Turkey’s government is embroiled in a bitter dispute with secular-minded actors over freedom of expression in public theaters. Officials insist they respect the concept of artistic freedom, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has publicly derided stage actors as “Jacobins” who undermine traditional Turkish values.
The Istanbul City Theater's April production of Daily Obscene Secrets -- a play by Marco Antonio de la Parra that focuses on the lack of freedom under former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet -- set off the spat. Conservative media outlets condemned the play’s themes of nudity and sexual depravity as “vulgar.” In response, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas, a Justice and Development Party (AKP) member, promptly transferred artistic control of municipal theaters to his administration. Before, the theaters enjoyed autonomy to decide for themselves what to stage.
The move outraged actors throughout Turkey. "They [politicians] will decide everything for us, and they are not from the theater world,” huffed Istanbul City Theater actress Mahperi Mertoğlu at a recent protest outside Istanbul's main municipal theater. “They don't know anything about theater. It is incredible and unbelievable for us.”
Faced with growing protests, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to voice support for Istanbul’s mayor and called on all state-supported theaters to be put under political control. Ministry of Culture guidelines designed to attract public interest to the arts had, until now, allowed Turkey’s state theaters, like their municipal counterparts, to choose performances autonomously.
"If there is a need for support, then we, as the government, can sponsor plays that we want,” Erdoğan told reporters in mid-May. In response, hundreds of actors protested in Ankara and Istanbul, with placards reading “Hey, Sultan, take your hands off the theaters!"
Turkey’s tradition of state-financed theaters dates back to the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, when government support for the arts was seen as a way to promote society’s Westernization. But such support now has many pious Turkish Muslims viewing theaters with suspicion. State theaters across Turkey today are subsidized to the tune of $63 million a year, and enjoy strong attendance for the 5,000 to 6,000 performances they stage each year.
The prime minister, an observant Muslim with no known taste for theatrical or artistic pursuits, appears to share the skepticism of his party’s base. Accordingly, he has assailed public theaters as bastions of Western-oriented elitism -- places for people who hold themselves apart from average, ordinary Turks. "This is a matter of elitists looking down on their own people by creating their own areas of power and profit,” he charged at a speech to party supporters in Adana earlier in May. "They never allow others to enter into their own caste. These people stand outside the bars with a whiskey glass in their hand and look down upon the people. They only insult the people without producing anything, with an all-knowing attitude."’
Ever since the AKP came to power a decade ago, fears have persisted that its Islamic roots would threaten the country’s secular orientation. Until now, those fears have been largely unfounded, but after last year's third successive landslide election victory by the party, concerns are now growing again.
"The prime minister now is feeling so confident and so sure of [the AKP’s] endless power, that he is now giving a signal of overall social engineering,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahçeşehir University.
The prime minister followed up the attack on actors by threatening to privatize all of the country's 58 state theaters, a situation that would let the theaters stage whatever play they want, but force them to raise their own funds. "Sorry, but you cannot get your salary from the municipality and then criticize the management,” he chastised protesting performers. “There is no such absurdity."
The theater controversy is not an isolated incident. Turkey's vibrant private-sector TV channels have been hit by increasing numbers of fines for allegedly violating the state regulatory board’s morality code. Sometimes temporary bans on broadcasts have ensued. Many of the sanctions were applied against Turkey's numerous popular TV soap operas; in particular, for violating the provision "threatening the family by encouraging the use of alcohol and cigarettes."
According to Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, a close eye is now being kept on one of the most popular TV shows, Behazat C, which depicts the life of a hard-drinking, womanizing police detective.
Speaking to reporters, Culture Minister Ertuğral Günay dismissed concerns that any of these measures amount to political censorship. "The artistic and cultural life in Turkey will in no way go backward,” he stressed. Still, in Istanbul’s entertainment district of Taksim, worries nonetheless persist. “Art is not conservative. Art is freedom. Art is self-expression,” commented 25-year-old teacher Mehmet Bal. “If you only conserve our past, we can’t live in the present.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.