During his Friday sermon marking the first day of Ramadan, Turkey’s top Muslim cleric, Ali Erbas, declared that Islam condemns homosexuality because it “brings illness,” insinuating that same sex relations are responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a public uproar from civil society organizations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly backed Erbas, saying that any attack on the cleric amounted to an “attack on the state and Islam.”
The Turkish government’s homophobia is a longstanding problem, but its scapegoating of LGBTI individuals during the pandemic is better understood as an attempt to instigate a culture war and deflect attention from Erdogan’s mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak, which has led to both public health and economic crises. As of May 9, Turkey had reported 137,000 cases of COVID-19 – ninth highest in the world – yet there is strong suspicion of deliberate underreporting. Meanwhile, the country’s currency has plunged 20 percent in the year to date.
Erbas is the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a governmental agency established on March 3, 1924, the day the fledgling Turkish republic abolished the Islamic Caliphate and replaced it with a bureaucratic institution to deliver, and thereby control, religious services. Initially envisioned as an instrument for secularization in a Muslim-majority country, the Diyanet gradually evolved into a sectarian institution that bolstered Sunni hegemony. Following the rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, the Diyanet has become a supersized bureaucracy for the promotion of political Islam at home and abroad.
Since Erbas is not only a cleric but also a civil servant, a wide range of civil society organizations condemned his homophobic hate speech and the Ankara Bar Association filed a criminal complaint. While the Diyanet pushed back by filing a counter complaint against the Ankara Bar, the Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s Office preempted the Diyanet by launching an ex officio investigation, accusing the bar association of insulting “religious values.” AKP Spokesperson Omer Celik joined the attack on the Bar by accusing Ankara’s lawyers of demonstrating “one of the most arrogant and naughty states of fascism.”
These polemics at the highest levels of the Turkish government and civil society sparked similar clashes on social media. While Turkish government officials took to Twitter to support Erbas with the trending hashtag “Ali Erbas is not alone,” there was a countervailing campaign with the hashtag, “LGBT rights are human rights.” The vocal pro-LGBTI campaign prompted further anti-gay slurs, which trended on social media with the hashtag, “Go to Holland.” A professor of law at a public university in Ankara went as far as to brand LGBTI activists as a “national security threat,” accusing them of being “a psychological warfare weapon and a postmodern invasion attempt,” and claimed that “there are no obstacles to designating LGBT activists as a terrorist organization.”
Such bigoted comments are the latest in a long list of anti-LGBTI remarks and actions by Erdogan and his supporters. Each time the Turkish president lashes out against LGBTI individuals, however, he obscures the fact that Turkey stands heads and shoulders above many others in the Middle East in terms of LGBTI rights, and it has for a very long time. The Ottoman Empire, which Erdogan deeply reveres, not only had widespread same-sex relationships, it did not include the practice as a punishable offense in the Imperial Penal Code of 1858, long before many others decriminalized it in the West.
Homosexuality and transsexuality continued to be a fact of life in Turkey, and some of the country’s most celebrated public figures, such as its late pop icon Zeki Müren – dubbed by BBC as Turkey’s David Bowie – are immensely popular despite visibly breaking with Turkish gender norms. This is not to say that life has been anywhere near easy for LGBTI individuals in Turkey. Decriminalization has not translated into widespread societal acceptance, and aside from those in the right neighborhoods in a handful of metropolises, most LGBTI members must remain closeted.
Still, no matter how imperfect LGBTI acceptance is in Turkey, the community’s achievements, especially in the last two decades, are phenomenal. Despite Erdogan and the ruling AKP’s Islamist and socially conservative stance, LGBTI members launched an annual march, “Istanbul Pride,” in 2003. Gaining strength every year, the march reached its zenith in June 2013, when it coincided with the Gezi Park Protests, a mass protest movement centered around saving the last public park in Istanbul’s city center, which drew Erdogan’s ire, among other reasons, because it was a popular meeting place for gay men. With over 100,000 participants, the 2013 march sent a message to the world that Turkey’s LGBTI community and their allies would not bow down to Erdogan’s religious-cum-social engineering.
Hence it was no surprise that Erdogan chose to crack down on Istanbul Pride after banning the annual march for offending the public’s “sensitivities,” a move LGBTI activists believed was prompted by the parade’s occurrence during the month of Ramadan in 2015. Even though Ramadan no longer coincides with pride month, the government continues to impose a ban, while barely attempting to justify its action and violently attacking those who dare to march.
As much as Erdogan wants to erase the LGBTI community and their culture, he also needs them as scapegoats, to instigate yet another one of his culture wars and to solidify his base during times of need. Hence, his latest ploy, in the middle of a coronavirus-induced economic meltdown, should come as no surprise.
From the Erdogan government’s latest homophobic incitement to its earlier attempts to police public morality from perceived LGBTI propaganda on Netflix, we see further proof that the Turkish president desperately needs to divert the electorate’s attention from his own mismanagement. A maestro of polarization, Erdogan is on course to learn the hard way that peddling hate can offer a temporary distraction, but no lasting remedy to a deadly virus or its economic fallout.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @aykan_erdemir.
Philip Kowalski is a research associate of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @philip_kowalski.