And for the past 20 years, in grand monuments and on schlocky soap operas, at restored archaeological sites and Retro new mosquesMr. Erdogan has reshaped Turkey’s national culture, promoting nostalgia for the Ottoman past — sometimes grandiosely, sometimes as pure kitsch.

After surviving a tight first-round vote earlier this month, he is now favored to win Sunday’s run-off election against the joint opposition candidate, Kemal Klikdaroglu. His resilience, when polls after the referendum predicted his defeat, certainly speaks to his party’s systematic control over Turkey. media And Courts. (Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, ranked Turkey “partly independent” from “not free” in 2018.) But dictatorship is about more than belts and bullets. Television and music, memorials and memorials have all been major levers of a political project, cultural passion and campaign for national rebirth, which culminated this May in a blue-green carpet under the dome of the Hagia Sophia.

Outside of Turkey, this cultural shift is often described as “Islamist,” and Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, have actually allowed these religious practices. which were once banned, such as women wearing headscarves. public institutions. A museum of Islamic civilizations, complete with a “digital dome” and light projections, opened in 2022 in Istanbul’s new largest mosque.

Yet the choice suggests that nationalism, rather than religion, may be the real driver of Mr. Erdogan’s cultural revolution. Its celebrations of the Ottoman past — and resentment of its detractors, whether in the West or at home — have gone hand in hand with nationalist efforts unrelated to Islam. The country has launched an aggressive campaign to return Greco-Roman artefacts from Western museums. Foreign archaeological teams have withdrawn their permits. Turkey stands at the dark end of a trend that is now everywhere, not least in the United States: the cultural politics of perpetual grievance, where even in victory you are angry.

For the country’s writers, artists, intellectuals and singers, who faced censorship or worse, the possibility of a regime change was a matter of political preference rather than practical survival. Since 2013, when an Occupy-style protest movement in Istanbul’s Gezi Park directly targeted his government, Mr. Erdogan has veered hard toward authoritarian rule. A number of cultural figures are still imprisoned, including the architect Mosela Yapeki, the filmmakers Mine Ozerden and Sigdem Mater, and the artist Osman Kavala. Writers like. Dunder can. And Asli Erdogan (no relation), who was jailed in 2016 following a failed military coup against Mr Erdogan, lives in exile in Germany.

More than a dozen musical concerts were canceled last year, including a recital by violinist Ara Malikian, who is of Armenian descent, and a gig by pop-folk singer Aynor Dogan, who is Kurdish. The tension reached a critical crescendo this month, shortly before the first round of voting, when a Kurdish singer was stabbed to death at a ferry terminal for refusing to sing a Turkish nationalist song.

I met in the days after the first round of voting. Be a Senatoglu, one of the country’s best-known artists, whose 2017 edition of the contemporary art exhibition Documentary commemorated a Kurdish journalist, received acclaim abroad but encouragement at home. “What’s scarier now than in the ’90s, which was also a very difficult time for the Kurdish community in particular, is that then we could predict where the evil was coming from,” he told me. “And now it could be anyone. It’s a lot more random.”

The strategy has worked. Independent media has shrunk. Self-censorship is rampant. “All arts and culture institutions have been extremely quiet for five years,” said Ms Sennet Oglu. “And for me as an artist, this is unacceptable. This is my question: When do we activate the red line? When do we say no and why?

Nationalism is not new in Turkey. “Everybody and their uncle is a nationalist in this country,” observed Mr. Eldem. And the Kemalists – the secular elite that dominated politics here for decades until Mr Erdogan’s victory in 2003 – also used nationalist themes to channel culture to their political ends. Early Turkish cinema appreciated the achievements of Mustafa Kemal. Ataturk. Archaeological excavations are the purpose of Haitian antiquities. Provide the new republic with a past. Its roots are deeper than Greece and Italy.

In the 2000s, Mr. Erdogan’s blend of Islamism and reformism had Turkey knocking on the door of the European Union. A new Istanbul was being celebrated in the foreign press. But the new Turkish nationalism has a different cultural cast: proudly Islamic, often hostile, and sometimes a little crazy.

One of the signal cultural institutions of the Erdogan years is the Panorama 1453 History Museum, in a working-class district west of the Hagia Sophia, where schoolchildren explore the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in a painted cyclorama. At one point, a painting in the round can be quite immersive. Now it’s staged with video projections, a brutally nationalist pageant styled like the video game “Civilization.” Children can see Sultan Mohammed II charging towards the Hagia Sophia, while his horse stands in front of a celestial fireball.

There is a similar backward projection in Turkish television dramas, which are very popular not only here but internationally, in Germany, with millions of viewers throughout the Muslim world. In Mexico, all over. On shows like “Resurrection: ErtugrulAn international hit about the 13th-century Turkish ruler, or “Corolus: Osman,” a “Game of Thrones”-Ottoman story aired here every Wednesday, the past and present begin to merge.

“They are casting Tayyip Erdoğan’s discourse in antiquity,” said cultural anthropologist Eysa Köder, who studies the shows. “If Erdoğan is facing a struggle now, it is reproduced in an Ottoman context, in an imaginary context. In this way, not the knowledge of today’s struggle, but the sense of it is disseminated in the society.

In these semi-historical soap operas, the heroes are decisive, brave, brilliant, but the policies they lead are fragile, scheming, threatened by outsiders. Ms. Keuder noted how often TV shows show emerging, endangered state leaders. “As if this guy hasn’t been ruling the state for 20 years!” she said.

Culture was also on the agenda during the run-off, as Mr Erdogan showed up to inaugurate the new home. Modern Istanbul. The president praised the new Bosphorus-side museum, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano – but could not help criticizing the creations of the previous century, which he called a misguided abandonment of Ottoman tradition.

Now, the president promised, an authentic “Turkish century” was about to dawn.

Assuming he wins on Sunday, his neo-Ottomanism will have survived its strongest test in two decades. The most deplorable cultural figures are, of course, in prison, but it will also be bittersweet for the academics, writers and others who fled the country as a result of Mr. Erdogan’s ouster. “AKP’s social engineering can be compared to monoculture in industrial agriculture,” said Asli Cavusoglu, a young artist who recently had a solo show at New York’s New Museum. “There’s a kind of vegetable they invest in. Other plants—intellectuals, artists—are unable to grow, and so they leave.”

Turkey’s minorities may face the greatest threats. At the museum commemorating Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dunk, who was murdered in 2007, I saw copies of his independent newspaper and watched footage of his television chat shows, each an admonition to the limited freedom of expression in contemporary Turkey. “Civil society actors are becoming more discerning,” said Niyat Karakos, who oversees the museum and is of Armenian descent. “They do events more cautiously.”

For Mr. Eldem, who has spent his career studying Ottoman history, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia and the “Tudors”-style TV dramas are all of a piece, and less believable in comparison. “Nationalism is not just glorification,” he said. “It’s also victimization. You can’t have proper nationalism if you’ve never suffered. Because suffering also frees you from potential abuse.

“So what naïve Turkish nationalists, and especially neo-Ottoman nationalists, want,” he added, “is to conjure up the notion of a glorious empire that would have been benign. It’s a no-brainer. An empire is an empire.”

But whether or not Mr. Erdogan wins Sunday’s election, there are things cultural nationalism cannot compete with: above all, inflation and the currency crisis that have bankers and financial analysts at stake. A red alert is flashing. “In this future, there is no place for heritage,” Mr. Eldem said. “The Ottomans are not going to save you.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *