Singer, songwriter and dancer Gulsen, 46, who is viewed by many as the Turkish Madonna, became the subject of an arrest order by an Istanbul court on Thursday 25 August, after a video clip of a comment she made about a band or crew member during a performance in April went viral on social media.
She was reportedly remanded to custody pending further investigation on a charge of "inciting people to hatred and hostility”, for saying of the band member: “He attended the Imam Hatip schools. That’s where the perversion comes from.”
Erdogan attended a religiously oriented Imam Hatip school, as did many of his associates and pillars of the country’s powerful business elite.
Gulsen has apologised for the comment, and told her several million followers on Instagram and Twitter after news of her arrest order emerged that she did not mean to cause any harm or division.
The topic of perversion at Imam Hatip schools is sensitive because a number of sexual abuse scandals have emerged from the network, which has been lavished with public funds under the conservative 20-year reign of the Justice and Development Party.
Gulsen Bayraktar Colakoglu has been an iconic figure in Turkish pop for decades, and is known for her revealing costumes, unrestrained sexuality, extravagant live performances and colourful music videos. Her songs are well-known among Turks.
Video circulated on Thursday evening showed a massive crowd attending a match of one of Turkey’s main football clubs, Fenerbahce, singing one of her hits in solidarity.
“She’s a really canonical figure,” said Kenan Behzat Sharpe, a scholar focused on pop culture and politics at the American Research Institute in Istanbul. “She’s been making music since the 1990s and is an institution. She has several songs that everyone in the country knows. You could say that she is like a Turkish Madonna, known for her stage presence and costumes and sexual openness.”
Further angering Erdogan’s supporters, Gulsen is a strong advocate of LGBT+ rights and has flown the Pride flag during her performances. When religious conservatives have attempted to shame her for her costumes and stage antics while also being a mother of one, she has doubled down.
“She went on to put out a well-written statement saying that while she may be a mother and a daughter, none of these adjectives fully describe who she was,” said Sharpe. “She has been kind of putting her middle finger up against them, waving the LGBT flags at her concerts. She’s a woman who knows her own mind and doesn’t back down.”
Legal experts have said that Gulsen likely will not be jailed, even if she is convicted of the charge and sentence. However, the arrest has prompted outrage among her supporters and secular Turks opposed to Erdogan, who has been lagging in polls because of the sorry state of Turkey’s economy.
“In no country in the world is there an arrest for such a thing,” said one user on the messaging platform Eksi Sozluk. “It only happens in a banana republic.”
Others noted that a cleric who recently said in another video that went viral that those who did not pray regularly could be killed had not been arrested.
Sharpe suggested that the arrest, which followed a ferocious social media campaign by Erdogan supporters calling on the judiciary to act, could help shift political discourse away from the economy and towards the cultural arena where the AKP may feel it has the upper hand.
“It’s a way to garner support and push the debate to more comfortable territory, away from economy and corruption,” he said. “It’s safer ground for them. The more the opposition rallies around Gulsen, the more the conservative segments of society will say this is what Turkey will be if the opposition wins: half-naked women and LGBT flags.”