Pop culture and the support for equality and diversity in Turkey under threat

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Turkey has world famous stars, Sezen Aksu, Tarkan, Gülşen, Sila, Mabel Matız, the list is long. Although Gülşen, revered by fans as “the Turkish Madonna” because of her provocative outfits, her provocative performances and videos, is currently not singing: First, she was taken into custody, now the pop star is under house arrest.

Her arrest and custody triggered a broad wave of solidarity with the artist. Composer Fazil Say expressed his outrage that Gülşen had done nothing to justify the arrest. The Turkish pop musician Tarkan wrote on Twitter that anyone who sexually abuses children, who rapes and kills women is not arrested. But the judiciary, which remains inactive when it comes to corruption, murder and theft, acted quickly on Gülşen. World-famous writer Elif Shafak tweeted, „this is a lynching campaign.” Other famous artists made a joint statement on social media: “Gülşen was arrested for not dressing and acting the way they wanted. If we remain silent, we will be next.” As a silent protest, fans of the Fenerbahce football club sang her song “Lolipopp” in solidarity with her. The lyrics say: “You can tie my hands, but you can’t lock me up.”

Gülşen is a famous musician in Turkey for 25 years. Seven years ago, in the video for her song “Dan Dan”, she sat on a motel bed with red patent leather boots and a red body, made a phone call, then got into a large American convertible and picked up a man on the side of the highway. After the video became public, problems with the Turkish broadcasting supervisory authority RTÜK started. The board warned of Gülşen’s body movements in “Dan Dan“, saying they were a danger to children. She was outraged and spoke of a serious attack on the dignity of women.

Gülşen’s songs are emotional and erotic, superficially intimate, they have a pull. In her music videos, she dances in front of walls of flames and under waterfalls. She is currently the most successful pop artist in Turkey, her songs are clicked a hundred million times on YouTube, has won awards and has toured Europe.

Last month, the 46-year-old musician was arrested in Istanbul for making an admittedly distasteful joke on stage. Gülşen made the “bad joke” in April during a concert. There, she casually said to one of her musicians, the pianist, that his “perverted” behavior might be due to the fact that he attended a religious Imam Hatip school. The best-known Imam Hatip graduate is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the band, they call the musician “Imam”. Everyone in the group has a nickname and they are constantly being made fun of, said the singer after she was arrested in her apartment and repeated this before the magistrate. But it ordered pre-trial detention.

It was just a “bad joke”, Gülşen apologized later to everyone who felt offended. It took months for the “bad joke” to become public, causing uproars in the AKP community. The singer suspects that her case is being exploited by interested political circles. Apparently, certain forces wanted to further divide society into secular and religious, she said. After all, Turkey is in pre-election fever, and the pressure on the governing AKP party increases with poor poll numbers.

Back in April, the concert audience cheered. However, a video recording of it only circulated on the Internet much later, and it then went viral. Supporters of the ruling AKP party stormed against Gülşen, the charge of “inciting hatred and hostility” followed. The indictment relates to Gülşen’s statement about the Imam Hatip schools sponsored by the AKP, but also aims at the artist personally.

Her lyrics are apolitical, but Gülşen stands for what Erdogan is fighting. She has a black belt in karate, performed on International Women’s Day, waved the rainbow flag at concerts and donated the proceeds from the sale of one of her albums to the „We Will Stop Femicide“ platform, which documents how many women are killed by partners or relatives. In 2021, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women. There are no official statistics, but the Turkish Women’s Association counted at least 300 dead women in 2020.

Gülşen is also supporting the LGBTQ+ communities in Turkey, a minority under great threat by conservative groups in the country. For an Islamic society like Turkey, the rainbow movement is quite strong and visible, at least in the bigger cities. The Istanbul Rainbow Parade was world famous – until the authorities banned it. Leading government politicians and the head of the state-controlled religious authority „Diyanet“ warn that LGBT+ is the enemy, corrupts children and dishonors Turkish culture.

Music plays a special role in these re-Islamization tendencies. Orthodox Sunni Islamists not only ban images, but also music. Another pop icon had recently become the victim of hostility from the state: Sezen Aksu, the queen of Turkish pop music, made a supposedly blasphemous allusion to Adam and Eve, to the story of creation, in a song. The state broadcasting authority ordered that the song, which violated “moral values,” could not be played on TV and radio. President Erdoğan himself said, referring to Aksu’s lyrics: “It is our duty to cut out such tongues from the mouth.”

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