LGBTQ Art Arrests Inflame Turkey Student Protests

Turkish authorities arrested four people over LGBTQ-themed artwork displayed at the country's most prestigious university, fuelling on-campus protests over academic freedom and human rights.

Unrest at Istanbul's Bogazici University began last month with the appointment of a new university rector. Academic Melih Bulu, who assumed the role, has ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which protesting students and faculty believed would stifle academic freedom at the top school.

On-campus tensions were further stoked following an art exhibit meant as a form of resistance against Bulu as rector. Bogazici student art collective BOUN Sanat Direnisi said it had posted an open call for artwork to display, resulting in hundreds of submissions from artists in Turkey and beyond.

One artist anonymously sent a poster depicting a Shahmaran—a mythical half-woman half-snake creature from Turkish folklore—replacing Islam's holy Kaaba building in the Saudi city of Mecca.

The signature LGBTQ rainbow flag, as well as flags representing transgender, lesbian and asexual communities, were displayed on each corner of the poster.

Of the four arrested, two have been imprisoned and two others were placed under house arrest, according to a social media video explainer created by Bogazici students.

Here's our statement video as Boğaziçi students regarding the latest misunderstandings about the exhibiton, which was followed by the arrests of two of our friends. We demand our friends to be freed, and the appointed rector to leave his position. pic.twitter.com/oSKiVY54WU

— Resist Bogazici (@resistBU) January 31, 2021

In the video, one student said that although "no art form is closed to criticism," being tried over artwork is "against the basics of free speech".

"The goal behind these arrests is the weakening and silencing of our rightful protests," another said.

On Friday, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced the arrests of "four LGBT perverts" who "committed disrespect" towards the Kaaba.

Many Turkish Twitter users were angered by Soylu's language, which they viewed as hate speech. Turkish media reported the minister's tweet was suspended in France and replaced with a banner stating it was "withheld based on local law(s)."

Erdogan's chief adviser Ibrahim Kalin tweeted that disrespecting the Kaaba is "neither freedom of expression nor the right to protest."

"This deviance will receive the punishment it deserves," he said.

Ali Erbas, president of the Diyanet—Turkey's religious authority—said he condemned the "unlimited attack against the sacred place of Muslims" and vowed to take legal action against the perceived perpetrators.

Bulu also joined Turkish officials in denouncing the artwork, calling it an "attack" on Islam by an "ignorant group."

"A comprehensive investigation has been launched into those responsible for this unconscionable attack," he said.

Following the arrests, Bogazici saw renewed campus demonstrations. According to social media posts by Bogazici student activist groups, protests were ongoing as of Monday.

BOUN Sanat Direnisi said police previously deployed tear gas on protesters at the university.

While same-sex relations are not outlawed in Turkey, Turkish authorities have grown increasingly hostile towards LGBTQ activism.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Istanbul's annual Pride parade was banned since 2015. Bans on LGBTQ events in several Turkish cities continue on a "systematic basis" and demonstrate a "repressive approach" on LGBTQ rights, HRW has found.

ağlayarak günlüğünüze yazabilirsiniz 🥰✨🌸💕🏳️‍🌈❤️🧡💛💚💙💜#BogaziciSusmayacak #KabulEtmiyoruzVazgecmiyoruz #BogaziciTeslimOlmayacak #lgbtihaklarıinsanhaklarıdır https://t.co/pIOGGTFnbD pic.twitter.com/FoVv3o3VoI

— pelin bi doy 🌈 (@urlocalvampiree) January 30, 2021
Bogazici University students protest in Istanbul, Turkey
Students chant slogans and hold placards on January 4, 2021 in front of the Bogazici University in Istanbul during a protest against the appointment of the university's new rector. The demonstrations intensified after four people were arrested over LGBTQ-themed artwork displayed on campus. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images