Freedom of expression and personal freedoms in post-Kemalist Turkey

Federico De Renzi

You could say that Turkey was brought into the world following models that were clearly inspired by the Jacobins.

It was created after the civil war that followed the First World War, and inspired primarily by the examples of the French and the Germans (here taken to mean Prussians). The principles and the basis on which it was founded are the secular values of post-revolutionary France, especially with respect to the rights of the individual: the rights of women, the secular state, the reduced significance of mystical brotherhoods and religion in general compared to the Ottoman period, the reshaping of the role of religious officials (mullahs, imams, sheikhs, etc.); in short, the secularity of the state was paramount, with all the consequences this had for a state still in formation (we recall the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924). The intention was to create a modern state, as that was understood in the 1920s and 1930s. Obviously, those interpretations of secularism and of individual freedoms were closely tied to their historical context. The definition of the new Turkish state was influenced by the fact that the country had – and still has – a Muslim, and in particular a Sunni, majority population, even if a significant percentage of it (even before the period in which the state was formed) belongs to Muslim religious groups only as a formality. This is not to mention all the non-Muslim minorities whose populations were reduced during the First World War and then the civil war: Armenians, Greeks and others. The secularism of the state was – we would say retrospectively – Islamic in style, even though it was seen as completely detached from any religious context. Its interpretation of individual freedom fell in with the views that were dominant in Europe at the time. Over the course of the decades, a game was constantly played out between the state – conceived of not so much as an abstract notion but as the embodiment of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (even after his death) – and all those who saw in this state a sort of denial of Turkish-Islamic identity (taken to mean Turkish, from Turkey).

In Turkey, independence, or the freedom of thought associated with social and intellectual independence, has always been subordinate to a higher value: that of the secular state. Therefore, to be independent and, at the same time, against the founding principles of the Republic of Turkey – those expressed in the guidelines of Kemalism – meant, as a best case scenario, imprisonment or simply exclusion from public life. This was the case even after the death of Atatürk in 1938, and during the presidency of his successor İsmet İnönü (who was also a deputy commander during the civil war), and even after the introduction of a multiparty system in 1950. We recall that, until İnönü, Turkey had a single party system with the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP), founded by Mustafa Kemal, in control. It is limiting to say that the situation has improved with the introduction of a multiparty system and the political changes that followed the Second World War and Turkey’s entrance to NATO: there have been, from the 70s to throughout the 90s, inspirational parties that are more or less Islamic, or overtly Islamic ones that have tried to make changes in this field. Nevertheless, from whichever point of view you choose, intellectual independence has always been subject to the way the parties and political groups in power conceived the state. As was touched upon earlier, this is due to the fact that Turkey is a country with a Muslim majority, though this is not to say that there is a monolithic interpretation of religion. As we know, in the Middle East there are many kinds of Islam: in particular, in Turkey and in the area that Turkey occupies outside of national borders. There exist many Islamic people that cross these borders, many interpretations of religion and of Islamic society that are supranational. This happens despite the fact that, in Turkey, there is a form of Islam that some define as ‘Turkish’, a designation which includes variations that range from China to the Caucasus and to Anatolia via Russia – in other words, those areas inhabited by populations with traditions and languages that are transnationally Turkish (and currently this would also include Syria, Iraq and Iran).

The historical and geographical framework sketched out so far can also be applied to the role of intellectuals. In Turkey, being independent has always had various meanings, whether as a contrast to the more or less imposed secularism of the state or in reaction to a religious viewpoint similar to the one that prevails today, and expressed by various administrations of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), and in particular that of President Erdoğan. Independence, the desire for political expression – artistic expression is also considered political in Marxist terms – is often paid for with imprisonment and exclusion from public life. The context of Istanbul in particular – but also of other big cities such as İzmir or Ankara – is exemplary: evidence of this is given by the demonstrations that followed the events at Gezi Park. There has been an explosion in the fight against government repression across the board: whether in the visual arts – thinking of photography, for example – or in daily life, with more traditional forms of expression such as the media or the publication of literary works. We remember, of course, all of Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s statements on the AKP’s actions.

It is interesting to note that these expressions of dissent – manifested through the medium of art tout court, and which can be understood as a major expression of opposition – coincides with Turkey’s relative – though indisputable – economic growth; in particular, since 2006-2007, just before the global financial and economic crisis. As often happens, that which was described by many as an economic boom did not, in reality, affect the country as a whole, but only a few sectors: in particular, construction and finance, industries often closely tied to third parties, primarily lenders or investors from neighbouring countries – culturally more than geographically – and obviously mostly, but not only, the Gulf countries; Arab countries tied to a religious viewpoint that is, as mentioned earlier, alien to the Turkish one. This was notable, for example, in Turkey’s lack – more pronounced than previously – of facilities such as modern art museums, artists’ workshops, and cultural societies of independent authors, primarily in Istanbul but also in other cities. This is the result of a two-pronged fear related to what I said at the beginning: the fear of not being accepted by the establishment, as happened when the military controlled the country, and the fear of falling victim to an almost immediate repression. In Turkey there exists a sort of self-censorship linked to a lack, if you will, of courage, not so much on the part of individual artists but on the part of individuals. Indeed, this is evident even in museums, art galleries and in literary associations, ninety percent of which are in private hands: think of private universities – such as Koç, Sabancı or others – which have museums and meeting points for writers, but which are never, in as much as they are private, truly independent. It is interesting that – particularly from the events of Gezi Park, which continue even today – significant public modern art collections do not exist (aside from in a small museum in Ankara, the State Art and Sculpture Museum), and nor do museums, meeting places or dedicated places in which photographers can meet or express themselves artistically in Istanbul, or even important literary associations. This, paradoxically, is related to the growth that has continued since the seventies: a much longer process than that triggered by the AKP’s rise to power. It is a form of self-censorship that we could say has been going on forever, though somewhat paradoxically since Turkey formally adopted a multiparty and democratic and representative parliamentary system. Interestingly, over the last fifty years perhaps the only figure of international significance in Turkey – at least as far as the visual arts, and photography in particular, are concerned – is Ara Güler, a disciple of Henri Cartier-Bresson. After him, a void – always in terms of artistic expression and, therefore, political independence in the field of arts.

Instead of being conditioned by political and economic factors, the presence of independent voices in Turkey is more self-conditioning, if you will. This is because, above all with the AKP, those who succeed are not so much linked to the governing party but personally to President Erdoğan’s family. The problem is faced every day by the international press and partly also by the Turkish press, which is repressed or censored. There is a kind of patronage that is by now obvious, and which is personified by the government represented by the former Prime Minister and, now, President of the Republic. It is very difficult to find independent expression in today’s Turkey because, I repeat, the physical spaces for it do not exist. This is also the case in neighbourhoods such as Beyoğlu or Taksim, zones which are not tied to the “hard core” of the government. Amongst the few examples that do exist is the Babayan Culture House in central Turkey, where artists (primarily foreigners, but also Turks) live, work and perform almost daily. Then there is the programme run by Casa dell’arte in Bodrum or, in the same area, the Gümüşlük Academy Trust for Arts, Culture, Ecology and Scientific Research (Gümüşlük Akademisi Sanat, Kültür, Ekoloji ve Bilimsel Araştırmalar Merkezi Vakfı). The spaces that exist tend towards this form of self-censorship and are located mostly outside of Istanbul or other large cities, where the desire for expression – if it is not suppressed – often takes a step backwards in order to try and breathe.
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In addition to these dynamics of self-censorship, the role of banks also has to be considered: no public financial institution funds projects, museums or spaces because they are a potential source of dissent. Banks such as Sabancı, Yapı Kredi and other private banks avoid producing publications or books that concern artists or characters that are perceived as being too “uncomfortable”. Lately, though, they have begun to republish authors traditionally seen as such – for example, the famous poet Nâzim Hikmet. However, this is because these works are seen as being related to the past, whilst a veto remains over more contemporary works.

Text gathered by Simone Ciglia