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'mocking religious beliefs': inside Turkey's crackdown on the queer community

April 02, 2021
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Turkey, #LGBTQ, #police brutality, #human rights
by:Yair Oded
In recent years, LGBTQ+ people in Turkey have faced escalating attacks from the nation's political and religious leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic's socio-economic and health crises have provided President Erdoğan and his allies with a pretext to intensify their assault on the queer community, branding them as "deviants" and falsely accusing them of spreading the virus.

This strategy seeks to shift public scrutiny away from the administration's mishandling of the pandemic and to stoke conservative and xenophobic sentiments, unifying their base against a scapegoated queer population.

The government’s anti-queer propoganda has led to a sharp rise in hate crimes and murders, especially targeting trans individuals. This state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia have spilled over into social media, where queer people face widespread bullying and harassment. 

The situation reached a tipping point in early 2021 following President Erdoğan's controversial decision to nominate Melih Bulu as Rector of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Bulu, an Erdoğan loyalyst, has a history of expressing anti-queer views, according to ILGA-Europe

In response to Bulu’s nomination, seen by many Turkish academics and activists as a stark infringement on academic freedom, thousands have been demonstrating in the streets of major cities across Turkey since January. Protesters are often met with brutal force by the police and are labelled by senior government officials as "terrorists" and "deviants," accused of endangering public safety and violating societal and religious norms.

FairPlanet spoke to Tuğkan Gündoğdu, activist and board member of SPoD - an Istanbul-based LGBTQI rights organisation, to learn more about the unfolding situation in Turkey and the impact it has on the queer community.

Tell us about the organisation you work with (SPoD). What type of campaigns do they run? And what is your role there?

Tuğkan Gündoğdu: I am a board member of SPoD, [which] is one of the biggest LGBTI+ organisations in the country and the biggest one in Istanbul, where the population of the LGBTI+ community is broader than in any city in Turkey. 

SPoD has been one of the main stakeholders in the LGBTI+ movement in Turkey. With its hotline, SPoD reaches more than [thousands of] people, mainly in the country, as well as outside of Turkey. With come-out meetings, SPoD gives LGBTI+s a safe and secure place where they can socialise in person.  

SPoD is an organisation that contributes to the academic world, as well. With Spring Seminars we bring academics, students and people interested in academic research together once a year. This year, the 10th Spring Seminar will be organised. Turkish works of literature are being analysed in detail at the event of Queer Perspective to the Turkish Literature.

In line with the principles of justice and equality, SPoD develops and applies rights-based social policies against heterosexism, patriarchy, militarism and discrimination on the basis of religious belief, language, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical characteristics, lifestyle or social status. We work to produce policies against any form of social status-based discrimination and social exclusion, as well as poverty and exploitation of labor. 

SPoD advocates for the rights of those whose gender identities are not recognised under the law and who are subjected to oppression, violence and discrimination due to not identifying with any predefined categories of identity. SPoD bases its work on international human rights laws and agreements, and reevaluates these texts through the lens of emerging human rights categories and interpretations. It defends the universality of human rights and is against a hierarchy of human rights. 

In what ways have you witnessed the crackdown on civil and human rights in Turkey over the past few months? 

Turkey’s civic space has lately been shrinking due to the tense political climate and the deterioration of democratic institutions. The climate of repression became more tangible during the state of emergency instituted just after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. 

According to Amnesty International’s report for Turkey, since the coup attempt, the government has suspended 160 media outlets and 370 NGOs, including three lawyers’ associations with human rights focus and women’s rights and humanitarian organisations in the southeast of the country. At the same time, Turkey has become the world’s biggest jail for journalists, with 175 journalists currently imprisoned, and many other media workers facing criminal charges. 

During the state of emergency, the Turkish government succeeded, with narrow popular support, to change the country’s constitution and replace its parliamentary system with a presidential governance model [which lacks] democratic institutions and self-control mechanisms for abuse of executive power, with many of the functions of the parliament being turned over to the president. 

With this extreme rising power, the ruling party repressed civil society leaders, actors, and organisations which are part of Turkey’s democratic integrity and fighting against human rights violations in the country. Multiple reports of international and regional human rights bodies have expressed an extreme and growing concern regarding attacks on a range of human rights defenders (HRDs). 

Has this had any particular effect on the LGBTQI community?

The oppressive climate greatly affected the rights of LGBTI+ people, human rights defenders and organisations working in the LGBTI+ rights field, who find themselves working in an increasingly conservative environment dominated by discrimination, bigotry and hate. 

LGBTI+ organisations have been a target for the government, especially since the 2014 Istanbul Pride March when 100,000 people gathered in Istiklal Street and Taksim square, following the Gezi Park protests when millions of people went out into the streets to protest the government’s authoritarian, anti-democratic and corrupt policies. 

While the crackdown on Turkey’s LGBTI+ movement had begun with the first ban to Istanbul Pride March in 2015, it had become more concrete in 2017 with an indefinite ban to all LGBTI+ themed events in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and the ensuing wave of bans happening around the country. 

Ongoing state-wide demonising and criminalising policies resulted in an LGBTI+ ban phenomenon across the country by the local authorities and governorates affecting pride marches and LGBTI+ themed events, including workshops, film screenings, panel discussions and press conferences which usually take place during the pride weeks. Right now, it is likely impossible to organise a public LGBTI+ themed event in Turkey. 

What are some of the tactics used by the Turkish government to promulgate anti-LGBTQI sentiments? Have they changed recently in any way?

What I have been observing is that the government's discourse about LGBTI+ issues has been smoothly changing from ‘morality’ to ‘terrorism’. They used to marginalise with references to the ‘public morality’, ‘public health’ and ‘religious values’, but now, they try to criminalise the rainbow flags and affiliations referencing to ‘terrorism’.

Tell us, from your perspective, about the circumstances that led to the protests against the nomination of Bulu as rector of Boğaziçi University. 

The rectors were used to be elected by the university lecturers in Turkey, but with the new presidential election system it changed, [and] now the president appoints all the rectors by himself. 

In Boğaziçi University of Istanbul, one of the popular and successful ones at the international level, students [and the] LGBTI+ community have been protesting against the anti-democratic appointment of the university's new rector since the beginning of January 2021. 

There was an art exhibition as a part of [the] protests in the campus and one of the artworks reportedly depicted [...] LGBTI+ rainbow symbols alongside the Kaaba, the building at the center of the Masjid al-Haram -the Great Mosque -in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the most sacred site in Islam. There was also an image of the Shahmaran, a popular Middle Eastern mythical creature, half woman and half snake.

This artwork went viral on social media and four students were taken into custody. The Minister of Internal Affairs targeted LGBTI+ people [involved with the exhibition] on Twitter saying that ‘4 LGBT perverts who committed the disrespect to the Kaaba were detained at Boğaziçi University’.

What was the authorities’ response to the incident?

[T]he governor of Istanbul made a public announcement saying that the artwork was an "ugly attack" that "mocked the religious beliefs," and the police raided the office of Boğaziçi’s LGBTI+ club and collected all the rainbows. The office of the governor also said that "terrorism related books and images were found" in the same announcement.

İbrahim Kalın, the chief adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said "neither freedom of expression nor the right to protest" could defend the artwork, adding the act would receive "the punishment it deserves before the law". 

The Chief of Religious Affairs also said that they will take the legal action against the students, [and] the rectorate of the university started an administrative investigation against those students. The Minister of Justice also stated that the judicial investigation started against those who committed the disrespect [...] A religious affiliated union called Mil-Diyanet Sen stated that they will apply to the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the request of immediate shut down of LGBTI+ associations on Monday.

After this nation-wide lynch campaign, even though lots of lawyers accompanied them all the night during the interrogation, two students immediately were arrested, and two [others] were sent to house arrest after their interrogation. 

Within the same week, President Erdoğan said that "Our youth won't be LGBT youth" in his speech, referring to the protests in Boğaziçi University. It is the first time that he used the term "LGBT" in his political life. 

The following week, 100+ people have been arrested in Istanbul and Izmir following protests against the targeting LGBTI+ community. Protests grew fastly, but the government's intervention also got harsher. 

How did the public react to the events?

There was a hashtag campaign against LGBTI+ people with #BoğaziçinceLGBTRezaleti (#LGBTDisgraceatBoğaziçi) and #KabeKutsalımızdır (#KaabaOurScred) and lots of hate speech shared on social media. 

A very religious group called Anadolu Gençlik (Anatolian Youth) organised a protest in Istanbul and targeted LGBTI+ people chanting they would die for Islam. 

A religious affiliated union called Mil-Diyanet Sen officially applied to the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the request of immediate shut down of LGBTI+ associations.

Do you see the crackdown on Turkey’s LGBTQ+ community as being part of a global trend? If so, how?

The trend of human rights has been losing its popularity at the global level, while populism and right-wing discourse have been rising at the same time and more populist leaders are being appreciated by their citizens now. In addition to that, as much as the international community failed to respond efficiently to those human rights violations, more violations continue taking place. 

There are lots of [similarities between] Vladimir Putin, Victor Orban, Andrzej Duda, co-chairs of AfD, Marine Le Pen and President Erdoğan. Those leaders need internal and external enemies in order to continue and justify their power in their countries and the LGBTI+ community is mostly an easy target as an internal enemy in those countries.  

Human rights violations happening in one of those countries encourages the other one. [The] ‘propaganda ban’ in Russia encouraged LGBTI+ free zones in Poland. LGBTI+ free zones in Poland encouraged the ban on gender studies and change in the transition law in Hungary. 

What happens in Hungary, Russia and Poland also encourages LGBTI+ bans and human rights violation of LGBTI+ community in Turkey. If Hungary and Poland, as EU member countries, can violate human rights of the LGBTI+ community, why can’t Turkey? 

What do you believe can be done right now to help queer people in Turkey - both from within the country and by the international community? 

This inevitable circle has to be stopped with [the] uniting of all the opponents, international solidarity and the establishing of a common ground for dialogue for human rights, democracy and freedom of thoughts regardless of our political, identical and cultural differences, and bearing the storm altogether.

Excerpts from this interview appear in a Screen Shot Media article about the crackdown on Turkey's LGBTQI community.

Image: cyberstudent99

Article written by:
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Yair Oded
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Boğaziçi University students protesting in Istanbul against the nomination of Melih Bulu as the university's Rector on 27 March, 2021
© NurPhoto
Embed from Getty Images
"President Erdoğan said that 'Our youth won't be LGBT youth' in his speech, referring to the protests in Boğaziçi University." Tuğkan Gündoğdu, activist and board member of SPoD
© NurPhoto
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