Turkish Pop Star Gulsen Under House Arrest After Joking About Islamic Schools

Turkish police arrested one of the nation’s most prominent pop stars, Gulsen Bayraktar Colakoglu (commonly known by her first name Gulsen), on Thursday for making a joke about Islamic religious schools.

On Monday, a Turkish court apparently bowed to local and international outrage by moving her from pretrial detention to house arrest.

Gulsen is a singer, dancer, and songwriter often described as “Turkey’s Madonna.” She has long been controversial among Turkey’s powerful Islamists for her flamboyant performances, revealing outfits, and support for gay rights, which she sometimes expresses on stage by waving the gay pride rainbow flag.

During an April concert in Istanbul, Gulsen made a joke about one of her musicians attending an Islamic religious school. “He studied at an Imam Hatip. That’s where his perversion comes from,” she said.

Imam Hatip schools are secondary educational institutions that teach Islamic beliefs to Turkish students (both “imam” and “hatip” are terms for Muslim clerics).

The schools have been in existence for decades, but their funding and importance were dramatically increased on the orders of their most prestigious graduate, authoritarian Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Secular Turkish parents disapproved of Erdogan’s big push to expand the Islamic schools, complaining that religious education and political indoctrination were being prioritized over academic excellence.

Gulsen’s fans probably do not think highly of Imam Hatip schools, but Erdogan and his ruling AKP party most certainly do. AKP politicians condemned the singer, while pro-government media gave heavy coverage to video of her onstage remarks. 

“Scandalous remarks targeting imam-hatips from Gülşen, who had drawn reactions by flying LGBT flags at her concerts and saying, ‘Those who don’t like this are free to leave,’” howled pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah, which took the lead in drawing attention to the months-old video of the singer’s onstage joke last week.

Istanbul prosecutors responded to the sudden media attention by launching an investigation of Gulsen for “inciting the people into hatred and animosity.” AKP officials dismissed criticism that her freedom of expression was under attack, using precisely the same “hate speech is not free speech” reasoning as woke censors in the United States.

“Producing hate is not a branch of arts. Targeting a section of society with the claim of ‘perversion’ and trying to divide Turkey is a hate crime,” explained AKP spokesman Omer Celik.

Gulsen was arrested at her home in Istanbul on Thursday. She told the court her onstage comments were just a bit of playful banter between friends and claimed the band member she was joking with onstage was not actually a graduate of Imam Hatip schools — his nickname is “Imam” and she threw in “hatip” in a bit of free association.

Gulsen posted a public apology for her comments to Instagram from the courthouse:

A joke I made in the working environment was broadcast by people who aim to polarize society. I’m sorry that my words gave the ill-intentioned people who want to polarize our country what they wanted. I see that while I was defending freedom of expression, I was driven to the radical that I criticized. I apologize to everyone who was offended because of my statement in the video. I should have found another language.

The court rejected her pleas for leniency and ordered her held in pretrial detention, to the outrage of her fans, Turkish opposition leaders, free-speech advocates around the world, and other Turkish musicians.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), accused the AKP government of trying to “set our youth against each other” by prosecuting Gulsen. 

Ali Babacan, a former official in Erdogan’s government who now runs a different opposition party called Democracy and Progress (DEVA), said Gulsen’s joke was “offensive” but “the response to this should not be an arrest.”

“The mentality that attacks someone who apologized with the stick of punishment is neither fair nor merciful,” Babacan said.

“Our legal system – which turns a blind eye to corruption, thieves, those who break the law and massacre nature, those who kill animals and those who use religion to polarize society through their bigoted ideas – has arrested Gulsen in one whack,” complained Tarkan, arguably the country’s most successful male pop icon, known in the West for the 1990s crossover hit in Latin America “Şımarık.”

“I deeply regret the arrest of the artist Gulsen. She was targeted for boldly advocating for women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, secularism, democracy, and pluralism. This is a lynching campaign. It is neither lawful nor conscientious. Free at once,” British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak said on Twitter.

Gulsen supporters on social media accused AKP of using a flimsy pretext to persecute her for supporting gay rights and accused Erdogan of beating up on the pop star to shore up Islamist support ahead of next year’s elections. 

The U.S. State Department issued a tepid statement after Gulsen’s arrest, declaring itself “concerned about the forms of judicial harassment being used to limit freedom of expression in Turkey.”

The BBC reported the Gulsen affair is threatening to blow open a major fault line in Turkish society, since AKP has lately been conducting more “interventions into lifestyles” and practicing more aggressive censorship. Turkish social media posts feature plenty of support for arresting the singer, as well as condemnation:

While some criticized Gulsen’s remarks, they argued that her arrest was a step too far.

“I’m also a [graduate] of a religious high school,” conservative opposition journalist Nihal Bengisu Karaca said. “I was also hurt by Gulsen’s insult. I showed my reaction by writing an article… But why is Gulsen being arrested? What’s the aim here?”

However, others on social media praised the arrest for “setting a good example of what will happen to those who cross the line.”

“Calling someone from a school, a football club or an ethnicity a ‘pervert’ is a hate crime,” columnist Fuat Ugur said.

On Monday, a Turkish court ordered Gulsen released from prison and placed under house arrest until she can be fully prosecuted for her quip. The charges against her have not been dropped.

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