Turkey hands pop star Gulsen jail sentence over religious schools joke

ANKARA — Turkey’s pop star Gulsen (Gulsen Colakoglu) was given a 10-month jail sentence by an Istanbul court on Wednesday over a joke about religious schools, in a trial that is being widely slammed as politically motivated.

The controversial trial, which has become the epitome of polarization between the country’s liberal segments and Islamists, began in August over a joke the pop star made during a live performance in April about graduates of Imam Hatips, Islamic clerical training schools aligned with the Sunni faith.

The pop star became the subject of scorn amongst Islamists after a brief video featuring the singer teasing one of her band members, jokingly calling him a “pervert” because he was a graduate of an Imam Hatip, conspicuously came into circulation on social media in August. Gulsen publicly apologized for her comments, saying she didn’t mean to offend anyone. 

Still, prosecutors sought the 46-year-old’s arrest on charges of “inciting people to hatred and enmity,” and the star was jailed for six days until she was released on house arrest, which was later lifted.

Gulsen will not serve jail time unless she commits the same crime in the next five years.

Her lawyers demanded her acquittal during her hearing, citing that her comments were just a joke and that Imam Hatip graduates do not represent a social class. 

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several of his family members are also graduates of Imam Hatips. The schools have come under a spotlight over the past years, with government critics charging that Imam Hatip graduates were favored in filling influential positions at various government levels despite their lack of credentials. 

The trial against Gulsen, whose activism in support of women and LGBTQ+ rights and daring outfits has long drawn the ire of the government’s supporters even before her inflammable comments, is widely slammed as politically motivated by rights groups and government critics who argued that that the singer’s prosecution aimed to appease the country’s ruling party’s Islamist support base at the expense of freedom of expression. 

Ismail Yuksel, an assistant professor of law at Antalya Bilim University, described the ruling as a “flagrant breach” of the Turkish criminal code. While Turkey’s penal code criminalizes insults against any social class, race, religion, sect, gender or region, Yuksel said, being an alum of a particular school does not fall in any of these categories. 

“More importantly, Gulsen’s comments were not targeting a part of society but aiming at a specific person,” Yuksel told Al-Monitor. “Although it is a flagrant breach of the Turkish Penal Code, the ruling was not unexpected given the widespread and systematic attacks on freedom of expression by the government, which aims to intimidate free speech.”

The US State Department, which expressed its concern over widespread efforts to restrict expression via censorship and judicial harassment following the singer’s detention last year, cited the trial in its 2022 human rights report released in March. The report cited the trial as an example of the government’s increasing enforcement of “blasphemy laws that prohibit insulting religious values.”

Turkey has increasingly witnessed culture wars over religious lines that government critics believe have helped Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to rule the country for more than two decades by polarizing the society and consolidating his conservative support base. 

Yet with 11 days to go until the country’s fateful elections and as the president faces his toughest re-election bid amid breakneck inflation, Erdogan’s divisive rhetoric might not secure a victory for him. Several opinion polls give a slight lead to his top challenger, main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has positioned himself as the antipode of Erdogan with his uniting messages playing a central theme in the campaign. 

Speaking at a rally in Turkey’s predominantly nationalist and conservative Black Sea province of Ordu on Wednesday, the top Erdogan rival reiterated his message of unison.

“Why have we polarized, why do we fight? I will be the president of 85 million people. I will embrace 85 million without any discrimination, I promise,” he said. 

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