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Mozart and Political Islam

A couple of weeks ago, Turkish president Erdoğan said that forcing him to listen to Mozart is “fascism.” This statement and the discussion it sparked might be a good starting point to think about some issues of Turkish cultural and intellectual history. Because understanding Turkish political Islamism’s obsession with “cultural hegemony” is related to it.

Turkish political Islamism has always perceived “culture” as a matter of polarization. The roots of this approach, which was formulated as the East-West, tradition-modernity, religious-secular problem dates back to the first Westernization crisis of the nineteenth century. Later in the early twentieth century, the novelist Peyami Safa, one of the pioneers of the Turkish conservatism, explained the East-West conflict as the “biggest torture of the Turkish spirit.” The effort towards reaching a cultural synthesis created one of the fertile veins of the Turkish literature: From Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar to Orhan Pamuk, many authors have been influenced by this search for an authentic identity. (The poet Cemal Süreya chose to call it “East-West contradiction” instead of calling it “synthesis.”) The polarizing approach of Turkish conservatives towards culture was transformed into a reactionary movement during the republican period after the 1920s, as a response to the secularist politics of the new nation-state. However, this stereotypical approach was only the opposite version of Kemalist state’s cultural politics. (It is not a coincidence that Peyami Safa praises Kemalism as an ideology.) Maybe this similarity of mentality lies behind today’s partnership between the Islamists and ultra-nationalists who consider themselves as the successor of the Kemalist ideology.

The cultural polarization in question is one of the biggest dilemmas of Turkey’s intellectual history. The essayist Nurdan Gürbilek had pointed out that the most powerful and government-threatening moment of the Gezi Protests was when the cultural polarization was rejected by the protesters and this shocked the government. Maybe, for this reason, Gezi is still frightening for the regime and its partners.

As a matter of fact, the struggle for the cultural hegemony by the Islamists does not originate from an authentic or aesthetics concern. (Populist rightwing politicians always need “culture wars” as Rachel Maddow explains in her excellent new podcast, Bagman.) For the Islamist government, the search for cultural hegemony is nothing but a cover for their passion of being superior to all social groups and oppress them. Because the man who says “You cannot make me listen to Mozart,” actually does not listen to Dede Efendi either. We know that his taste and background make him to listen to second-class night club singers. Therefore, political Islam as the ruling ideology harmed Turkish conservatism most. Currently, we face a mediocrity that chooses cheap market music, not classical or traditional authentic music, over Mozart.

The cultural horizons of political Islamism is nothing more than taking revenge from the cultural symbols they oppose. The demolitions of Emek Movie Theatre and Atatürk Cultural Centre a few years ago must be understood in the context of the anger and being desperate of knowing that they “will never be like the others” in the cultural power struggle.

The current Mozart discussion is actually a proof of the way Turkish pan-Islamism kills everything it touches: Even the “biggest torture towards the spirits of Turkish” has been transformed into a shallow political material in the hands of Islamist politicians. Why Mozart, and not Haydn, or Schubert? Because polarization is based upon symbols. “Mozart” in this discussion is not Wolfgang Amadeus who was born in 1756, it is the first symbol that comes to mind regarding Western music in Turkey.

The early republican period intellectuals, who thought that if the people would have listened to polyphonic music, democracy would come to the country, were perhaps naive but at least they were sincere. Today’s Islamists are only ignorant and mediocre.

The discussion also brings the movie, Amadeus, to mind. The director Miloš Forman, by adapting Peter Shaeffer’s play into cinema, interprets Mozart’s life and genius through polarization too, and looks Mozart over Salieri’s jealousy and hatred towards him. Salieri’s curse is having a first-class musical taste but a second-class talent. Therefore, he hates Mozart, and the hatred he feels is genuine. Eventually, the jealousy Salieri feels towards Mozart eats him up inside. In the end, he says: “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am the patron’s saint. Mediocrities everywhere…”

Apparently, like Penelope who undoes at night what she weaves in the morning, we are back to square one in the debate of cultural hegemony in modern Turkish intellectual history. Only there is shallowness and mediocrity on one side this time.

  • This article was originally published in Kronos News in Turkish.

Can Bahadir Yuce is an academic, journalist and poet. He edited Zaman’s literary supplement, Kitap Zamanı, for 10 years. Yüce studied at the University of Virginia, and received his doctoral degree at Indiana University Bloomington. He has published three poetry collections. He is currently teaching at Butler University, Indianapolis, IN.

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Can Bahadir Yuce
Can Bahadir Yuce
Can Bahadır Yüce is an academic and journalist.
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