'The right to speak out can't be suppressed in Boğaziçi, or elsewhere'

The government has only itself to blame for its failure in the field of culture, says Helün Fırat, culture operator-turned-party founder. From attempts to close down Anadolu Kültür to police measures against Boğaziçi protests, the government is hurling kicks at the freedom of expression, including cultural expression, says the opposition politician.

Nazlan Ertan / Duvar English

Turkey’s pillars of culture, including the prestigious Boğaziçi University and jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala’s nonprofit foundation Anadolu Kültür, have become victims of the government's attempts to stifle cultural expression in the country, according to Helün Fırat, the deputy chair of the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA).

“The government sees Anadolu Kültür as Kavala’s legacy and wants to destroy it,” Fırat, who worked as a cultural operator before turning to politics, told Duvar English.

In August, Turkey's Trade Ministry filed a lawsuit against Anadolu Kültür demanding its closure on the grounds that it operated as an NGO, even though the organization is registered as a company.

According to Fırat and the DEVA, founded by former economy minister Ali Babacan, the attacks on this NGO and the brutal suppression of Boğaziçi student protesters are emblematic of the government’s desire to “hurl kicks at the cultural expression of the country.”

“[The status of Anadolu Kültür] has never been the subject of a lawsuit during all its years of its activity, so why now?” Fırat pointed out to Duvar English in an interview. “This is a new attempt to unjustly tarnish Kavala's name.”

“Anadolu Kültür has always contributed greatly to the field of culture and arts in our country with an inclusive, multicultural, and productive approach. Moreover, it continued to contribute to the cultural climate of the country during the 39-month period during which Kavala was unlawfully detained. Attempting to destroy the Anadolu Kültür is seen as hurling one more kick at cultural studies in Turkey,” she added.  

President Erdoğan again said earlier this week that his 19-year-rule has not “achieved satisfactory progress” in the areas of culture, arts, education, and family.

“If there is a problem in those areas, no one should look for an answer anywhere other than [current policies]. What is being done is tragic - and impossible to accept. The government not only wants to turn a blind eye to the call of the European Court of Human Rights to release Kavala, but to destroy his legacy: the multicultural Anadolu Kültür,” she said.

Fırat is vocal about what she calls the one-man rule. “We want to reverse the system [that brought a presidential system to Turkey]. It has crushed pluralist thought. As a party, we continue to work and negotiate for a strengthened parliamentary system,” she said. “For the future of the country and solutions to economic and cultural dilemmas, we must create a working assembly and an environment of compromise.” 

Fırat’s father, Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, was one of the founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and became a deputy from the southern city of Mersin in the 2002 elections. After the end of the “Kurdish opening” of the party in 2015, he left AKP and joined the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). He passed away last year. 

Helün, the fourth generation of politicians in the family, has joined the ranks of DEVA, a young party launched last year, as deputy chair responsible for cultural affairs after two decades of working in the cultural sector.

DEVA is for the youth?

The party, which aims to get the young vote in the next elections, rallied support among the Boğaziçi students who have launched protests against the new rector, Melih Bulu, who was appointed by presidential decree rather than university vote.

“Personally and on behalf of our party and our chairman, I can easily say that we stand by the demands for democratic rights at Boğaziçi University,” Fırat said, pointing out that two of the party’s founding members are Boğaziçi alumni who took part in the protests. Another founding member,  Oğuzhan Aygören of Boğaziçi  University, has “rejected the offer to become deputy rector” after Bulu tapped him for the post. “I was not consulted on this appointment… and I cannot accept it,” wrote Aygören in an open letter.

Though the students do not want party flags in the protests, several DEVA party members have participated in the protests alongside students, Fırat said. 

46-years-old Fırat, who is considered to be among the 'young' wing of the party, said that the party provides a platform for young people, as well as newcomers to politics. ”There is also a strong youth presence in the party. The party has pledged a 20 percent quota for young people. The party chair, Ali Babacan, made one of his first appearances at Middle East Technical University [the politician’s alma mater] and was warmly welcomed.”

“Just as important is the fact that 50 percent of the party members are those who have entered politics for the first time. Given the current Turkish political scene, I think this is important. It is the role of political parties to introduce new people, new faces, new blood, and new ideas,” she said.

Minority rights

Her upbeat tone when she spoke of the youth turned somber when the interview turned to the topics of culture and minority rights. “Suppression of freedom of expression, including the cultural rights of minorities, is the Achille heel of this government,” Fırat said. “We certainly see that when we look at the state of minority rights, which have undergone grave regression, going back to the 1980s,” she said.

The 1980s and 90s were grave in terms of suppression of the Kurdish-speaking people when the country’s southeast was under a state of emergency for the better part of the decade. The Turkish government, starting in the 1980s, began to ban the use of Kurdish in many public contexts, which ranged from the banning of Kurdish language printed media and the singing of folksongs in Kurdish to the replacement of place names of Kurdish origin with their Turkish counterpart.

“Culture is the foundation of a country, no matter your political standing. Halay [the traditional dance where people get in a line shoulder to shoulder, also known as dabke in the Middle East] brings everyone together. But this foundation no longer seems to hold up in Turkey, because the backbone, individual liberties, is not there. Because of that, everything: freedom of expression, cultural rights, and minorities' right to exercise their culture and pass it on suffer,” she stressed. “We have come to the point where the liberties and right of expression of many groups, from students to women to LGBTI+, are suppressed. You have to see this as an infection: It starts in one part of the body but affects the other organs.”

Family business

“Politics have been a part of my life,” said Fırat, the fourth generation of politicians from the Fırat family. Daughter to a Kurdish-speaking father and German-speaking mother, she grew up in a polyglot household. “So I grew up in a multilingual, multicultural household, where daily communication was an issue,” she said. “My father would ask my mother if there was anything she wanted. My mother would reply ‘krima.’ What she meant was kıyma.” 

Her mother spoke to her and her sister in German and her father, who, as a full-time politician was hardly ever home, in Turkish. English came later, at school.

“Being the daughter of a politician did not exactly make it easy for me when I started looking for a job,” she said. “So I had to create the job that I wanted to do. I got involved in European Union projects, and during the course of one, I paid a visit to Mardin.”

“I was struck by the beauty of those fertile lands, the lands of the historic Fertile Crescent where lack of water prevented agriculture and instability prevented the development of the industry. But it had extraordinary light and the heritage of story-telling. So, we tried to establish a film festival there, which would bring producers and directors to this exceptional city and show them that there was a great setting, a good film plateau here. At the time, Mardin was one of the 14 cities in Turkey where there was no cinema at all. So our project was dubbed the “cinema festival in a city where there are no cinemas.”

The festival still goes on, after 13 years. After that, however, Helün Fırat moved on to a new project: a contemporary art center in the capital. “We needed to establish a multi-dimensional cultural center, which was right for Ankara,” she said. “We kept in mind that Ankara was not a touristic city, but one that had a considerable middle class interested in culture. We looked at Scandinavian models and we eschewed having a permanent collection, which would have been very costly and tried one exhibition after the other. It was hard work, but I think we succeeded.”

The establishment of a new party, coupled with her desire to spur long-term change in cultural policies, made her take the plunge into politics. “Culture in Turkey is an area where you work against all odds, but you keep pushing. I gave a direct contribution to the culture section of the party program and I feel happy that the priorities, from cultural expression to the need for measures that would protect artists through copyrights and royalties, are there.”

Culture post-COVID-19

The pandemic increased the need to implement her portfolio. “We launched our party on the day that the first COVID-19 case was announced in Turkey - no one would have predicted that it would have been such a lasting impact on the country,” she said.

“Until that point, we had been discussing ways and means to increase the public space for culture. With the global pandemic, the whole thing turned upside down; The public space for art and culture as we knew it disappeared. Many countries, particularly those in the West, have contingency plans for such crises. But we have seen that Turkey had none, not for culture or any other sector!”

The assistance for artists proved to be no more than a band-aid. “If you give a 1000 liras a month with the same conditions you’d offer to small commercial businesses, it will not work. There are global measures on what should be done, and we need to look at the proposals of UNESCO and other countries,” she said. 

Fırat says that the new technologies and digitalization seen during the pandemic is something that now needs to be considered. Also that there is a need to provide radical solutions for the culture sector in the post-pandemic period.

“The cultural sector will not have an easy post-pandemic period. It takes a lot of effort to establish something in the world of art, and once it is forced to close its doors, it is difficult to reopen them. It is not only the loss of resources, but the loss of motivation. There have been very tragic cases throughout the pandemic: artists turning to other jobs or even suicides,” she said. 

The establishment of a Copyright Agency, her pet project, may provide help to artists both in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic and in the long-term.

“We are a signatory of the Bern Convention and other accounts that protect copyrights. But we have not implemented them. Royalties provide artists with a basic income and give them security. Putting the establishment of this agency into the party platform makes me rather proud. I feel I am still making an impact on the culture sector even though I have moved to politics,” she said.