The paradox is that this society is scarred by sharp disagreements and divisions of opinion despite the remarkable path of reform trodden over the past decade. When I ended 2010 with an article naively conveying expectations that this year would be the year of tolerance, it was for a reason. Including this newspaper, each and every institution and social segment has within it differences of opinion and, yes, this is the norm of every democratic order.
But in order for dissent to breathe the air of no fear, a sine qua non is freedom. The need for that is equally divided, whether for a large majority or a single individual against the rest. Freedom is the common cause and aim, if sincerity rules the processes of democratization.
The year began, sadly, in an opposite mood. Intolerance is in the air again.
It was first about the TV series “The Magnificent Century,” which depicts the era of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, with the ingredients of uninhibited eroticism and various forms of hedonism. It did not take long before protests took over with the tiresome theme of “distorting history” and the minister who oversees press regulations, Bülent Arınç, intervening with a call to remove it from the screen.
It was followed by another controversy over the weekend, this time kicked off by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While visiting Kars, a province bordering Armenia, made famous by a novel by Orhan Pamuk, he commented on a big statue, still under construction, saying: “They put a monstrosity there, next to the tomb of [Muslim scholar] Hasan Harakani. It is impossible to think that such a thing should exist next to fundamental works of art.” Erdoğan also expressed the hope that the statue, 35 meters high and depicting two “half” human beings facing each other with a gap in between, would be demolished by the time he comes again.
The “Statue of Humanity,” as it is called, is the work of renowned sculptor Mehmet Aksoy, a very well known and deeply respected artist in EU circles. It was commissioned by the former mayor of Kars, Naif Alibeyoğlu, in 2006. For Kars, long suffering the closed border with Armenia, this was a project to highlight the desire to “meet each other” and to reach reconciliation. The irony was that the mayor was elected from a list of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the decision to erect the statue then was made unanimously by all parties in the local city council. The Council of Monuments gave its go-ahead.
Later that year, the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) local leaders changed their mind and filed a complaint that it was being built on illegitimate grounds. The same council also changed its mind and stopped the project, which already had already risen to 35 meters. When Alibeyoğlu was left out of the AK Party list and replaced by a conservative member, Nevzat Akkuş, as the new mayor in 2009, things took a nasty turn. The new mayor removed all the statues from the city and promised that the huge statue would also be demolished.
No matter how much “damage control” Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay does, Erdoğan’s latest remarks irked those who had expected a further enhancement of freedom and tolerance. They fall in sharp contrast to the diagnosis that Turkey suffers deeply from disrespect of diversity of opinion, but it also reveals inherent intolerance for artists. Erdoğan, who was sentenced to prison in a clear breach of respect for free speech after reciting a poem, should know better, is the judgment.
Are the cases of “The Magnificent Century” and the “freak statue” symbols of growing conservatism? “Yes” would be a shallow response. In a much broader context, it is a picture of Turkey -- and its people -- that are the hostages of a deeply rooted taboo culture. When the movie “Mustafa,” which is about Atatürk, was shown recently, the entire Kemalist segment hit the roof, simply because he was depicted with a number of weaknesses and recurrent depression. A group of Republican People’s Party (CHP)-linked youths not long ago stormed an exhibition making a mockery of “the Atatürk cult.” Those who demonstrated in front of the Show TV headquarters against the Süleyman series or those who supported the remarks against the statue were silent about the others’ intolerance and, of course, vice versa.
So it goes on and on. The entire history of the republic was marked, in one way or another, with the urge of the power to conduct social engineering and design the “proper lifestyle” for the people. The risk now is the corrupting characteristic of power, again. Those who represent tolerant conservatism within the AK Party should revisit the results of the referendum and raise their voices against the tendencies of intolerance -- for freedom and to let the other live in freedom, together, side by side.
The people here no longer want to be treated like children; those days should end.