By Pete Boggs
The protests at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul have continued: at the beginning of this year, President Erdoğan appointed a puppet rector against the wishes of students and university workers.
Much of the recent “culture war” around the protests has focused on LGBTI+ people. During an art show at the university, a piece of art showed the Kaaba (the large black cube in Mecca which is the final destination of the Hajj) alongside a rainbow flag. Students involved in this were arrested, and the Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu called them “four LGBT perverts” on Twitter. The state also shut down Boğaziçi University’s LGBTI+ Studies Club (Turkish LGBTI+ organisations have issued a statement).
Although homophobia has not been as foundational to Turkish right-wing populism as it has to similar movements elsewhere, the illiberal turn of the AKP in power has seen attacks on Turkey’s LGBTI+ people. The Istanbul Pride parade has been banned since 2016, and attempts to hold it have been faced with police violence.
The Turkish government has a strategy against things it finds culturally or politically unpalatable that will be familiar to people in Britain: to present it as part of a broader conflict between “our” Turkey and “theirs”. There is every chance that students who put up this poster intended to be provocative (and good for them if they did!), but the way in which this has been seized on is the action of a government in a much weaker position than it has been previously.
This last-ditch reliance on cultural touchstones was central to the reversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque last year, which the AKP had often hinted at but saved up for a rainy day. The Hagia Sophia is admittedly somewhat of a grander spectacle than our own farces about “Fairytale of New York” or the Last Night of the Proms.
Alongside the LGBTI+ community, the professor Ayşe Buğra has also been a favourite target of Erdoğan’s at Boğaziçi University. In a speech attacking protesters where he said LGBT did not exist in Turkey, he invoked another familiar trope, calling Buğra the “representative of [George] Soros”.
Buğra’s husband, a Turkish capitalist who is in jail for his liberal activism, had previously worked for Soros’s Open Society Foundation before it was driven out of Turkey, but Soros’s name is used by Erdoğan as a symbolic stand-in for encroaching foreign liberalism as it has all over the world.