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Turkish pop singer given suspended sentence for insulting religious school graduates

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A Turkish court has handed down a suspended 10-month sentence to a famous Turkish singer due to remarks that allegedly insulted the graduates of religious schools, known as imam-hatip schools in Turkey, the Diken news website reported on Wednesday.

Gülşen Bayraktar Çolakoğlu, 46, who goes by the stage name “Gülşen,” was kept in pre-trial detention for four days and subsequently under house arrest for 15 days last summer on charges of “inciting hatred” due to a quip about religious schools.

Although the singer made the joke on stage in April 2022, it went viral on social media after being re-posted by a pro-government daily in August 2022, leading to criminal charges against her under Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which criminalizes inciting hatred and enmity among the public and insulting a group of the people in the public based on class, race, religion or sect, requiring a prison sentence in cases that lead to threats to public safety.

Gülşen had quipped that her guitarist’s “perversion” was rooted in his attendance at an imam-hatip school, which specializes in religious education combined with a modern curriculum.

The İstanbul court where Gülşen stood trial decided to hand down a suspended 10-month sentence on conviction of insulting part of the society based on class, race, religion or sect.

If the singer is convicted of the same crime in the next five years, she will be required to serve this sentence.

Gülşen was represented by her lawyers during Wednesday’s hearing who asked for the singer’s acquittal.

One of Gülşen’s lawyers, Altın Mimir, said the singer did not have any intention of targeting imam-hatip graduates on stage and that her remarks were merely a joke. Mimir said imam-hatip school graduates do not constitute a social class and that it is legally impossible to talk about insulting them as such.

Most imam-hatip schools were closed after the 1997 ousting of an Islamic-rooted government by the military.

Their number began to grow when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Erdoğan is a graduate of an imam-hatip school.

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim but officially secular state.

Erdoğan has often said his goal was to raise “pious generations.”

This creates enormous tensions with more liberal Turks, who fear that Erdoğan’s rule is undermining the republic’s secular foundations.

Gülşen said back then she was sorry that her joke was being used to stir up further divisions in the country.

The singer emerged in the 1990s, with her first video clip featuring her in pajamas. But with time her songs and videos became more risqué and overtly sexual.

She dedicated her Elle Style “icon of the year” award to the LGBTQ movement last year.

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