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Opinion: Erdogan is a threat to artistic freedom

Gero SchliessApril 26, 2016

Fundamentalism and autocrats are threatening freedom in Germany. Turkey's President Erdogan has once again pressured Germany, this time criticizing a music project in Dresden. Gero Schliess says it's time to speak up.

Poster for the Aghet music project, Copyright: aghet.eu
Image: aghet.eu

We don't know whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ever read the works of Germany's post-war author and Nobel Prize-winner Heinrich Böll. The Turkish president could learn a thing or two from Böll about artistic freedom.

He wouldn't even have to read a whole book. All he'd need to do is google "freedom" (Freiheit) and "art" (Kunst) and he'd find the speech Böll gave at the inauguration of a theater in Wuppertal from 1966. The speech ruffled some feathers up at the time, but is today more relevant than ever.

"Art is freedom," Böll proclaimed quite simply, as was typical for his style. He continued, "No one can give art freedom; no state, no city, no society cannot presume to give or have given art what it is by nature: free."

Turkey pressures EU on Armenia music project

President Erdogan's understanding of artistic freedom and freedom of speech is light years away from that of Böll. Erdogan is trying to silence German television presenter and comedian Jan Böhmermann. He's refusing to let journalists enter the country. And he's temporarily detained a Dutch journalist due to her tweets criticizing Turkey's influence on freedom of speech in the Netherlands.

Most recently, Turkey has interfered with the Dresdner Sinfoniker's European Union-funded musical project dedicated to commemorating the massacre of ethnic Armenians in Turkey over a century ago.

Turkey has always refused to recognize the tragedy as genocide. Germany is making steps to recognize the genocide and the German parliament will take up the debate on June 2. Earlier this week, Turkey's ambassador to the EU, of which the country is not a member, demanded that the European Union withdraw its financial support of the project.

Gero Schliess
Gero Schliess

Entitled "Aghet," the musical project premiered in Berlin in November and is slated to be performed in Dresden this coming weekend. "Aghet" (pictured above) clearly states that the 1915 massacre on ethnic Armenians in Turkey was an act of genocide.

In response to pressure from Turkey, the EU gave in and removed portions of the online texts that described the project. However, this could easily send the wrong signal and amounts to a move that will certainly bring consequences with it.

Merkel's biggest mistake

Like the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also too hasty earlier on in April in responding to Erdogan's complaints over Böhmermann's satire, saying that the video was "intentionally offensive." Merkel later admitted that her statement was a mistake. That is honorable but it came too late. It's quite possible that her initial statement will come back to haunt her as one of her most significant mistakes as chancellor.

Merkel's concession to Erdogan encouraged him to test Germany's patience and seems to have opened a Pandora's Box. Turkey's chokehold on the Dresdner Sinfoniker's Armenia project is only the most recent, but certainly not the last attempt to challenge Germany's values.

Freedom is unassailable

One thing remains: Freedom is our most valuable asset. The freedom of art, freedom of opinion and freedom of the media, our freedom to gather and choose our own ways of life - without freedom everything would be worth nothing.

Our social order and even our economic system are based on these freedoms. And our freedom - here in Germany, in the heart of Europe - is under threat now in a way that has been practically unprecedented since World War II.

People have died for artistic freedom and freedom of opinion. Last year, the caricaturists at "Charlie Hebdo" were murdered by extremists, and a decade ago more than 100 people were killed when riots broke out around the world in response to Mohammad caricatures in a Danish publication.

And in Turkey, there are countless people like Böhmermann serving prison sentences for simply doing their jobs as journalists.

Time to speak up

It's high time to get up and do something about Turkey's encroaching behavior. The musicians from the Dresdner Simfoniker deserve our solidarity, just as all the other impacted artists and journalists do.

Giving in to pressure from Turkey, as the EU did, will only lead to greater demands. Angela Merkel's lukewarm signs of solidarity - she praised Turkey's treatment of refugees during her visit to Istanbul last weekend - will prove to be huge mistakes on the long run.

But it's true, due to Europe's incompetency in effectively managing its own borders, the chancellor had no choice but to enter into a refugee deal with Turkey. Our dependency on Turkey, however, cannot be so huge that we should be coerced into selling our soul.

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