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April 30, 2012, Monday

Turkey’s Western values

Turkey’s only Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk has written an analysis of Turkey, which was published by German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel on Sunday. Pamuk says he finds it quite normal that Turkey has elected a conservative government. However, he further adds that he would be suspicious if Turkey did not continue to care about Western values. What Pamuk points out is a paradox that seems to be peculiar to Islamic societies.

Democracy, a Western value, brings the conservative parties to power. And as a Western value, democracy is being promoted by the religious-conservative political parties. And then? In the aftermath, other Western values including freedom, secularism, individualism, and respect for diversity are violated by the conservative administrations. Pamuk refers to this dilemma. But is there really such a dilemma?

Let’s look at the performing arts for a better understanding of the core of this dilemma; we need to focus on the ongoing discussion with respect to theatre.

Drama as an art and value is an idea that was imported from the West. This art which was transferred in the late period of the Ottoman Empire as part of Westernization efforts has made progress in the hands of non-Muslims because acting was not welcome for women in the Muslim tradition.

But because the republican regime was eager to consolidate Westernization, the Western arts were promoted and fostered by the state. Traditional music was banned; a symphonic orchestra was set up under the auspices of the Office of the President; the Ministry of Culture institutionalized opera and ballet.

At the same time, state-run theaters were funded and launched to extend support for the dramatic arts. The actors and actresses employed in these theaters are civil servants who work on a monthly salary. There are currently many public-funded theaters in Turkey. The publicly-funded acting business is not limited to state-run theaters. A number of metropolitan municipalities including İstanbul, fund public theaters and pay salaries to their actors.

On the other hand, the employment spots are used for the purpose of nepotism. Artists who have never performed in a play can sign year-long contracts with producers of private TV series or movies, all as a result of their state contracts.

The İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality has ended this practice by making an amendment to the relevant directive. The prime minister welcomed this amendment, adding that he would take the privatization of the municipal and state theaters to the cabinet meeting. This means that it will no longer be possible to remain civil servants at the theaters. The prime minister represents a strong administration. He does what he says. This means that the theaters will be privatized. And besides, he expressed this decision by raising a polemic with the theater players: “Who are you? Do you hold a monopoly on the art of theater?”

The theater players rushed to react. The entire theater community has become outraged. In this way, a new discussion has emerged in Turkey. The actual question is the dilemma Pamuk referred to. Is the attempt to close down the state and municipal theaters an attitude against Western values?

We need to give an answer consistent with the realities of Turkey. Today, the theaters no longer play a role of conveying and promoting the Western values. In almost every university, there are departments on theater and stage arts. The success of Turkish TV soap operas and series in the world can be taken as a criterion. This means that the problem is not about the Western values. The issue is privatization of the theaters for further competition. Those who shut down the theaters go on to privatize them, whereas the protestors are opposed to the practice of privatization. But is it proper to pay salaries to the artists who have not performed in a play for a long time?

This means that the problems raised in reference to the Western values of Turkey are not really about Western values.

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