Does singing after dark pose a threat to public safety? The Ankara governor’s office thinks so. On May 26, it announced a comprehensive ban on protesting after dark that covers everything from singing folk songs and chanting in public to making news announcements and participating in any kind of assembly.
The announcement said that with the holy month of Ramadan underway, along with the arrival of spring weather, many people are drawn outside in the evenings, and singing and other such activity "disturbs our citizens, disrupts public order and security, increases the risk of terrorist organizations attacking [and] bombing communities, and makes it difficult for security forces to intervene in these events."
Bans on folk songs strike a nerve with Turks and have a bitter history in the country. Folk songs were banned from radio programs in Turkey from 1934 to 1936 with the goal of making Turkish music more Western. The ban backfired when people all around the country started listening to foreign radio stations.
Turkey's political system has indeed suffered from different ebbs and flows of cultural prohibitions for decades. In the mid-1980s, after a 1980 military coup, two prominent actors produced a cabaret theater show called "Yasaklar" ("Prohibitions") that ridiculed myriad social and cultural bans. Their underlying message was, “Turkey is a 'free' society and the government does not intrude on your private life — however, here are the bans you must obey.”
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in the early 2000s with the promise of “banning all the bans.” However, the number of AKP-era bans is reaching a scary tipping point with the prolonged emergency law that was imposed after a failed coup almost a year ago. It is quite ironic that the AKP has now started reintroducing the bans of an era it supposedly disdained.
The more people keep quiet and try to function with these confounding rules over their heads, the more complex and intrusive the restrictions have become over the years. Right now, for example, a recent regulation bans all goats and sheep from entering olive groves, yet if the government sees fit, any olive grove can be confiscated for mining and other industries. Years of reckless policies have produced not only useless bans for the public but also caused environmental disasters for the locals.
It is quite telling that on May 28, Erdogan attended a pro-AKP nongovernmental organization gathering where he vehemently complained about the AKP’s shortcomings in the fields of culture and societal leadership. Indeed, despite having all political and financial means needed, it is fair to say the AKP has utterly failed in the arts arena.
Prominent Islamist columnists for years have been complaining about the lack of cultural efforts. AKP elites regularly warn the public against widespread moral decay in Muslim young people. The Religious Affairs Directorate’s budget for 2016 indicates how deep these concerns are: For a program “to prevent the decay of morals," the directorate reserved 2.5 million Turkish liras ($710,000). It allotted 11 million Turkish liras ($3.1 million) to generate programs that would help produce Islamic information in accordance with science. The AKP’s struggle to Islamize Turkish society, a process of cultural cleansing as the party has proposed it, is producing a generation disconnected from Western values and alien to Islamic ones as well. This realization is causing a deep panic among Islamist elites.
Yet one wonders, with the official mindset of relentless control of citizens' personal lives, how can any government agency develop a cultural breakthrough and good morals? One of the reasons for the AKP’s failure is that social and cultural activities need a free market of ideas to flourish.
Erdogan keeps repeating his sardonic question, “When did we [AKP government] ever interfere in your personal life choices?” There are too many instances to cite! So why is the AKP generating ridiculous bans and engaging in petty legislation — enacted as emergency decrees — for regulating matters such as laser hair removal?
Timur Kuran, an economics and political science professor and Gorter family professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, provided crucial insights to this question.
“For many years, Erdogan and his team promised that they would not do to non-AKP people what Kemalists had done to the pious. They would be fairer. They would provide freedoms to their followers without taking away freedoms from others," Kuran said.
“All this has changed now. AKP officials are engaging in social engineering, partly to force their beliefs on others, partly as revenge and partly to score points by getting into the news." As just one example, he pointed to "out-of-the-blue" restrictions on alcohol consumption enacted June 1.
"I think, just as CHP [Republican People's Party] officials in the 1930s went to extremes on their own just to be noticed as loyal secularists, so today ambitious bureaucrats are announcing policies worthy of a post on Zaytung [a Turkish version of the satire website The Onion] just to be noticed. By this logic, the sillier the better. Prohibiting singing during Ramadan nights in summer is as silly as it can get. But it does catch attention. Erdogan himself sets the pattern through juvenile, out-of-the-blue policies of his own. His impulsive decree changing all arenas into stadiums will one day go into history books as an example of the Erdogan era’s surreal character.”
Kuran also had a warning about the implications of such erratic decisions. “AKP has lost popular support, and these types of policies are not helping. This means that to stay in power, the AKP will need to rely increasingly on violence, polarization and manufactured conflicts with foreign powers.”
Populist leaders who lose their popularity quickly have been known to act in desperation and issue arbitrary orders in all aspects of life. What are the immediate consequences of these unnecessary and erratic decrees on society? First, people lose respect for the leader. Next, as justifying such acts becomes more difficult, oppression increases on anyone who dares to question these orders.
“There is an element of desperation. Seeing that power is gradually slipping out of their hands, and that they are losing legitimacy, [such leaders also] feel compelled to create easy problems that are solvable immediately, proving their competence,” said Kuran.
On May 31, the fourth anniversary of the Gezi protests, Erdogan asked opposition groups that dared to commemorate the event: “What was done to you that you have to engage in a civil rights and liberties struggle?” This indicates he still doesn't accept any allegation that the government is intruding on citizens' personal lives — politically, culturally or socially. He added that the battle against the Gezi mindset will continue.
In the meantime, Ankara protesters (after the two academics on a hunger strike were arrested) still continue their peaceful resistance while facing daily police brutality. Police have now started to use plastic bullets against protesters. Yet the protesters are still in good spirits. After the Ankara governor banned singing in public, the group posted on Facebook their whispered songs and subdued dances.
What awaits Turkey? There is not much room for optimism. Protesters have adapted by singing without much volume, but if a dance ban follows, they might have trouble finding a way to dance without movement.
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