The Turkish pop star Gülşen has been arrested on charges of “inciting hatred and enmity” over a joke she made about Turkey’s religious schools.
The 46-year-old singer-songwriter, whose full name is Gülşen Çolakoğlu, was taken away from her home in Istanbul for questioning and formally arrested late on Thursday. She was then taken to a prison pending trial.
The arrest has sparked outrage on social media. Government critics said the move was an effort by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to consolidate support from his religious and conservative base ahead of elections in 10 months’ time.
The charges were based on a joke Gülşen made during an April concert in Istanbul, where she quipped that one of her musicians’ “perversion” stemmed from attending a religious school. A video of the singer’s comment began circulating on social media, with a hashtag calling for her arrest.ı
Gülşen – who previously became a target in conservative Islamic circles because of her revealing stage outfits and unfurling of an LGBTQ flag at a concert – apologised for the offence the joke caused but said her comments were seized on by those wanting to deepen polarisation in the country.
During her questioning by court authorities, Gülşen rejected accusations that she incited hatred and enmity, and said she had “endless respect for the values and sensitivities of my country”, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
Her request to be released from custody pending the outcome of a trial was rejected.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, called on judges and prosecutors to release Gülşen. “Don’t betray law and justice; release the artist now!” he wrote on Twitter.
The spokesperson for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party, known by its Turkish abbreviation AKP, appeared, however, to defend the decision to arrest the singer, saying “inciting hatred is not an art form”.
“Targeting a segment of society with the allegation of “perversion” and trying to polarise Turkey is a hate crime and a disgrace to humanity,” the AKP spokesperson Ömer Çelik tweeted.
Erdoğan and many members of his Islam-based ruling party are graduates of religious schools, which were originally established to train imams. The number of religious schools in Turkey has increased under Erdoğan, who has promised to raise a “pious generation”.
Among those calling for Gülşen’s release was the Turkish pop star Tarkan, best known internationally for his song Kiss Kiss.
“Our legal system, which turns a blind eye to corruption, thieves, those who break the law and massacre nature, those who kill animals and those who use religion to polarise society through their bigoted ideas – has arrested Gülşen in one whack,” Tarkan said in a statement posted on Twitter.