Turkey’s prudish PM

JAMES BRYAN wonders how the Turkish government’s humourless approach to public art fits with its supposed commitment to secularism.

Though his pronouncements insist that Turkey’s Kemalist secularism remains undiluted, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can’t seem to shake off innuendos about his past and that of his party. He and the Justice and Development party (AK) he leads have Islamist roots, emerging as they did as a faction of the tellingly named Virtue Party. In the years since the AK party have employed the classic conservative manoeuvre of converging piety and nationalism.

There has been plenty of heartache in the western media at the proliferation of headscarves and the lifting of the ban on said item for members of the civil service. Far more significant, but with less ink spilt over it, has been the government’s approach to public art, one which displays all the prudishness and humourlessness one would expect from either an Islamist, a nationalist, or some toxic brew of the two.

The planned demolition of a monument near to Kars of two statues reaching out to embrace each other is a study in art criticism, AK-style. The monument is sited near to Turkey’s border with Armenia; hence the significance of the statues’ pose and also the solemn offence that Erdogan has taken on behalf of the Turkish people and the military. Though it is not officially conceded that this is the reason for getting rid of it, it can be inferred that the monument’s existence would contradict the government’s denial of the genocide of Armenians during the Great War.

The statue is apparently also guilty of blasphemy of a different sort as it is sited near to the tomb of the 10th century (scholar) Hasan Harakani. Some Muslim scholars have declared this idolatrous. The AK Party can therefore satisfy religious sensibilities and offended national pride with one swing of a wrecking ball.

The demolition will be the symbolic consummation of Mr Erdogan’s rejection of the protocols agreed with Armenia in 2009 that sought to establish normal relations between the two countries. This is predictable; closely aligned with a preoccupation with deference to established religion in the puritan nationalist mindset is the tendency to quarrel over marginal lands; in this case the predominantly Armenian statelet of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Officially it has been conveniently argued that the Kars monument does not complement the distinctive Ottoman and Russian character of the city, the long Armenian heritage of Kars having mysteriously evaporated along with its inhabitants.

We can add priggishness to Mr Erdogan’s list of dismal cultural hang-ups. Nevzat Bozkuş, the mayor of Kars (in what must have been a dizzying rush of civic tidying ahead of a visit by the boss) removed bare-breasted nymphs from a public fountain on the grounds that they were an offence to public decency.