The students’ revolt: Turkey’s culture war

 

The students’ revolt: Turkey’s culture war

Bogaziçi University has long had a reputation as one of Turkey’s finest seats of learning – and as a bastion of liberalism in a country increasingly under the influence of nationalists and Islamists, Yet today, its splendid campus in Istanbul is guarded by armed police and snipers stalk nearby rooftops. Their presence is a response to demonstrations that began last month and have snowballed into Turkey’s most widespread unrest since the protests of 2013, Students began protesting when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan installed a government loyalist as the university’s rector. But the arrest early this month of students who had organised an art show featuring a poster depicting LGBT flags at Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba in Mecca, led to a sharp escalation: hundreds more students have since been detained, and protests have spread to other cities.

These are no ordinary student protests,The Bogaziçi students’ “thirst for change” has resonated throughout the country in a way not seen since a mass movement grew out of a campaign to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. It poses a “worrisome challenge” to Erdogan, who has responded by flooding the streets with police and seeking to turn the episode into a “culture war”: he has unleashed venomous attacks on Turkey’s LGBT community; his interior minister called protesters “LGBT perverts”. I doubt Erdogan’s too worried, Homophobic views are prevalent in Turkey; many here are outraged at the protesters’ behaviour. Erdogan has often crushed opposition in the past. No doubt he can do so again.

Maybe so, but his actions risk further damaging his standing on the world stage. His homophobic smears have been condemned by the EU and UN, which have called for protesters to be released, and undermined his attempts to present a “reforming front to the outside world” in the wake of Joe Biden’s US election win. Erdogan’s calculated provocations have “turned a local crisis into a national one”, And although he’ll likely prevail through a combination of divide-and-rule and brute force, his antagonism towards students could come at a cost: a poll last year found that 62% of Turkey’s young people would prefer to live abroad if they had the means. “If the country’s best and brightest start leaving, Erdogan will have no one to blame but himself.”

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