Turkish heavy metal fans face music for salutes

Thu, Jul 30, 2009, 01:00

FIVE TURKISH heavy metal fans got more than they bargained for in Istanbul last weekend when they made heavy metal salutes at a passing cavalcade.

“The tinted windows of one of the cars opened and a guy in dark glasses shouted ‘what the hell are you doing’,” says Yusuf Sengul, who was attending the first day of a heavy metal festival with his friends.

Five minutes later, the men in black came back with police, bundled Sengul and four others into cars and took them to a police station.

“They said they were acting on the orders of the prime minister,” Sengul remembers. “We were laughing. We thought it was a joke.”

But it wasn’t. Accused of “disrespect of a senior official”, the five youngsters spent the rest of the day and night being taken from one police station to another.

“I unfortunately saw the state of some of our young people, and it was depressing,” prime minister Tayyip Erdogan told reporters the day after, before news of the arrests had appeared in the media. “This endless, uncontrolled moral erosion is really worrying. We must defend our family structure.”

A former Islamist who heads a “conservative democrat” party that has been in power since 2002, Erdogan is well-known for his outbursts of intolerance.

Dozens of caricaturists who satirised him have been fined. His advisers lean on media patrons to remove journalists who take too independent a line.

But the arrest of the heavy metal fans shows signs of blowing up in his face. On July 27th, the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, held a press conference with two of the fans to condemn what had happened.

“We didn’t see this level of intolerance even from the fascists of September 12th,” CHP’s Istanbul head Gursel Tekin told reporters, referring to the brutal junta that took power in 1980. “A yearning for dictatorship never did anybody any good. Everybody needs democracy.” CHP lawyers are now working with some of the fans to open a case for wrongful arrest.

All five were released without charge after 21 hours in custody, but not before they had been handcuffed, fingerprinted, subjected to repeated questioning and – bizarrely – forced by the police to listen to a cocktail of classical Turkish music and pop.

Several columnists have since pointed out the 1980 military junta’s affection for “musical torture”. Left-wing convicts were forced to listen to Ottoman military music favoured by right-wing nationalists. Kurds were forced to sing Turkish nationalist songs.

But the politicisation of music was an intrinsic part of Turkey’s westernisation project from the start. A top composer in the early days of the republic, Cemal Resit Rey, describes in his memoirs a 1934 meeting held to discuss how to bring about a “musical revolution.” After hours of deliberations, one participant suggested completely banning non-polyphonic music. Rey jumped up. “What?” he shouted. “So if a shepherd grazing his flocks wants to sing a song, he has to go and find a second shepherd to sing the second line?”

A fan of the German heavy metal band Kreator, Yusuf Sengul shares the younger Turkish generation’s complete disinterest in the politics of music. “The prime minister should pity himself,” he says. “We pity him.”