Turkey has long been known for its relatively liberal political system for the region, but over the past year the country has begun clamping down on free speech; 24 people were detained last summer after allegedly spreading anti-government sentiment on Twitter, and the government blocked Twitter and YouTube in the days leading up to local elections this past March. Now, the video artist Ali Kazma, who represented the country at the 2013 Venice Biennale, has published an online protest statement titled “Something Rotten in the Republic of Turkey.”
In his essay, Kazma condemns ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) identity politics, which he claims pit the poorer Islamist sectors of society against the wealthy, more educated classes in order to maintain power. Regarding Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, he writes:
He knows and exploits the fact that while it might be difficult to make someone understand the subtleties of personal freedom and the necessity of checks and balances in a political system, everyone will understand and react if one believes one is slighted or snubbed. Erdogan mobilizes a curious mixture of raw aggression and pathological inferiority complex that feeds on real, perceived, calculated or imagined insults.
Kazma goes on:
Statistically, educated Turks do not vote for AKP … It is rather in the interest of AKP to keep education low and possibly substitute religious schooling instead. This does not bode well for the future of the country. It seems like the interest of AKP lies in mobilizing the regressive parts of the society financially upwards while maintaining their low education levels, gender inequality and intellectual curiosity. We are already witnessing an explosion of violence against women, kitsch aesthetics and a celebration of vindictive vulgarity in public spaces and the popular media. And when you say or write this opinion in Turkey, you are one of the ‘elite’, the ‘snob’, the one who has no respect for ‘the real people’.
The artist isn’t the only one speaking out. Regarding the recent social media censoring, Istanbul-based art dealer Kerimcan Güleryüz told The Art Newspaper, “Everything is very chaotic, the government has a stranglehold on almost all levels of the judiciary system and is leading a private vendetta against anyone who is in opposition.”
Another blow to civil liberties came this past Friday, when the Turkish parliament adopted a law expanding the powers of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT). It allows the government to wiretap citizens without a court order and force private companies to hand over consumer data, among other things. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth told the newspaper Hürriyet that under the law, Pulitzer Prize winners like those at the Guardian and Washington Post who broke the NSA story could be subject to prosecution.
Kazma’s and Güleryüz’s statements aren’t the first time members of Turkey’s art community have criticized the government. Last June, performance artist Erdem Gündüz protested its policies by spending eight hours standing motionless in Taksim Square before an image of the country’s secular founding father, Mustafa Kemel Ataturk. Three hundred people joined his silent vigil, and police eventually forced them all to leave. Additional protests were met with tear gas and stun grenades.