A poster featuring Mecca's sacred shrine with LGBTQ flags in an exhibition at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey (courtesy of Boğaziçi Solidarity)

For weeks, students and faculty at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s top academic institutions, have been protesting president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political appointment of Melih Bulu, a loyalist, to head the school as rector. On January 29, the conflict escalated when Turkish authorities detained five students on charges of “inciting hatred and insulting religious values” for showcasing a poster depicting Mecca’s sacred Kaaba shrine with LGBTQI+ flags. Two of the students were jailed pending trial, and two others were put under house arrest. One person has been released. The arrests led to larger protests this week that ended in the detention of 159 students, who were subsequently released.

The controversial poster, made by an anonymous artist, combines the pagan Anatolian mythical creature Shahmeran, half-woman and half-snake, and various LGBTQ flags (including ones representing the lesbian, transgender, and asexual communities) with a prayer rug featuring Islam’s holiest site. The poster was one of over 400 pieces by more than 150 artists commissioned by the student art collective BOUN Sanat Direnişi for an open-door exhibition.

A wall text by the artist read in Turkish: “The symbol of Shahmeran is ironically highly venerated in Anatolia […] By placing this symbol at the center of the greatest driver of collective misogyny, organized religion, I wanted to take the covert and deep struggle of Anatolian women one step forward.” (The text was translated by a Boğaziçi student who preferred to remain anonymous.)

Bulu, the disputed rector, tweeted that an attack on Islamic values was unacceptable and had no place at the university, according to the Associated Press (AP). Bulu is a businessman and a long-time Justice and Development Party (AKP) member.

Turkey’s top officials also followed the arrests with a series of homophobic statements. Earlier this week, the country’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu called the students “LGBT deviants” and “bastards” in tweets that Twitter has since flagged for violating its policies hateful conduct. “Should we tolerate the LGBT deviants who insult the great Kaaba? Of course not,” the minister wrote in one of the tweets.

In a speech on Monday, February 1, Erdoğan applauded his party’s youth organization for not being LGBT. “We’ll carry our youth to the future, not as LGBT youth, but like the youth from this country’s glorious past. You are not the LGBT youth,” Erdoğan said during an online conference.

Yesterday, the president promised to intensify the government’s crackdown on the ongoing protests, calling the student organizers “terrorists.”

Since January 4, students at Boğaziçi, an institution known for its liberal leanings, have been calling for Bulu’s resignation, criticizing his appointment as an illegitimate political intervention by the ruling party.

“This is clearly a politically-motivated appointment,” a student who is involved in the protests told Hyperallergic on condition on anonymity, out of fear of retaliation. The student organizer added that rectors are usually appointed in an election among the university’s academics.

“The government could not effectively challenge the student’s demands, so it chose to prey on hatred towards LGBT people,” the student continued. “We will not allow that.”

Kenan Behzat Sharpe, a writer for the online Turkish publication Gazete Duvar who has also taught at Boğaziçi, told Hyperallergic that a negative attitude towards the LGBTQ community is an entrenched problem in Turkish society.

“There’s been a long war on LGBTQ people in Turkey,” Sharpe said. “It’s a cultural war in which you score some points for being anti-gay.”

According to Sharpe, one of Bulu’s first actions in office was to ban the university’s LGBTQ student club, although it had no involvement in the controversial exhibition.

Professors at the university have been largely supportive of their students. Images online have shown faculty members staging protests in their full academic regalia, symbolically turning their backs to the university president’s office.

“Not a single academic is currently cooperating with the new rector,” the student told Hyperallergic. “He’s completely isolated. He couldn’t even find an assistant.”

Meanwhile, all academic activity at the university has been suspended in a crisis that swelled to a national scale.

“These past few days have shown that large parts of the public, including many youth organizations, support our protests,” the student said. “We did not expect this snowball to become an avalanche.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...