Turkey: “Music that sexually turns on people is a sin”

18 May 2016


Artists are facing severe difficulties under Erdoğan’s rule. On 15 February 2016, The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, issued a fatwa – a religious ban – on ‘sexual’ music. The latest victim of this arbitrary repression is an imam who runs a rockband and opposes the Directorate’s fatwa from a religious perspective.

By Yiğit Günay    INSIGHT 

The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs is a governmental institution responsible for managing the religious affairs in Turkey. It is infamous for its scandalous fatwas:

that removing body hair is a sin, that one should not marry a non-Muslim, that engaged couples should not be left alone or walk hand-in-hand, that a woman who has abortion has to pay a fee of “the equivalent of five camels,” that a father’s sexual desire for his own daughter is not a sin.

Though, the last one was way off even for the Directorate itself. After the incestuous recommendation in the name of Quran was reported on Turkish newspapers in January, a top official declared that they’ve shut down the ‘Platform for Answering Religious Questions’, a platform with many workers who were 24/7 consultants about any questions (and sometimes, quite weird ones, as the last question above, which one might not be surprised but rather appalled if knew that it was asked late at night over the phone), answering both on the line and via the website. The official rejected the fatwa, despite it was written online and claimed that “it was written and put on the site by some hackers with the intention of creating a negative perception about Islam”. Very credible, indeed.

On 15 February 2016, a new fatwa hit the news. The Directorate distributed a 2016 calendar, in which they included a Q&A for each day. On the page for the day 24 August, the question was “What is the place of music in religion? Which types of music are halal (acceptable for Islam)?” The answer started with some general information: “According to Quran, there is no proof which shows that making or listening to music is a sin. In this sense, the types of music which do not contradict with the fundamental beliefs of our religion and with the general moral values are unobjectionable.” Then came “the but”:

“But, making or listening to music which includes expressions or depictions that arouse sexual desires or which show haram things as beautiful is a sin.”



The fatwas by the Directorate, whose members are all appointed by the government, are not legally binding or cannot be used as legal opinions or precedents, but they have practical effect. They form public opinion. They direct the central and local governments about what type of art and which artists to support. They encourage public prosecutors to start cases against ‘Islamically unacceptable’ art works and artists. They present legitimacy for the government’s change of legislature. They are influential.

Art and culture are already living through a difficult period under Erdoğan’s rule. Cases of censorship and repression are numerous. Renowned pianist and composer Fazıl Say has been a permanent target, including a conviction for blasphemy. The ‘Monument to Humanity’ by sculpture Mehmet Aksoy, devoted to the friendship between Turkish and Armenian people and built close to the border between the two countries was called a “monstrosity” by Erdoğan and demolished, and Aksoy risks over four years in prison on charges of insulting the president. ‘The Soft Machine’ by William S. Burroughs was censored for obscenity, and the publisher and the translator were charged by the prosecutor, facing up to nine years imprisonment. Erdoğan threatened the theatres with cutting the state support after his daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan, said that an actor insulted her.

The fatwa about music is agonisingly ambiguous – and thus very dangerous. Who will decide which music arouses sexual desire? Is it the video clips, the lyrics, or the instrumental base of the song that is to be controlled, which all create effects on people’s emotions, which is in fact the point of art? And what about that “general moral values” thing? The ambiguity is practically an open invitation to any arbitrary repression against music.

The latest victim of this arbitrary repression is an unusual but much-telling musician: An imam who runs a rock band.

Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer was born to a family of piety: His grandfather was an alim, a Muslim scholar, and his father an imam. But the family’s intellectual life was not solely built upon religion – music was also a shared interest. The ezan, the traditional call to prayer from the minaret of a mosque five times a day is in itself musical – each five ezans of a day are sang in five specific makam. Other forms of religious music like eulogies, Islamic hymns and recitations were also a permanent part of the ambiance in this family house.

The beautiful voice of Tüzer’s father and his possession of numerous recordings helped strengthen the boy’s relation with music. “In fact, our family was the first to release an album of Islamic psalms in Turkey”, Tüzer says.

However, like many people, it was high school years in the 80s when Tüzer’s personal gusto was really shaped. He discovered rock music through his friends. “Unchain My Heart immediately caught me. This was my first contact with rock music in my teenage years,” Tüzer told me, “I distinctly remember listening to Bohemian Rhapsody – the ‘bismillah’ in the lyrics hooked me, and the song was splendid”. It was cheesy to get hooked to Freddie Mercury via the “bismillah”, but it worked for this devoted Muslim youngster. He continued to discover, going from Queen to Metallica and others. “It appealed to me. I liked rock music.”

In 1990, he started working as an imam. Two passions dominated his life: Islamic thought and philosophy; and rock’n roll. Later, another passion was added: His Romanian lover and consequent wife, whose Christian background was another reason for suspicion in the eyes of Tüzer’s professional conservative milieu. For years, the former, religion, was the professional part of his life, the latter, rock’n roll, the amateur part. However, this changed when he met Doğan Sakin, a seasoned musician. He was part of a very famous rock band of the 90s, Kramp, as the guitarist and the composer. They easily clicked, and decided to form a new band in 2013: Firock. The imam was now officially a rocker.


Birth of the Directorate of Religious Affairs
Modern Turkey was an unintended consequence in history. It was never meant to be as such. The Ottoman Empire was sided with the losing party of the First World War, and the victors – Britain and France – planned of a much smaller territory left to the ‘sick man of Europe’. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led a successful ‘war of liberation’, got loads of weaponry and ammunition from the newly born northern neighbour – Soviet Russia – and managed to lay claim on modern Turkey’s borders, he had to choose how to continue: Continue as the Ottoman Empire, or found a new young country. He chose the revolutionary way. The parliament declared the republic, and every step they took was to break with the Ottoman legacy. The dynasty was banished, the Caliphate – the equivalent of Papacy – was abolished, and the new state was declared staunchly secular.

The young Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, was not the direct continuation of the Ottoman Empire in another sense also: The Ottoman Empire was much cosmopolitan, however ruled according to an Ottoman interpretation of Sharia, the Islamic law code. Because of the population exchange with Greece, the new republic was left with a population overwhelmingly Muslim, yet it was secular. The republic had to exert control over religion. Thus, one year after the declaration of the republic in 1923, the Directorate of Religious Affairs was founded.

It was a bureaucratic apparatus of the state, under the Prime Ministry; all its personnel from the chief to the imams were civil servants. The Directorate had the responsibility to regulate the religious affairs, without any involvement whatsoever in politics. They gave advices and formed opinions on certain religious questions, but they were only advisory and had not legal enforcement.

On the paper, it seemed a good idea. Practically, in time, it became a means for governments to utilise religion for their political goals. Atatürk himself, as the great pragmatist he was, did not hesitate to bend the rules when he deemed politically necessary – open the Parliament with an imam praying, forming alliances with certain tarikats, religious societies, over others etc. The subsequent governments followed the same pragmatism: The state was kept secular for most part, but to appeal to the religious masses in the elections, religion was frequently used as a rhetorical instrument.

With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) coming into power in 2002, the role of the Directorate of Religious Affairs started to change drastically. The AKP increasingly started to impose the Islamic rule in both politics and everyday life, and the Directorate was an extremely useful tool. The fatwas, authoritative opinions on practically everything from family issues to economy and politics issued by the Directorate became more and more like party bulletins of the AKP. In time, it has become an irrationally humongous bureaucratic apparatus.

In 2015, the Directorate’s share from the annual budget was 5.74 billion Turkish liras, approximately 1.79 billion euros. With over 120 thousand personnel, its budget is bigger than the budget of seven ministries including the ministries of Culture and Tourism (yes, they belong to the same ministry in Turkey which tells much about the government’s take on culture), Economy, Development, Urban Planning and Environment, Foreign Affairs, Energy, and even Health. In fact, it is bigger than the budgets of the ministries of Development, Economy and Urban Planning and Environment combined!

This money is not used for constructing mosques or anything: In Turkey, individuals or foundations exclusively finance mosques. The government announces that 95 per cent of the budget goes to the personnel, most of them imams. But the Directorate has also become a huge propaganda machine for the Islamic government. The 24/7 consulting platform was not the only example. They organise events. They take primary school kids to umre, the travels to Kaaba in Saudi Arabia. The most recent example was a new protocol signed on 24 March 2016 between the Directorate and the Ministry of Education. Now, all the printed and visual materials produced by the Directorate will be included in the network of information of the national education system.

Invited to perform in Portugal
Arbitrary repression. That is what Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer faced exactly.
When Tüzer and his friends formed the rock band Firock in 2013 and released some songs on YouTube, they rapidly became famous. A rocking imam was definitely interesting. Both local and international media interviewed him. Their songs were listened and appreciated. They shot video clips for a couple of them. They started giving concerts. Things were good.

Last year, Tüzer was acquainted with Catherine Christer Hennix. 68 years old, Hennix is a Swedish-American academician of mathematics and a music composer. Hennix had grown a deep interest in Islam, so Tüzer and she got along easily. They started to make music together. Through Hennix, the Serralves Musem of Contemporary Art invited Tüzer to Portugal for a concert. Tüzer received the invitation mail on 8 January 2016. As he is a civil servant, paid by the state, he wrote a petition to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for a permission to attend the concert abroad and abstain from work. At the beginning of February, the Ministry replied affirmatively, appreciating the opportunity.

“Look, there are bureaucratic procedures for civil servants in these kind of situations”, Tüzer told me: “The Ministry of Culture sent a letter to the Governorate of Antalya, the city where I live and work. But the delivery system is complicated. As I am personnel under the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the letter is first delivered to the mufti of the city, my superior in bureaucratically hierarchy. Normally, he should simply forward the letter to the governorate. But instead, he sent it to the Directorate, as he evaluated the situation ‘sensitive'”.

The chairman of the directorate for religious affairs, Mehmet Görmez, together with Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo from Görmez’s personal website.

Tüzer was well aware that the higher echelons of the Directorate were overtly antipathetic to his worldview and his relation with music – especially, rock music. He started making phone calls. “I had the number of the mobile of Mehmet Görmez, the Director himself. I explained him the situation, how this was a good opportunity to reach to people.” On 18 February, he received a mail of permission from the Directorate. A week later, on 24 February, he received another one: This time, the mail was explaining that “the first mail was mistakenly sent” and he was not permitted to abstain from work and go to the concert in Portugal. The Directorate decided to practically ban his music.

“The Directorate, till this day, not once tried to sit down with, listen to and understand me. And I’ve witnessed how these people, the people who I had thought to be close to my lifestyle, were so far away from the reality”, Tüzer told me. Interviewing him, it was not like speaking to political people, where the argumentation and vocabulary was much more common to the language of contemporary media. With Tüzer, it is drastically different. As a Muslim scholar, Tüzer is close to the tasavvuf school of Islam, or better known as Sufism. “This is not reality in which we are living right now. It is a realm of dreams, of imaginary. It is an illusion”, Tüzer says, summarising one of the core beliefs of tasavvuf.

The tasavvuf belief has some parallels with Plato’s philosophy. The perception of material world as the reflection of the Idea – or, the God – was a reason for some academics to consider the former as an offspring of the latter. This approach was criticised for being orientalist as the relation between the two schools of philosophy was handled too reductively, but, in the case of Plato and Tüzer, we can speak of another, much unusual common topic. Plato knew that music was seductive; it could easily arouse sexual desire. But his understanding was very complicated: The erotics of the eternally material sexual desire contained the energy to apprehend the immaterial, transcendent absolute. Millenials later, in 1987, Allan Bloom was much less complicated in his best-selling book, “The Closing of the American Mind”: “Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.” And today we have Tüzer, a Muslim preacher close to the Platonic philosophy who plays rock music, and who also happens to be the target of a religious institution which preaches that “sexual music is a sin”.

How does Tüzer comprehend and evaluate his case, the Directorate’s intervention, and the relation between music and sexuality? He goes back explaining with the vocabulary of a sufist scholar: “There is a beautiful verse of the Quran, ‘On the earth and in the skies you observe the noor – the light – of God’. Everything is a reflection of the God. In the nature, everything, rain, thunder, all have their own notes, their music. How we perceive it depends on what data our processor, our brain, has accumulated. I reject the concept of opposites. Something you perceive as negative, I might get it as positive. When I listen to music, my mind opens, the door to inspiration opens. But these people”, he refers to the top officials in the Directorate of Religious Affairs, “they have not developed themselves, they have not grasped the reality, they look at music from such a low stage.”

He gives a provoking example, which also touches the hot topic of female veils: “My wife is beautiful. But when these people see my wife, their minds are capable of thinking very bad things.” This logic is what lies beneath the tendency of covering the hair, the skin, effectively the image of woman. Tüzer refuses to let the “undeveloped minds” of those “on the lower stages of grasping reality” rule his relation with music.

The rocking imam opposes the Directorate’s fatwa from a religious perspective. However, despite the AKP government’s endless attempts to undermine it, Turkey is legally still a secular state. Thus, when the Directorate refused our requests for interview to understand who was to decide which music was arousing sexual desires and how, it was no surprise. Religion should not have any say in it whatsoever.

Tüzer started to get prepared to sue the Directorate. “I know that the reason of their behaviour stems from their dislike of me and my music, and I am confident that, with God’s will, I will win the case against them.”

But he had other allies in his fight for this very humble cause of giving a concert. One ally was the Portuguese officials. They have attempted to reach out to the Directorate, sending official petitions, making phone calls, even sending e-mails to the personal address of the Director, Mehmet Görmez. None was fruitful. They failed to make contact with the Directorate, let alone speaking and not being able to convince. They haven’t changed their position, and did not even bother to explain it: Tüzer was not appropriate – for some reason.

However, another ally was the local officials from the District Governorship of Kaş, a small town of 50 thousand people. They took initiative and used their legal right to give absence permission to Tüzer for the time of the concert. It had its downsides, such as a financial one: Tüzer was not able to get a transportation allowance from the Ministry and had to pay for the plane tickets. At least, he managed to go to Porto.  They performed, along with Christer Hennix, on 1-3 April 2016 at the Serralves Foundation Museum. We spoke on the phone while he was in Porto, practising before the concerts. His tone reflected a bittersweet joy. “I am here, very happy to be able to participate in the concert. The financial downside is not so much important, but the fact that my art, which I believe has a very strong message these days as a Turkish imam and musician, was not embraced by Turkey breaks my heart.”

Finally, Tüzer succeeded in giving a concert in Portugal. But the Directorate has already won a political case: a clear message that ‘inappropriate music’ will not go unnoticed, and probably unpunished.


Yiğit Günay is a journalist and art historian based in Istanbul. Former editor-in-chief of Turkish alternative newspaper soL and co-author of the book “Arab Spring Legerdemain” published in Turkish in 2013, he does freelance journalism and is part of the MOKU collective.
This article is part of Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in May 2016.



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