Respect for Convictions, Not for Dogmas

German-Turk political satirist Serdar Somuncu has made a sensation with his stage show readings from Hitler's and Göbbels' diaries. In an interview with Petra Tabeling, he comments on the idolization of Atatürk, the current caricature controversy, and artistic provocation

Serdar Somuncu (photo: &copy
Serdar Somuncu: "Some people keep throwing oil on the fire until it's really burning, then they call in the fire brigade."

​​What elements of your show do you bring to the stage in Turkey?

Serdar Somuncu: The same ones that I use here in Germany. I read two or three stories from my book "Separate Checks" and add a few anecdotes from my life. I don't change anything because I think it's important that these particular stories also work for audiences in Turkey, and they do.

People in Turkey have a similar outlook to what you would find here. And if they don't have one, then it has nothing to do with being German or Turkish. In my experience, Turkish audiences are very well informed. You can talk at length about Germany and German domestic matters, for example, current political issues, because people are interested in these topics.

What are the humoristic limits of Turkish audiences?

Somuncu: The fun stops with Atatürk. Over the past few years, people have idolized Atatürk to the point that it's almost unbearable. Atatürk apparently represents the last wall of defense against the Turks' newly discovered sense of devoutness.

I think Turks have not come to terms with their past, which explains why the country remains sensitive on a number of issues. Turkey is making demands. For example, it wants to be part of today's Europe – and justifiably so. But the fundamental structure of the country is still based on a totally outdated political philosophy, which begins and ends with Atatürk. As a result, it remains impossible to take a critical look at Atatürk without being branded as a traitor. If you make jokes about Atatürk, then you are bound to hit some very sensitive nerves.

In light of the current caricature controversy, what are your views on religion?

Somuncu: I have a real hard time understanding what is happening right now. I fully respect other people's religious convictions, but I react very strongly to dogmas. I think that is probably where my reservations toward large organized religions come from.

Religious dogmas are always an attempt to regulate what is uncontrollable. That might be a good thing for people who are unable to live without limits. But nobody really needs to be told when he has to fast or when he shouldn't drink alcohol.

If I'm on an even keel, then sometimes I'll have a drink and sometimes I won't. And I don't need a prophet to tell me when to fast. If I trust my wife, why should she have to wear a chador? So I have some very ambivalent feelings about religion.

But what is happening these days has very little to do with religion. It's really an identity crisis. What we are seeing in the current outcry over the caricatures is that, based on some very unfair policies that have been pursued over the past 30 to 40 years, especially in the Middle East, people are overreacting, and thus they are reacting unfairly. The protests are also an expression of resistance against imperialistic policies.

People are helpless in the face of injustices that have been committed against them. So they turn to the only thing they have left, and that's their religious identity.

In reality, this identity is just a means of gathering people. I don't believe that the caricatures have people all up in arms. The protestors are actually rallying against the injustices that are committed and have been committed against them, for example, during the last three Gulf Wars.

How can people in Iraq or Afghanistan react with anything but hate and rage, in these fragmented countries where the Americans are effectively occupiers, where all structures have ceased to exist, and where they have been stripped of their identity? How can they fight to protect their vested interests, when the West believes that it can set the agenda for public opinion around the world and has a monopoly on the press?

Around the globe new media are emerging. Even in these countries, there are newspapers and television networks that can now stand up for themselves and launch their own campaigns. Personally, I don't think these campaigns are right. The media have assumed new roles, for instance, Al-Jazeera has started organizing protests. And people are taken in by that. This has produced images that scare us in the West, and much of our fears stem from feelings of guilt.

Threats have now been made against an illustrator for the Tagesspiegel. When you appear on stage, you sometimes wear a bullet-proof vest…

Somuncu: This business with the Tagesspiegel is ridiculous. Some people keep throwing oil on the fire until it's really burning, then they call in the fire brigade. That makes no sense whatsoever. In a situation like the current one, where tensions are clearly running high, you don't run out and publish yet another caricature and then act surprised when a bunch of idiots, who don't have a clue as to what it's about, make death and bomb threats. This is pure provocation and has nothing to do with a debate over content.

When I brought "Mein Kampf" to the stage, I received a number of phone calls, some from leading TV networks, asking me to go to eastern Germany with a film crew. They said: "Put on a Hitler mustache and shout 'Heil Hitler' until 15 Nazis come along and beat you to a pulp and we'll film the whole thing."

I don't do those kinds of things. That's just provocation. I don't like Nazis, but I won't go to eastern Germany to provoke Nazis so they will behave like Nazis; rather I try to prevent Nazis from behaving like Nazis. In this media business a lot of people can try out their half-baked ideas to get a news story. Then all I can say is: serves you right, put up with the death threats.

Interview: Petra Tabeling

© 2006

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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