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May 23, 2012, Wednesday

Turkey’s ‘culture wars’ and a tale of neo-Orientalism

The proposal by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government to privatize theaters in Turkey has sparked a lively debate about the state of the arts in Turkey. This must be good news, one would assume, for lovers of traditional and modern art. The debate has extended from art circles to international commentators, inviting a healthy mix of responses. While there is no universal standard to determine the state of the arts in the world except some statistics and the art world’s own criteria, which remain mostly a mystery to the non-initiate, the way the debate is being formulated reveals larger issues of culture and its sociopolitical context.

In a rather curious way, some have called the recent debate over theaters in Turkey the beginning of a new “culture war.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has finally begun to show, the critics argue, his religious-conservative colors, and with the self-confidence of a third-term premiership and growing popular support, he can get his way no matter what. A newspaper report went so far as to make the startling claim that Erdoğan decided to privatize theaters after an actor, in an attempt to humiliate his daughter wearing a headscarf and sitting in the front row, pointed fingers at her in the middle of a play and made Maori “haka” gestures at her. She left the play in protest and the incident made the news the next day. The artist was called upon to apologize, he refused, those in power got angry, decided to teach these cocky artists a lesson, and so on.

The neo-Ottoman narrative that imagines Turkey to be the land of sultans wastes no time turning this into a story of imperial power and authoritarianism. Here is another Muslim country, the story tells us, trying hard to model itself on the West but can never get it right. It makes a genuine effort to modernize, but its good intentions are trumped by its innate qualities, i.e., its history, culture, religion, people… all of which are eventually flawed and lend themselves to be misused by power-hungry, populist politicians.

This vulgar neo-Orientalism of recent times has caught up also with those who believe the new Turkey is pulling the rug from under feet and that the demise of their old, unquestioned privileges is also the end of a modern, developed Turkey. The appeal of this neo-Orientalist narrative, presented as a neo-Ottoman fact of modern Turkey, runs so deep that it permeates everything from politics and urban development to the revival of popular history, foreign policy and, yes, the arts.

The facts, however, speak of a different reality. Privatizing theaters is not an earth-shattering event and certainly not a signature of imperial ambitions. Many countries in Europe, the US and other parts of the world have no state-funded “official theaters” and the actors are not government employees. Instead, the government provides funding to private theaters. Theater groups then devise their own programs and apply for state funding. In some cases, the funding is provided by local councils, city authorities and municipalities. France has a mixture of semi-official, state-funded and private theaters, which is similar to the case in Turkey.

The Turkish government proposes to make theaters private and autonomous with a pledge to continue to provide funding for plays. Private and independent theaters can also apply for private funding and find their own sponsors. Furthermore, the theater halls, owned and managed by the government, will continue to be available to all theaters. This is more or less the practice in many countries.

As a matter of fact, the government has provided more funds for theaters than any other government in the past. For example, since 2003, 35 new theaters have been opened, thus bringing the total number to 58. While the number of seats was over 8,000 in 2002, today it is over 20,000. During the same period, the government has sponsored 162 private theaters.

But the real story lies not so much in numbers but in the revelations the so-called “culture wars” in Turkey make. Reading Turkey’s process of normalization as a return to an imaginary Ottoman period and then summing it all up under the rubric of authoritarianism (“Putinization” is another popular phrase) is to mistake fancy for reality. Turkey is not regressing in arts or economic opportunities or political representation. To the contrary, a revival of both traditional and modern art is becoming more and more unmistakable. But the neo-Orientalist lenses through which Turkey is screened and scrutinized presents a distorted picture -- a picture that speaks neither to the realities of Turkey nor to the presumed standards of a global civilization.

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