How Erdogan Reoriented Turkish Culture to Maintain His Power

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the Hagia Sophia for evening prayers at the final sunset before the first round of elections, the toughest election in his two decades in power, to ask voters what he is. reminded of what was told.

For nearly 1,000 years, the domed cathedral was the center of Orthodox Christianity. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, this mosque became one of the finest in the Islamic world. In the 1930s, the new Turkish Republic declared it a museum, and for nearly a century, it has become Turkey’s most-visited cultural heritage site, with its overlapping Christian and Islamic history.

President Erdogan was not so ecumenical. In 2020 President Erdogan turned it back into a mosque. When Turks return to the ballot box for the presidential runoff this Sunday, they will partly vote for the political ideology behind that cultural shift.

Join the crowd at the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque now and place your shoes on the new long racks in the inner corridor. Then you can catch a glimpse of the mosaic of Christ and the Virgin, which today is modestly covered with white curtains. The famous marble floors are covered with thick turquoise carpets. The sound becomes even muffled. The light became brighter thanks to the golden chandelier. The presidential proclamation is displayed in a simple picture frame right next to the entrance. It will monumentally wipe out the country’s secular century and affirm a new Turkey worthy of the Ottoman heyday.

“Hagia Sophia is the pinnacle of that neo-Ottoman dream,” said Edhem Erdem, a history professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. “It’s basically the replacement of political and ideological strife, debate, and polemical views into a very primitive realm of understanding about history and the past.”

If 21st-century politics is characterized by the supremacy of culture and identity over economics and class, it may be said that it was born here in Turkey, home to one of the longest-lasting culture wars. do not have. And over the past two decades, in grandiose monuments and crude melodramas, in restored ruins and retro new mosques, Mr. Erdogan has changed the course of Turkey’s national culture, creating a nostalgic revival of the Ottoman past, sometimes It has been promoted in a grand style, sometimes in a grand style. Pure kitsch.

After winning a close first round earlier this month, he is likely to beat opposition coalition candidate Kemal Kirikdaroglu in Sunday’s run-off. His resilience as polls predicted one defeat after another certainly reflects his party’s systematic control over the Turkish media and courts. (Democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “partially free” to “not free” in 2018.) But authoritarianism means more than ballots and bullets. Television and music, monuments and monuments have all become major vehicles for political projects, the campaign for cultural resentment and national renewal, which this May marks the Blue and Green Underneath the Dome of Hagia Sophia. culminated on the carpet of

Outside Turkey, this cultural shift is often described as “Islamic,” with Mr. Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, embracing a once-banned religion, including the wearing of headscarves by women in the country. actually permits public events. Public institution. The Museum of Islamic Civilization, complete with a “digital dome” and an immersive Van Gogh-like light projection, will open in his 2022 in Istanbul’s new largest mosque.

But the election suggests that nationalism, not religion, may be the real driving force behind Erdogan’s cultural revolution. His celebration of the Ottoman past, and the resentment of those who allegedly hated the Ottoman Empire, both in the West and at home, go hand in hand with nationalist efforts that have nothing to do with Islam. there is The country has launched an aggressive campaign to return Greco-Roman artifacts from Western museums. Foreign archaeological teams had their permits revoked. Turkey is currently at the dark spearhead of a trend we are now seeing, especially across the United States: a culture-politics of constant dissatisfaction, resentment even after victory.

For the country’s writers, artists, scholars and singers, facing censorship or worse, the prospect of regime change was less a matter of political preference than a matter of practical survival. Since 2013, when the Occupy protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park directly targeted the government, Erdogan has taken a tougher stance on authoritarian rule. Numerous cultural figures remain in prison, including architect Musela Yapisi, filmmakers Main Ozerden and Tsigdem Mater, and arts philanthropist Osman Kavala. Writers like Kang Dandal and Asri Erdogan (no relatives), who were imprisoned during the purge following the failed military coup against Erdogan in 2016, are living in exile in Germany.

More than a dozen music concerts were canceled last year, including a recital by Armenian violinist Ara Malikian and a live performance by Kurdish pop-folk singer Ainur Dogan. Tensions reached a terrifying climax this month just before the first round of voting, when a Kurdish singer was stabbed to death at a ferry terminal after refusing to sing a Turkish nationalist song.

A few days after the first round of voting, I met one of the country’s most acclaimed artists, Banu Chenetoglu. His tribute to Kurdish journalists at the 2017 contemporary art exhibition “Documenta” was highly acclaimed abroad but offended at home. “The scary thing about it now, compared to the 90s, is that the 90s was also a very difficult time, especially for the Kurdish community, but at that time we were able to guess where the evil came from,” he said. she told me “And now it’s possible for anyone. It’s a lot more random.”

The strategy worked. Independent media shrunk. Self-censorship is rampant. “All the institutions of arts and culture have been extremely silent for five years,” Chenetoglu said. “As an artist, this is unacceptable. Here’s my question: When do you activate the red line? When do you say no and why?”

Nationalism is nothing new in Turkey. “Everyone in this country is a nationalist, even uncles,” Erdem said. And the Kemalist — the secular elite that dominated local politics for decades until Erdogan’s victory in 2003 — also used nationalist themes to weave culture to political ends.Early Turkish Films Celebrated Mustafa Kemal’s Achievements Ataturk. The purpose of excavating Hittite antiquities give the past to the new republic It is even more deeply rooted than Greece or Italy.

In the 2000s, Erdogan’s fusion of Islamism and reformism knocked Turkey on the door of the European Union. The new Istanbul was touted in the foreign press. But the new Turkish nationalism has a different cultural character. A proud Muslim, often hostile and sometimes a bit paranoid.

One of the important Erdogan-era cultural institutions is the Panorama 1453 History Museum, located in the working-class district west of Hagia Sophia. There, schoolchildren admire the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in a painted cycloma. At one point, just painting in a round might have been enough immersive. Now it’s even more pumped up with flashy video projections, a fiercely nationalistic pageant in the style of the video game Civilization. Children can watch Sultan Mehmed II charge towards Hagia Sophia and his horse rise before a celestial fireball.

Turkish TV dramas have a similar back-projection and are hugely popular not only in Turkey but around the world, with hundreds of millions of viewers in the Islamic world and Germany. in mexico, all over. Shows such as the global hit “Resurrection: Ertuğrul,” about a 13th-century Turk chieftain, and the weekly “Game of Thrones”-esque Ottoman tale “Kurulus: Osman,” which airs every Wednesday, bring the past and the The present begins to merge.

“They project Tayyip Erdogan’s discourse into ancient times,” said cultural anthropologist Aise Cavdar, who studies the programs. “If Erdogan is now facing a struggle, it will be remade in the context of the Ottoman Empire, a fictional context. spread throughout society.”

In these semi-historical melodramas, the heroes are determined, brave, and brilliant, but the politics they lead are fragile, teetering, and threatened by outsiders. Ms Cavdar noted that TV programs frequently feature leaders of emerging and threatened nations. “As if this man hadn’t ruled a nation for 20 years!” she said.

Culture was also on the agenda in the runoff, as Erdogan appeared at the inauguration of the president’s new home. istanbul modern. The president praised a new museum on the Bosphorus side designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, but couldn’t help but bashed last-century buildings, saying it was a false abandonment of Ottoman tradition. .

Now, the president promised that a genuine “Turkish century” was about to begin.

Assuming he wins on Sunday, his neo-Ottomanism will face its toughest test in two decades. The most regrettable, of course, are the imprisoned intellectuals, but it will also be bittersweet for scholars, writers and others who have fled the country following Erdogan’s purge. “AKP’s social engineering can be compared to a monoculture in industrial agriculture,” he said. Asri Chavshogur, is a young artist who recently held a solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York. “The vegetables they invest in are one type. Other plants, intellectuals and artists, cannot grow, so they go away.”

Turkey’s ethnic minorities may face the greatest danger. At the museum commemorating the Turkish-Armenian journalist Frant Dink, who was assassinated in 2007, I skimmed copies of his independent newspapers and saw footage of his TV chat shows, each of which is modern. He was admonishing Turkey’s repressed freedom of expression. “Civil society actors are becoming more cautious,” said Nayat Karakose, an Armenian who oversees the museum. “They organize events in a more discreet way.”

For Erdem, who has spent his career studying Ottoman history, the refurbishment of Hagia Sophia and the “Tudor”-style TV drama are all one event, and he’s not as confident as he looks. “Nationalism is not just glorification,” he says. “It’s also victimization. You can’t have proper nationalism if you haven’t experienced suffering, because suffering also absolves you of potential misconduct.”

“So what naive Turkish nationalists, especially neo-Ottoman nationalists, want is to put together a vision of a glorious empire that would have been benign,” he added. That’s not true. An empire is an empire. “

But whether or not Mr. Erdogan wins Sunday’s elections, there will be headwinds that cultural nationalism can’t fight. Above all, inflation and currency crises, which bankers and financial analysts are warning about. “There is no place for heritage in that future,” Erdem said. “The Ottoman Empire is not going to save you.”

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