Turkey’s war against smut, even in cyberspace

The World

This story was originally covered by PRI’s The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

by Matthew Brunwasser

Turkey hasn’t always been so squeamish about smut. The name of a 1975 Erotik Comedy, ‘muz sever misin” is Turkish for “do you like banana?” It follows the adventures of a happy go lucky doorman who inherits money from his uncle and becomes the life of the party.

The days of mainstream Turkish erotic films are long gone. In fact, Turkey’s increasing discomfort with sexual content affects ever-growing aspects of life here.

The song Pulse to Freedom by the Turkish rapper Pit10 (pronounced “piton”) is about the AKP government’s crackdown on smut in cyberspace. The song feeds on public contempt for increasing government bans. In April, the government sent a letter to Turkish internet providers listing 138 words to be banned from domain names.

Some words could be seen as porn-related like sex, teen, or blond. But many are just plain weird. Forbidden is forbidden. And Turks are still trying to figure out why the names Haydar and Adrianne are on the list. Law professor Yaman Akdeniz says the policy creates huge problems for many Turkish citizens, even those who registered domains related to the Prime Minister’s big new project: the Istanbul canal.

Akdeniz says: “When you write Canal Istanbul, there is the word anal in it. So technically, you should not be using that word in a domain name.” While the letter said there “could” be criminal penalties, government officials have since backed down following public outcry, saying the letter was only “advisory.”

Even on Istanbul’s famously sordid backstreets — gentrification and morality are cleaning the place up. Here in front of Hisar Cinema, the last adult movie theater in central Istanbul, business is almost dead. The internet has certainly played a role in killing adult theaters, but patron Arif Dagdelen says city officials have too.

Like many secular Turks, Dagdelen feels the newly public Islamic morality brought by the AK Party is hypocritical… and aggressive. “Honor is not in the headscarf, it’s in people’s heads,” says Dagdelen. “Today’s environment encourages people to be more closed-minded. in my opinion Turkey is going backward. “

Many of the patrons on Ayhan Ishik street might agree. Its filled with rock bars and outdoor cafes advertising cheap beer. Mohammad Semsek, a waiter at the Nero Cafe, says the city is testing out an islamic agenda, by trying to prevent public snuggling.

“I was here when the municipal police came and said we don’t want you to have double chairs anymore,” Semsek says. “When I asked ‘why?’ they said ‘we don’t know.’ I thought it was strange to make people do something without knowing the reason. I asked whether it was to keep couples apart, and the guy said, ‘you might have a good point.'”

Whether or not there is any truth in Semsek’s story is hard to say. But the press paid it a lot of attention and it was widely talked about. Everyone perceives this as a ban to prevent couples from sitting together. This perception exists and it means the AKP wants to separate the sexes — like in the Arab counties.

Prudishness has always existed in Turkey to some extent. Even under secular governments, the bureaucracy cracked down on smut. Publisher Irfan Sanci is currently facing his 9th criminal obscenity case. Most of the charges before the governing AKP came to power. He says intolerance of smut is greater today than ever, even more than centuries ago when Turkey was ruled by a Sultan.

“Back in the Ottoman times, tolerance was much higher,” he says. “Nowadays, if I were to translate Ottoman books into modern Turkish language, they would stone me on the street.”

The former Ottoman capital Istanbul remains both a showcase of Turkey’s worldliness and a target for those trying to cleanse the country of immorality. Secular Turks have long accused the Islamists of trying to turn Turkey into an Iran-like theorcracy. but while the government might want its citizens to be more pious, those fears remain just coffee house chatter.


PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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