Weekly Review: Further evidence of Erdoğan’s lifelong political goal

Turkey wrapped up another week that echoed its contentious decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, bringing into question the country’s tumultuous journey with secularism.

In Istanbul, the country’s top state religious authority razed an Ottoman-era brewery, in another move erasing Turkey’s secular legacy that fails to impress the Islamist government headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Halk TV reported on Sunday that construction teams in Istanbul began to demolish the city’s historic Bomonti Beer Factory complex, which Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) will replace with an Islamic cultural centre it will run.

Built in 1890, the Bomonti Beer Factory was the first brewery established in the Ottoman Empire. In 1991, its beer-producing operation came to a halt, and the building was cleared out before the property became a tourism centre in 1998. During its time as a brewery, its gardens were popular among many, including women.

The factory demolition followed over a week after another – yet more divisive – government-issued transformation from a cultural-tourism site into an Islamic structure: the Hagia Sophia landmark.

Erdoğan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia a mosque on July 10, after a top court ruled the 6th-century historical site’s conversion to a museum by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was illegal. The Religious Affairs Directorate was also given administrative control over the UNESCO Heritage Site.

The president’s decree constituted a major step for his party in fulfilling a long-standing demand by their core Islamist voter base.

“Throughout his career, Erdoğan has systematically chipped away at the secular foundations Atatürk laid in the 1920s and ‘30s, by encouraging overt expressions of religiosity in government as well as society,” said Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh in an op-ed published on Monday.

“With the sacralising of the Hagia Sophia, which had been secularised by Atatürk in 1934, the president can drop the pretence. The Turkish state is now an expression of Erdogan’s ideal more than it is Atatürk’s.”

Meanwhile, the death of a famous Turkish entertainer on Friday ignited heated remarks by colleagues in the entertainment industry against government censorship.

Seyfi Dursunoğlu had built his decades-long performing career on a cross-dressing persona name “Huysuz Virjin” (Ill-tempered Virgin), becoming a celebrity with his own TV programme, “Huysuz Show”.

However, Dursunoğlu announced in 2007 that he would no longer portray Huysuz Virjin, citing pressure and censorship by state broadcasting regulator RTÜK on TV channels that showed his programme.

Fans did not forget the government action taken against him, as shown shortly after state officials gave their condolences for the entertainer’s passing.

Turkish writer and production designer Gani Müjde had tweeted on Saturday: “The Huysuz Virjin show, which did not pose a legal threat, was not broadcast on TV for years due to RTÜK. This is the kind of supra-law authority that arises when institutions that should be regulating are involved in inspection and jurisdiction. And then come the crocodile tears. ‘He was such and such kind of invaluable entertainer,’ etc.”

RTÜK’s move against Dursunoğlu was widely seen as a means to stifle lifestyle choices and realities deemed “un-Islamic” by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, as shown on Saturday with reports about negotiations breaking down between streaming platform Netflix and state officials the over a gay character featured in a popular Turkish series.

The dispute revolves a coming-of-age comedy drama Aşk 101 (Love 101) that featured a storyline surrounding a gay high school student RTÜK wanted censored.

Turkey's LGBTI+ community has faced considerable discrimination and hostility under Erdoğan’s rule. In 2019, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) said that Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia were the worst ranked countries in Europe for LGBTI+ rights. 

This anti-LGBTI+ sentiment was displayed when news reports came out of AKP officials discussing the possibility of withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention and Turkish Law No.6284, both of which call for increased support services for women and children, including rape crisis centres and women’s shelters, and providing a framework for protection from domestic and gender-based violence.

During an AKP central committee meeting, Erdoğan pointed to Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary, which all withdrew from the convention over concerns on LGBTI+ rights, saying that he too favoured Turkey’s withdrawal as well, pro-government newspaper Türkiye reported on Wednesday.

The Istanbul Convention, contrary to mainstream conservative opposition to its content, does not explicitly promote LGBTI+ rights, but bans discrimination in access to public services and support services regarding gendered violence. The convention also stipulates that cultural elements cannot be accepted as defence during trials related to gendered violence, such as honour killings or what is colloquially known as the “gay panic defence”, where defendants say they did not know their partner had been male.

Turkey analysts believe that Erdoğan seeks to distract his waning voter base from Turkey’s economic distress with wins for his Islamist ideology such as the Hagia Sophia’s conversion.

Along with a plethora of indicators signifying Turkey’s economic despair, the country’s $35-billion tourism industry, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, risks another blow after the European Union, a major source of tourists looking to forget their own outbreak experiences with a beach-time summer holiday, excluded Turkey from a list of countries safe for travel.

Turkey has seen a rise in daily recorded coronavirus cases after Erdoğan’s administration began to significantly ease COVID-19 restrictions on June 1.

Turkish economist Uğur Gürses said the tourism industry will lose $20 billion in the second half of 2020, after the central bank’s foreign currency reserves dissolved.

Turkey’s central bank – urged on by the government – has used up tens of billions of dollars of its foreign exchange reserves to prevent the lira from weakening. 

“This (government intervention in the economy) is the attitude of ‘Let’s leave debris to those who will come after us’ without thinking about the country,” Gürses said on Twitter on Friday, presenting a graph by Turkey's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) of the slumping net foreign exchange position of Turkish public banks.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.