Pop icon Sezen Aksu targeted, as 'Talibanisation' of Turkey accelerates
The demonisation campaign against the artists and secular music has found a new target: "The little sparrow". The new "public enemy" is Sezen Aksu, a living monument, an icon of Turkish popular music loved by millions.
But now, as events developed on Friday, she is being demonised and targeted directly by President Erdoğan himself. Following the Friday prayer in Istanbul, Erdoğan stood at the altar (mihrab) of the mosque and delivered a speech, openly threatening her, mentioning "ripping off her tongue".
The fresh controversy is, at the core, about Adam and Eve, which she mentions in a song. Outrage in Islamist circles burst out some days ago when she reposted the song "How Wonderful is It To Live" on social media, which she had released in 2017. Suddenly, after all these years, it seemed, fanatic pro-government groups had discovered the crime in the lyrics: "Onboard on a gizmo/heading to the apocalypse/regards to the ignoramus Adam and Eve".
All hell broke loose. A group led by a conservative lawyer filed a complaint against her, claiming she had "denigrated the religious values, insulted the prophet Adam, in order to incite hatred." It was just the beginning. Rapidly, Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the ultra-nationalist party, MHP, entered the scene, threatening Aksu, "If you are a sparrow, act like a sparrow, not like a raven". Several voices from the MHP's partner in power, the AKP, followed. "Enough! Stop insulting our sacred values!" said one AKP figure.
The saga took another vicious turn when the mighty "Directorate of Religious Affairs" (Diyanet), which represents only the Sunni segment in Turkey to the dismay of other creeds, published a statement accusing Aksu of having no respect for religious values and figures. Emboldened and encouraged by what later developed into a hate campaign, a mob calling themselves "Movement of National Survival" (Milli Beka) gathered outside Aksu's house, loudly condemning her and using threatening language. There were no reactions from the authorities.
And on Friday, entered Erdoğan. In the mosque, stepping on the sacred altar, he didn't hesitate to deliver a political talk. With the imam standing at his side, he brought up the subject of Aksu. "There are no ends in these insults. It will be you who should stand against all of them,” he said while pointing at the mosque assembly. "No tongue can dare touch prophet Adam. And, when the time comes, it is our duty to rip off those tongues!"
This was clearly hate speech, by the top political figure in Turkey, which should be, given the growing social tensions in Turkey, seen as incitement to hatred and sheer abetment.
With this worrisome episode developing, the deep social cleavage is once again on display. Aksu might have been surprised to see that those who backed her rights to express herself were so few. Only the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, and a small pocket of musician friends, such as pop stars Mustafa Sandal, Sıla, Tarkan and Zülfü Livaneli stood up. Large parts of Turkey's music community remained silent: Such are sentiments in Turkey.
"We can't breathe here anymore, Yavuz. I wonder how it will be possible to live in this country soon. Whichever part I look at, I see only nightmares," one of Turkey's most famous rock and pop composers, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me over the telephone.
Sezen Aksu, isolated at her home, also remains silent, maybe hoping that the storm will calm down. It may not after Erdoğan's intervention. She may easily find herself facing a court case. She may need to avoid concerts and public appearances given the delirious regime supporters wanting to publicly lynch her.
Demonisation of artists, known for their secular, leftist, reformist stands, are not new; it is an ongoing but rapidly escalating trend in Turkey.
Days before the Aksu episode, Tarkan, another pop icon, was threatened by zealots who claimed that in his song, the word "djuppa" (which means something like "jump") exposed his desire for "junta". Recently, BabaZula, a famous Turkish psychedelic folk group, battled successfully against Spotify, which they claimed had removed their song "Don't Obey" from the playlists. It was placed back, but the chilling effects are already at play among musicians.
The targetting of Aksu is a peak point in hate campaigns, which more and more raises concerns about "Talibanisation" in Turkey. The point is, it seems very "useful" for Erdoğan's regime to keep the wedge in social divides deep, especially very popular figures of the "opposition camp".
In this, Sezen Aksu, with her background as a "daughter of the city of Izmir", a city whose nickname is "infidel" (gavur) because of its centuries-long multi-cultural fabric, is seen as the perfect choice.
Ever since she entered the pop music stage, from 1975 on, she has been a staunch supporter of minority rights, women's struggle for equality, and environmental issues. She backed the Kurdish Peace Talks and constitutional reform. She was the first artist present when LGBT flags were waved on stage in a concert in 2013 - thus seen as a gay icon.
A decade ago, during the EU reform process, she gave a legendary, unforgettable concert in Ephesus, gathering Anatolia's voices in Kurdish, Armenian, Arabic, Pontic, Ladino, etc.
This portfolio is certainly more than enough for a witch hunt in today's Turkey.
We are talking about a diva who, together with Ajda Pekkan and MFO, laid the foundations of modern Turkish pop, selling over 40 million records. Not long ago, NPR named her "One of the 50 Great Voices on Earth".
She may be compared, perhaps with Edith Piaf (her nickname refers to the French singer), the late Fairuz of Lebanon and the great Maria Bethania of Brazil.
In Istanbul, she was my neighbour. The last time I saw her was at a small circle party in honour of Orhan Pamuk after he was given the Nobel Prize. It was late 2006, or in the first days of 2007, I can't recall exactly. How happy and hopeful she was then about the future of Turkey when we chatted.
She had no idea that all the heavenly dreams about her country, that she was the voice of, would collapse, and she would face a nightmare of the zealots due to her joyfully mocking lyrics about Adam and Eve.
For an artist of the world, this is hell. The international community should take her under its wings and show her that she is not alone. What we face daily in Turkey, regarding culture and arts, is medieval. It is the deja vu of the age of inquisition.