Turkey’s Endless Test with Artistic Freedom: The Case of Sezen Aksu

Deniz Polat

Ankara University

On New Year’s Day, Sezen Aksu, Turkey’s most famous composer/lyricist/singer artist, released a new version of an old song, “Living is a Wonderful Thing” on YouTube. The release antagonized pro-government religious groups in Turkey, and a huge debate erupted in the country. The reason for the controversy is the following lyrics:

“With its pain and sweetness /

What a wonderful thing to experience /

Hitting the bottom, standing upright /

A thousand excuses, a thousand games /

We are on an omen /

We are going to the apocalypse /

Say hello to that ignorant Eve and Adam

Aksu is accused of insulting religious values due to the phrase in bold. In a speech delivered in a mosque in Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that “nobody was allowed to speak badly of Prophet Adam and Mother Eve… It’s our duty to rip out these tongues if necessary.” 

The worrisome impact of the debate can be found in the wind of authoritarianism that has been blowing through Turkey for some time, including in the field of art. The debate over Sezen Aksu’s song exacerbated the tension between the government and the art world and was widely covered on social media. Moreover, a number of criminal complaints were filed against the artist. 

Times of crisis are like litmus papers for the constitutional and political system. The case of Sezen Aksu is a current example of this determination on behalf of the equilibrium of democracy and freedom in Turkey. The result – sadly – was not in favor of freedom. Therefore, the main issue to be addressed in this post is whether religious values are a legitimate ground for restricting artistic freedom. 

As a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) considers artistic expression to fall within the scope of freedom of expression guaranteed in the Article 10 of the ECHR. Nevertheless, it is possible to exclude certain works of art from the protection of artistic freedom. The grounds of exclusion include obscenity, hate speech and religious expression. In this framework, freedom of religion and belief and artistic freedom can compete and even conflict in “hard cases” in which works of art containing religious expression are the subject….