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2 Boğaziçi students arrested over artwork depicting Kaaba with LGBT flags

Ankara University students demonstrate to show their support with Bogazici University sutdents' protesting against the appointment by the Turkish government of a new rector, in front of Ankara University in Ankara, on January 12, 2021. Adem ALTAN / AFP

Two students from the İstanbul-based Boğaziçi University were arrested on Sunday on charges of inciting hatred and insulting religious values in a poster depicting the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred site, with LGBT flags, according to Turkish media reports.

The students were detained on Saturday after top Turkish officials slammed its display at an exhibition on the university campus. Boğaziçi University students as well as academics have been demonstrating for weeks in protest of the appointment of a pro-government rector by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Following the detention of the students on Saturday, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu tweeted that “LGBT perverts” had been detained for “disrespecting the Great Kaaba.” A spokesperson from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) also slammed the artwork as a provocation, calling it an attack on holy values.

Their statements came after the university’s Islamic research club slammed the poster on social media, prompting people to take to Twitter with hashtags denouncing the poster, LGBT people and the university. The country’s director of religious affairs, who previously created a stir by saying homosexuality causes disease and was defended by President Erdoğan when he came under criticism, said he would take legal action, according to The Associated Press.

The Kaaba in Mecca is the holiest site in Islam, with believers across the world praying in its direction.

The poster placed a mythical half-woman, half-snake creature found in Middle Eastern folklore at the Kaaba along with the flags of LGBT, lesbian, trans and asexual people. The text below said the artwork was a critique of traditional gender roles.

The İstanbul Governor’s Office said five people were initially detained and that police were seeking two more suspects. One person was released, two put under house arrest and two were jailed pending trial.

Student clubs searched

Police searched the fine arts and LGBTI+ student clubs at the university. The statement said police found books on an outlawed Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and rainbow flags.

Melih Bulu, the rector under protest, tweeted that an attack on Islamic values was unacceptable and had no place in the university’s values.

Student group Boğazici Solidarity said the exhibition of more than 300 artworks was partly to protest the new rector and acknowledged that Muslim students had issues with the poster.

“All artwork is open for criticism. But putting art on trial is simply a restriction of the freedom of expression,” their statement read. The group emphasized the value of pluralism at the university and said hate speech based on sexual orientation and gender identity was unacceptable.

The university’s LGBTI+ group tweeted that they stood with their friends and said they reject the new rector, “who targeted his own students.”

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