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  • Oct 27, 2017

The Arrest of Osman Kavala Signals Ill Winds in Turkey

Turkish philanthropist and arts patron Osman Kavala has been arrested by his own government. His detention is part of a sweeping campaign to purge Turkey of those perceived to be part of the opposition to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative sectarian agenda. Photo via HaberTurk and The Armenian Weekly.

The news that prominent businessman, philanthropist and civil society activist Osman Kavala had been detained by anti-terrorism police at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport on Wednesday, October 18, sent a deep chill through Turkey’s cultural communities, civil society organizations and NGOs in the country. According to Turkish media reports, Kavala was returning from the southeastern city of Gaziantep, where he had been discussing a project with Germany’s international cultural arm, the Goethe-Institut, when he was taken by security forces.

Kavala’s arrest is another sign that the Turkish government’s campaign against civil society organizations is accelerating more than a year after the failed military coup of July 2016. As this news broke in the same week as a nationalist group’s attacks on an Istanbul exhibition of contemporary art from businessman Ömer Koç’s art collection—allegedly over a nude Ron Mueck sculpture—Turkey’s cultural and arts community fears that it will now be under renewed scrutiny from officials and emboldened rogue actors. In wide-ranging purges of the last 15 months, more than 45,000 people have been arrested, and over 137,000 individuals have been fired or suspended from government positions, including universities, often on only the slimest circumstantial evidence of connection to people affiliated with the nationwide religious networks of the US-based conservative cleric Fethullah Gülen whose followers the government alleges were behind the coup attempt.

Kavala is a well-known figure in Turkey and in the region—in business circles and for his civil society campaigns and philanthropy. Within the culture and arts community, he is best known as the chairperson of Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture), a nonprofit established in 2002 to support cultural events all over Turkey, including locations beyond the country's major cities. Anadolu Kültür has been an important platform for groups addressing human rights and LGBT issues, and has backed cultural reconciliation initiatives with Kurdish civil society groups, and launched cultural outreach programs with groups in neighboring Armenia. In 2002, Anadolu Kültür opened the Diyarbakır Art Center, and then the Kars Art Center in 2005; the latter was shuttered by the local municipality after elections in 2009.

Anadolu Kültür founded the cultural space Depo in Istanbul, in a former tobacco warehouse in the Tophane district. Depo program coordinator Asena Günal characterized the organization’s mission to ArtAsiaPacific as “host[ing] research-based, documentary projects and art exhibitions. The themes taken up by these shows can be assessed under the captions of dealing with the past, politics of memory, human rights, minority rights, social movements, urban transformation and youth culture. With its accessible and flexible structure, Depo aims to meet the need in Istanbul’s culture and art scene for non-commercial, independent spaces open to critical voices.”

In April 2015, for instance, Depo hosted several exhibitions around the centenary of the Armenian genocide, an issue that is hugely contentious within Turkish society, and for which Kavala has long advocated reconciliation. Among Depo’s many recent exhibitions that encapsulate its regional, cross-cultural focus have been shows of Armenian diaspora artists exploring their roots; a research-based exhibition looking at the portrayal of the Kurdish celebrations of the Newroz (or Nawroz) festival in Turkish mainstream media; a group show by Syrian artists living in exile in Turkey, “Echo of Homs”; and in September and October, an exhibition of Tunisian-Jewish-Palestinian artist Dor Guez’s project “Sick Man of Europe,” about a Turkish architect from the 1930s.

Günal explained to AAP the implicit messages that come with Kavala’s arrest: “There has been ongoing pressure on civil society. The arrests of human rights defenders in Büyükada aimed to intimidate human rights activism in Turkey, and Osman’s case widened the scope of the threat. This is a message to everyone working in civil activism as well as those in arts and culture. Those who are working with foreign institutions and funds, and the institutions and funds themselves, would [have to] be more cautious about their collaborations. The government is not closing down the foreign cultural associations but framing and almost criminalizing them.”

Although Kavala’s family and lawyers at first hoped that his detention would only last for a week, prosecutors have extended his custody by another seven days. The exact reason for Kavala’s detention is still not known. However, it appears the government is building a case against him as part of its wider crackdown on civil society groups and any figures considered to be in opposition to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s camp that dominates the ruling AK Party. This week, government propaganda outlets like the English-language Daily Sabah linked Kavala to the “FETÖ coup attempts”—the government’s shorthand and acronym for supporters of Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of directing the attempted military coup in July 2016. Daily Sabah and its original Turkish version Sabah are known to spread information from President Erdoğan’s circles about the pending outcomes of judicial trials and prosecutorial charges before they are decided by judges or prosecutors. Journalists with knowledge of the networks between Turkish government officials and various media platforms, such as Amberin Zaman, have also noted that key AKP propagandists are building a “slander campaign” against Kavala.

Erdoğan referred to Kavala in his weekly address to the AK Party on October 24, without explicitly using his name, as the “domestic Soros.” Though Kavala is not Jewish, the invocation of billionaire philanthropist George Soros is nonetheless an anti-Semitic dog whistle commonly used by ethnocentric, right-wing nationalists—whether in Turkey, Europe or the United States—to demonize someone who is a supporter of secular, progressive causes and who is supposedly interfering in national politics behind the scenes. Far-right governments in Israel, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Turkey have all deployed or backed “anti-Soros” campaigns to rally supporters and drive out international NGOs.

Adding potential complications to the case, Daily Sabah claims that Kavala was implicated in the same government investigation that arrested Metin Topuz, a longtime employee of the United States Consulate in Istanbul whose job it was to liaise with the Turkish police on security issues. Some of those police have been linked to the Gülenist networks that the AK Party installed over a decade ago and are now trying to purge. Topuz’s arrest and the warrant for another Turkish employee at the US Consulate sparked a diplomatic crisis in October between the two NATO allies, with both countries refusing to accept new visa applications at their respective embassies and consulates in the two countries.

“Kavala has worked a lot on democracy, reconciliation, dialogue, and rule of law in Turkey courageously since early 1980s,” Günal explained to AAP. How Kavala, who supported initiatives aimed at promoting Turkey’s reconciliation with Kurds and Armenians, could be affiliated with the conservative Gülenist circles that at times opposed peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, or PKK)—which the Turkish government accuses of attempting to create a breakaway state within Turkey—and any acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide is beyond the scope of logic in the government’s current efforts to demonize anyone working counter to Erdoğan’s conservative sectarian agenda.

Kavala has been the chief executive of his family’s conglomerate since 1982, but is best known as a staunch supporter of civil initiatives, including the Acik Toplum Vakfi (Open Society Foundation). Together with academic and literary critic Murat Belge, he established the influential publishing house İletişim Publications. Kavala served as a member of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) administrative board, and a supporter of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, History Foundation, and Diyarbakır Culture House, as well as having served on the boards of Turkey-Poland Business Council, Turkey-Greece Business Council, and Center For Democracy in Southeast Europe. He is known for his hands-on work too, helping establish refugee camps and schools for thousands of Yezidis fleeing to Turkey from ISIS militants in 2014.

The direction of Kavala’s case will be closely followed—by residents of Turkey and people in the region who work with many organizations in Turkey—as an indication of depth and characteristics of the authoritarianism to expect under Erdoğan’s illiberal rule. The current developments suggest to NGOs and cultural groups that their activities and connections are being closely monitored, and that no figure, regardless of wealth and international prestige, is immune.

HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific.

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