How Erdogan reoriented Turkish culture to maintain his power
As the final sun set before the first round of voting in the toughest election of his two-decade reign, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Hagia Sophia for evening prayers – and to remind his constituents what he had delivered.
For nearly a millennium, the domed cathedral was the epicenter of Orthodox Christianity. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it became one of the finest mosques in the Islamic world. In the 1930s, the new Turkish republic proclaimed it a museum, and for nearly a century its overlapping Christian and Muslim histories made it Turkey’s most visited cultural site.
President Erdogan was not so ecumenical: in 2020, he converted it into a mosque. When Turks return to the polls this Sunday for the presidential run-off, they will vote in part on the political ideology behind this cultural metamorphosis.
Now join the crowds at the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, leaving your shoes on the new long racks in the inner narthex, and you can barely catch a glimpse of the mosaics of Christ and the Virgin, now discreetly sheathed in white curtains. The famous marble floor has been covered with a thick turquoise carpet. The sound is duller. The light is brighter thanks to the golden chandeliers. Right at the entrance, in a simple frame, a presidential proclamation: a monumental blow to the nation’s secular century, and the affirmation of a new Turkey worthy of its Ottoman heyday.
“Hagia Sophia is the crowning achievement of this neo-Ottomanist dream,” said Edhem Eldem, a history professor at Istanbul Bogazici University. “It’s essentially a transposition of political and ideological struggles, of debates, of polemical points of view, into the realm of a very, very primitive understanding of history and the past.”
If the hallmark of 21st century politics is the ascendancy of culture and identity over economy and class, you could say it was born here in Turkey, home to one of the longest wars cultures of all. And over the past 20 years, in grand monuments and schlocky soap operas, restored archaeological sites and retro new mosques, Mr Erdogan has reoriented Turkish national culture, promoting a nostalgic revival of the Ottoman past – sometimes in a grandiose style, sometimes as pure kitsch.
After surviving a tight first round of voting earlier this month, he is now favorite to win a runoff on Sunday against Common Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. His resilience, as poll after poll predicted his defeat, certainly expresses his party’s systematic control over the Turkish media and courts. (Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, downgraded Turkey from “partially free” to “not free” in 2018.) But authoritarianism is about more than ballots and bullets. Television and music, monuments and memorials have all been the main levers of a political project, a campaign of cultural resentment and national rebirth, which culminated in May on the blue-green carpets under the dome of Sainte- Sophie.
Outside of Turkey, this cultural shift is often referred to as “Islamist”, and Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, have indeed allowed religious practices that were once banned, such as the wearing of headscarves by women in Turkey. public institutions. A museum of Islamic civilizations, complete with a “digital dome” and light projections in the style of the immersive Van Gogh experience, opened in 2022 in Istanbul’s new largest mosque.
Yet this election suggests that nationalism, rather than religion, may be the real driver of Mr. Erdogan’s cultural revolution. His celebrations of the Ottoman past — and the resentment of his would-be enemies, whether in the West or at home — went hand in hand with nationalist efforts unrelated to Islam. The country has mounted aggressive campaigns for the return of Greco-Roman antiquities from Western museums. Foreign archaeological teams have seen their permits withdrawn. Turkey stands at the dark vanguard of a trend seen everywhere now, especially in the United States: a cultural politics of perpetual grievance, where even in victory you are outraged.
For writers, artists, scholars and singers in this country, facing censorship or worse, the prospect of a change of government was less a matter of political preference than of practical survival. Since 2013, when an Occupy-style protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park directly targeted his government, Mr. Erdogan has taken a hard turn toward authoritarian rule. Many cultural figures remain imprisoned, including architect Mucella Yapici, filmmakers Mine Ozerden and Cigdem Mater, and arts philanthropist Osman Kavala. Writers like Can Dundar and Asli Erdogan (no relation), who were imprisoned during purges following a failed military coup against Mr Erdogan in 2016, live in exile in Germany.
More than a dozen concerts were canceled last year, including a recital by violinist Ara Malikian, of Armenian origin, and a concert by pop-folk singer Aynur Dogan, of Kurdish origin. Tensions reached an eerie crescendo this month, shortly before the first round of voting, when a Kurdish singer was stabbed to death at a ferry terminal after refusing to sing a Turkish nationalist song.
In the days following the first round of voting, I met Banu Cennetoglu, one of the country’s most acclaimed artists, whose commemoration of a Kurdish journalist at the 2017 edition of the exhibition of Documenta contemporary art was acclaimed abroad but aggravated at home. “What is scary now compared to the 90s, which was also a very difficult time, especially for the Kurdish community, is that then you could guess where the evil was coming from,” he told me. -she says. “And now it could be anyone. It’s much more random. »
The strategy worked. Independent media have declined. Self-censorship is commonplace. “All arts and cultural institutions have been extremely silent for five years,” Ms Cennetoglu said. “And for me, that’s unacceptable, as an artist. Here’s my question: when do we activate the red line? When do we say no and why?”
Nationalism is not new in Türkiye. “Everyone and his uncle are nationalists in this country,” Mr. Eldem observed. And the Kemalists – the secular elite who dominated politics here for decades until Mr Erdogan’s triumph in 2003 – have also used nationalist themes to transform the culture for their political ends. Turkey’s early cinema glorified the achievements of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Archaeological excavations of Hittite antiquities aimed to endow the new republic with a past even more deeply rooted than Greece and Italy.
In the 2000s, Mr. Erdogan’s mixture of Islamism and reformism caused Turkey to knock on the door of the European Union. A new Istanbul was celebrated in the foreign press. But the new Turkish nationalism has another cultural identity: proudly Islamic, often antagonistic and sometimes a bit paranoid.
One of the flagship cultural institutions of the Erdogan years is the Panorama 1453 history museum, in a working-class neighborhood west of Hagia Sophia, where schoolchildren learn about the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in a painted cyclorama. At one point, a painting in the round might have sufficed for immersion. Now it’s been pumped up with thundering video projections, a savage nationalistic spectacle resembling the “Civilization” video game. Children can watch Sultan Mehmed II charge towards Hagia Sophia, as his horse rears up in front of a ball of celestial fire.
There is a similar projection in Turkish TV dramas, which are extremely popular not only here but internationally, with hundreds of millions of viewers across the Muslim world, Germany, Mexico, everywhere. In shows such as “Resurrection: Ertugrul,” an international hit about a 13th-century Turkish chieftain, or “Kurulus: Osman,” a “Game of Thrones”-style Ottoman saga airing every Wednesday here, past and present begin to merge.
“They project Tayyip Erdogan’s speech to ancient times,” said Ayse Cavdar, a cultural anthropologist who has studied these broadcasts. “If Erdogan faces a struggle right now, it is reframed in an Ottoman context, a fictional context. In this way, not the knowledge of today’s struggle, but the feeling of it, is diffused in society.
In these semi-historic soap operas, the heroes are decisive, courageous, glorious, but the policies they direct are fragile, tottering, threatened by strangers. Ms. Cavdar noted how often TV shows feature the leaders of an emerging and vanishing state. “As if this guy hasn’t been governing the state for 20 years!” she says.
Culture was also on the agenda in the second round, when Mr Erdogan showed up to inaugurate Istanbul Modern’s new home. The president praised the new museum on the Bosphorus side, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano – but he couldn’t help but disparage the creations of the previous century, with what he described as a misguided abandonment of the Ottoman tradition.
Now, the president promised, a genuine “Turkish century” was about to dawn.
Assuming he wins on Sunday, his neo-Ottomanism will have survived its toughest test in two decades. The most regrettable cultural figures are of course those in prison, but it will also be a bitter toll for the scholars, authors and others who left the country following Mr. Erdogan’s purges. “AKP’s social engineering can be compared to monoculture in industrial agriculture,” said Asli Cavusoglu, a young artist who recently had a solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York. “There’s a type of vegetable they invest in. Other plants – intellectuals, artists – can’t grow, and that’s why they leave.”
Turkish minorities could face the greatest risks. At the memorial museum of Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist murdered in 2007, I flipped through copies of his independent newspaper and watched images from his TV shows, each a warning of contemporary Turkey’s restricted freedom of expression. . “Civil society actors are becoming more cautious,” said Nayat Karakose, who oversees the museum and is of Armenian descent. “They organize events more cautiously.”
For Mr. Eldem, who has spent his career studying Ottoman history, the conversion of Hagia Sophia and the “Tudors” television series are one and the same, and are less confident than it seems. “Nationalism is not just glorification,” he said. “It is also victimization. You cannot have proper nationalism if you have never suffered. Because suffering also gives you absolution from potential misbehavior.
“So what the naïve Turkish nationalist, and especially the neo-Ottomanist nationalist, wants,” he added, “is to bring together the idea of a glorious empire that would have been benign. It is not one thing. An empire is an empire.
But whether or not Mr. Erdogan wins Sunday’s election, there are headwinds that no cultural nationalism can resist: above all, inflation and a currency crisis that has bankers and financial analysts sounding a red alert. “In this future, there is no place for heritage,” Mr. Eldem said. “The Ottomans are not going to save you.”