On 30 January four students were arrested in Boğaziçi, Istanbul, for being in possession of a piece of artwork that portrayed the Kaaba alongside rainbow symbols, typically associated with LGBTQIA+ Pride. The Kaaba, a building in the Masjid al-Haram mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia is considered the most sacred site in Islam. The students were protesting against the appointment of Professor Melih Bulu as a rector at Boğaziçi University earlier this month as they believe he has close links to President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan’s political party. The university has a 158-year-long history of choosing their own rectors, however, Melih Bulu was selected by the President.
The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office accused the four students of “laying a photo of the Kaaba on the ground in a Boğaziçi University exhibition.” The police also searched students’ rooms, seizing LGBTQIA+ Pride flags. The Istanbul Governor’s Office released a statement calling the events an “ugly attack” that “mocked religious beliefs.”
The protests and use of rainbow symbols have been condemned by Turkish officials. Any symbols related to the LGBTQIA+ community have been deemed invalid and blamed for inciting a culture war. Süleyman Soylu, Turkey’s interior minister, tweeted “Four LGBT deviants, who disrespected the Islamic holy site, the Kaaba, have been detained at Boğaziçi University.” Soylu’s tweet was referred to as hate speech by some on Twitter and there were calls for it to be deleted.
The chief adviser to President Erdoğan, Ibrahim Kalin, stated that “neither freedom of expression nor the right to protest” were defences for the artwork. He added that the creation and use of the artwork would receive “the punishment it deserves before the law.”
A twitter account named “Boğaziçi Solidarity” has publicly expressed support for the arrested students, demanding their release. Another twitter account also reached out in support of the students, writing, “LGBTI+ phobic speeches have no place in Boğaziçi values.”
Boğaziçi University’s LGBTQIA+ society issued a statement showing solidarity with the arrested students, writing, “We stand with our detained friends against those who attack LGBT+ people. We do not accept trustees who target their own students.”
The LGBTQIA+ community has become a common enemy of religious leaders, humanitarians and lawmakers in Turkey. Annual Pride events are confronted with tear gas, water cannons and plastic riot shields. Government advertising regulators stated that rainbows “negatively affect children’s mental health” and, therefore, any merchandise with a rainbow symbol must come with an 18+ warning in order to be sold legally. As a result of this, the large and popular retailer, LC Waikiki, made an announcement earlier this year enforcing a ban on unicorns, rainbows and other “LGBT+ images” from being used on any of its clothing designs.
Last year, Levent Pişkin, a human rights lawyer, commented on the rise of homophobia in Turkey, stating that “This is a period of darkness that we are trying to survive. I wouldn’t call this living.” In recent years, Turkey has seen an increase in identity politics, polarizing its citizens. President Erdoğan has reportedly lost a large number of supporters for his political party with opinion polls suggesting that it has reached its lowest level since his 17-year-rule began. In response, President Erdoğan is leaning into the strong nationalist and religious vein of his supporters, stating that “insidious attacks” on Turkey’s values and traditions were considered a threat to national security.
An increase in violence, discrimination and hate speech have placed Turkey second to last on the advocacy group ILGA-Europe’s ranking of LGBTQIA+ equality, with Azerbaijan in last place. The OWP will continue to monitor this situation.