How Erdogan Reoriented Turkish Culture to Maintain His Power

At the ultimate sunset earlier than the primary spherical of voting within the hardest election of his two-decade rule, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey visited Hagia Sophia for night prayers — and to remind his voters of simply what he had delivered.

For practically a millennium the domed cathedral had been the epicenter of Orthodox Christianity. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it grew to become one of many Islamic world’s best mosques. In the Nineteen Thirties, the brand new Turkish republic proclaimed it a museum, and for practically a century its overlapping Christian and Muslim histories made it Turkey’s most visited cultural website.

President Erdogan was not so ecumenical: In 2020 he transformed it again right into a mosque. When Turks return to the poll field this Sunday for the presidential runoff, they are going to be voting partially on the political ideology behind that cultural metamorphosis.

Join the crowds on the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque now, leaving your sneakers on the new lengthy racks within the interior narthex, and you’ll nearly glimpse the mosaics of Christ and the Virgin, right this moment discreetly sheathed with white curtains. The well-known marble ground has been upholstered with thick turquoise carpet. The sound is extra muffled. The gentle’s brighter, thanks to golden chandeliers. Right on the entrance, in a easy body, is a presidential proclamation: a monumental swipe on the nation’s secular century, and an affirmation of a brand new Turkey worthy of its Ottoman heyday.

“Hagia Sophia is the crowning of that neo-Ottomanist dream,” mentioned Edhem Eldem, professor of historical past at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “It’s basically a transposition of political and ideological fights, debates, polemical views, into the realm of a very, very primitive understanding of history and the past.”

If the mark of Twenty first-century politics is the ascendancy of tradition and id over economics and sophistication, it could possibly be mentioned to have been born right here in Turkey, residence to one of many longest-running tradition wars of all of them. And for the previous 20 years, in grand monuments and on schlocky cleaning soap operas, at restored archaeological websites and retro new mosques, Mr. Erdogan has reoriented Turkey’s nationwide tradition, selling a nostalgic revival of the Ottoman previous — generally in grand fashion, generally as pure kitsch.

After surviving a good first spherical of voting earlier this month, he’s now favored to win a runoff election on Sunday towards Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of the joint opposition. His resiliency, when ballot after ballot predicted his defeat, actually expresses his celebration’s systematic management of Turkey’s media and courts. (Freedom House, a democracy watchdog group, downgraded Turkey from “partly free” to “not free” in 2018.) But authoritarianism is about a lot greater than ballots and bullets. Television and music, monuments and memorials have all been prime levers of a political undertaking, a marketing campaign of cultural ressentiment and nationwide rebirth, that culminated this May on the blue-green carpets beneath Hagia Sophia’s dome.

Outside Turkey, this cultural flip is usually described as “Islamist,” and Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, referred to as the A.Ok.P., have certainly permitted spiritual observances that had been as soon as banned, such because the sporting of head scarves by ladies in public establishments. A Museum of Islamic Civilizations, full with a “digital dome” and light-weight projections à la the immersive Van Gogh Experience, opened in 2022 in Istanbul’s new largest mosque.

Yet this election means that nationalism, relatively than faith, often is the true driver of Mr. Erdogan’s cultural revolution. His celebrations of the Ottoman previous — and the resentment of its supposed haters, whether or not within the West or at residence — have gone hand in hand with nationalist efforts unrelated to Islam. The nation has mounted aggressive campaigns for the return of Greco-Roman antiquities from Western museums. Foreign archaeological groups have had their permits withdrawn. Turkey stands on the bleak vanguard of a bent seen throughout now, not least within the United States: a cultural politics of perpetual grievance, the place even in victory you’re indignant.

For this nation’s writers, artists, students and singers, dealing with censorship or worse, the prospect of a change in authorities was much less a matter of political choice than of sensible survival. Since 2013, when an Occupy-style protest motion at Istanbul’s Gezi Park took direct purpose at his authorities, Mr. Erdogan has taken a tough flip to authoritarian rule. Numerous cultural figures stay imprisoned, together with the architect Mucella Yapici, the filmmakers Mine Ozerden and Cigdem Mater, and the humanities philanthropist Osman Kavala. Writers like Can Dundar and Asli Erdogan (no relation), who had been jailed in the course of the purges that adopted a failed navy coup towards Mr. Erdogan in 2016, dwell in exile in Germany.

More than a dozen musical concert events had been canceled final yr, amongst them a recital by the violinist Ara Malikian, who’s of Armenian descent, and a gig by the pop-folk singer Aynur Dogan, who’s Kurdish. The tensions reached a grim crescendo this month, shortly earlier than the primary spherical of voting, when a Kurdish singer was stabbed to demise at a ferry terminal after declining to sing a Turkish nationalist music.

In the times after the primary spherical of voting, I met with Banu Cennetoglu, one of many nation’s most acclaimed artists, whose commemoration of a Kurdish journalist on the 2017 version of the up to date artwork exhibition Documenta received acclaim overseas however introduced aggravation at residence. “What is scary right now compared to the 90s, which was also a very difficult time, especially for the Kurdish community, is that then we could guess where the evil was coming from,” she advised me. “And now it could be anyone. It is much more random.”

The technique has labored. Independent media has shrunk. Self-censorship is rife. “All the institutions within art and culture have been extremely silent for five years,” Ms. Cennetoglu mentioned. “And for me this is unacceptable, as an artist. This is my question: when do we activate the red line? When do we say no, and why?”

Nationalism is nothing new in Turkey. “Everybody and his uncle is a nationalist in this country,” Mr. Eldem noticed. And the Kemalists — the secular elite who dominated politics right here for many years till Mr. Erdogan’s triumph in 2003 — additionally used nationalist themes to spin tradition to their political ends. Turkey’s early cinema glorified the achievements of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Archaeological digs for Hittite antiquities aimed to provide the new republic with a past rooted much more deeply than Greece and Italy.

In the 2000s, Mr. Erdogan’s mix of Islamism and reformism had Turkey knocking on the door of the European Union. A brand new Istanbul was being feted within the international press. But the brand new Turkish nationalism has a distinct cultural solid: proudly Islamic, usually antagonistic, and generally a bit paranoid.

One of the sign cultural establishments of the Erdogan years is the Panorama 1453 History Museum, in a working-class district west of Hagia Sophia, the place schoolchildren uncover the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in a painted cyclorama. At one level, a portray within the spherical may need been immersion sufficient. Now it’s been souped up with blaring video projections, a wildly nationalist pageant styled just like the online game “Civilization.” Kids can watch Sultan Mehmed II cost towards Hagia Sophia, whereas his horse rears up in entrance of a celestial fireball.

There’s the same backward projection in Turkey’s tv dramas, that are massively common not simply right here however internationally, with a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands of viewers all through the Muslim world, in Germany, in Mexico, throughout. On exhibits corresponding to “Resurrection: Ertugrul,” a global hit a few Thirteenth-century Turkic chieftain, or “Kurulus: Osman,” a “Game of Thrones”-esque Ottoman saga airing each Wednesday right here, previous and current begin to merge.

“They are casting the discourse of Tayyip Erdogan in the antique ages,” mentioned Ayse Cavdar, a cultural anthropologist who’s studied these exhibits. “If Erdogan faces a struggle right now, it is recast in an Ottoman context, a fictional context. In this way, not the knowledge about today’s struggle, but the feeling of it, is spread through society.”

In these half-historical cleaning soap operas, the heroes are decisive, courageous, superb, however the polities they lead are fragile, teetering, menaced by outsiders. Ms. Cavdar famous how steadily the TV exhibits function leaders of an rising, endangered state. “As if this guy has not been governing the state for 20 years!” she mentioned.

Culture got here on the agenda in the course of the runoff, too, as Mr. Erdogan confirmed up to inaugurate the brand new residence of Istanbul Modern. The president had reward for the brand new Bosporus-side museum, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano — however he couldn’t assist bashing the creations of the earlier century, with what he described as a misguided abandonment of the Ottoman custom.

Now, the president promised, an genuine “Turkish century” was about to daybreak.

Assuming he wins on Sunday, his neo-Ottomanism can have survived its strongest take a look at in twenty years. The cultural figures with essentially the most to remorse are after all these in jail, however it’ll even be a bitter end result for the lecturers, authors and others who left the nation within the wake of Mr. Erdogan’s purges. “A.K.P.’s social engineering can be compared to monoculture in industrial agriculture,” mentioned Asli Cavusoglu, a younger artist who not too long ago had a solo present at New York’s New Museum. “There is one type of vegetable they invest in. Other plants — intellectuals, artists — are unable to grow, and that’s why they leave.”

Turkey’s minorities might face the best hazards. At the memorial museum for Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007, I regarded by means of copies of his unbiased newspaper and watched footage of his tv chat exhibits, every an admonishment of up to date Turkey’s constricted freedom of expression. “Civil society actors are becoming more prudent,” mentioned Nayat Karakose, who oversees the museum and is of Armenian descent. “They do events in a more cautious way.”

For Mr. Eldem, who has spent his profession finding out Ottoman historical past, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia and the “Tudors”-style TV dramas are all of a bit, and are much less assured than they appear. “Nationalism is not just glorification,” he mentioned. “It’s also victimization. You can’t have proper nationalism if you’ve never suffered. Because suffering gives you also absolution from potential misconduct.”

“So what the naïve Turkish nationalist, and especially neo-Ottomanist nationalist, wants,” he added, “is to bring together the idea of a glorious empire that would have been benign. That’s not a thing. An empire is an empire.”

But whether or not or not Mr. Erdogan wins the election on Sunday, there are headwinds that no quantity of cultural nationalism can stand towards: above all, inflation and a forex disaster that has bankers and monetary analysts flashing a red alert. “In that future, there’s no place for heritage,” Mr. Eldem mentioned. “The Ottomans are not going to save you.”

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