[This article is part of a special dossier on fandom and politics in the Southwest Asian/ North African (S.W.A.N.A.) region. Read all of the pieces, as well as the introduction, here.]
On 25 February, nineteen days after two major earthquakes devastated Turkey and Syria, fans of the Turkish football team Fenerbahçe protested the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), or Justice and Development Party, government with chants calling for them to resign. The government's belated and inadequate relief effort was the immediate reason behind these protests during the first match after the break the league took following the earthquakes. The next day, fans of another football team, Beşiktaş, followed them with similar chants. Soon after, Fenerbahçe fans were banned from watching their team's next game in the stadium.
In the increasingly polarized country, the chants against the government and the legal repercussions that followed became another political controversy deepening the divide between the AKP followers and the opposition. As Turkey approached the parliamentary and presidential elections in May, the struggle for elected offices went hand in hand with the clashes related to popular culture. With their indispensable place in popular culture, sports and media fandoms have long been a part of these clashes. The momentous protests of the football fans against the AKP government this February can be compared to the increase in the visibility of football fans during the Gezi Protests in 2013. I argue that the recent politicization of fandoms against the AKP rule since 2021 resembles the period between 2011 and 2013. Therefore, revisiting the politicization of sports and media fandoms between 2011 and 2013 is important to study the intense polarization leading to the elections held in Turkey this May. Furthermore, surveying the previous cases of the convergence of fan activism and political activism from the 2011–2013 period offers a chance to understand the more recent interactions between fandoms and politics and what they might look like after the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s newly minted win.
For both sports and media fandoms, the Gezi Protests emerged as a turning point for increased visibility and politicization. The protests against the demolition of Gezi Park evolved into mass protests against the AKP government during the spring of 2013. Among the various groups participating in the protests, football team fans such as the Beşiktaş's Çarşı group gained visibility. While discussing these protests as a turning point for this increased visibility, Dağhan Irak mentions how the AKP's attempts to dominate the football field were already causing fan reactions since 2011. In other words, although the visibility peaked during the protests in 2013, the politicization of football fandoms was incremental.
Like sports fandoms, media fandoms have shared a similar period of incremental politicization against the AKP government between 2011 and 2013. Two television fandoms are particularly helpful in understanding the convergence of fan activism and political activism between 2011 and 2013. This convergence demonstrates the routes leading to fans' politicization. The fans of Behzat Ç. and Leyla ile Mecnun—two TV shows with small but vocal fan followings—made a name for themselves first through their activism to keep the shows on air and then through the increasing politicization of their fandoms. For example, Behzat Ç. fans immediately organized to prevent an impending cancellation when the show's slot was changed due to the low ratings during the show's first season in 2010. In addition to the fans' posts on online platforms, fans of Gençlerbirliği, the soccer team Behzat supports on the show, protested the show's broadcaster during a game. Leyla ile Mecnun fans similarly made it to the news by causing the show to trend on IMBD's list of highest-rated shows in 2012.
Image 1: Images on the street announcing the return of Behzat Ç. to the screens in 2019 after its cancellation in 2013. Photo by Şebnem Baran, 2021.
However, these two fandoms took different routes toward politicization. As a detective series including storylines about political corruption, Behzat Ç.’s more political tone was quickly embraced by young people opposing the mainstream political divides. The politicization of the show paved the way for many Radyo Televizyon Üst Kurulu (Supreme Council of Radio and Television, or RTÜK) fines, which were usually justified by the show's depiction of alcohol use and profanity rather than commenting on the political critique. Despite the constant threat of cancellation, the show survived until the end of its third season in 2013. Leyla ile Mecnun, an absurdist comedy that aired on the public broadcaster, had a more subtle engagement with politics until the cast and crew participated in the Gezi protests in 2013. Leyla ile Mecnun's cancellation after the cast and crew's participation in the protests caused a fan uproar and culminated in a political discussion in parliament.
As I previously mentioned, during the same Gezi protests, football fan groups became more visible and politicized. This specific moment of fan visibility during a political crisis also revealed how political motives could unite the media and sports fans against the AKP rule. Nevertheless, the AKP government's suppression of the protests was followed by the party's further investment in authoritarianism. The censorship and control that paved the way for the cancellation of both Behzat Ç. and Leyla ile Mecnun in 2013 gained more momentum with the failed coup d'état attempt in 2016. While fans and fandoms were not fully erased from the public sphere during this period—anti-AKP fans and fandoms continued to exist along with pro-AKP fans and fandoms—the group mobilization of fandoms against the government lost pace for a few years.
Since 2021, we have been witnessing another wave of politicized fandoms similar to that of 2011 to 2013. This similarity pointed toward a change in the political climate and raised questions about the new possibilities of political mobilization against the government during the two-year period leading to elections in May 2023. In this context, Turkey's participation in the women's Olympic volleyball tournament in Tokyo offers a crucial case for surveying the connection between politics and fan practices. Despite the mainstream popularity of football, other sports like basketball and volleyball—with both men's and women's teams—had occasionally gained popular followings at the time of international tournaments. However, the recent politicization of fan support for the women's volleyball team distinguished this case from the earlier examples.
During the 2021 Summer Olympics, the women's volleyball team reached the quarterfinals. Their popularity continued as they moved to the European Championship Tournament. Two highly publicized incidents followed their initial success in the Olympics. First, a conservative figure, İhsan Şenocak, criticized the visibility of the players' bodies and the nickname given to them. According to Şenocak, the team's players did not deserve to be called "Filenin Sultanları," or “the Sultans of the Net,” for they were not the rightful owners of the conservative imperial legacy embodied by the title “Sultan.” Şenocak's view about women's place in the public sphere was associated with conservative agendas, causing strong reactions among anti-conservative critics. As his tweet circulated, many users, including prominent political figures and celebrities, showed support for the volleyball team online.
Then, an Instagram post of Ebrar Karakurt, one of the most successful players, with her rumored girlfriend, instigated a new wave of anti-LGBTQ+ attacks. Like the previous incident, many fans and non-fans supported Karakurt and the team. Once again, the clash coincided with the political and cultural divides about religion's role in the public sphere. The discussions inevitably referred to the preexisting crises regarding the conservative attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. Taylan Antalyalı, a player from the football team Galatasaray, was similarly targeted for wearing a pride t-shirt in June—the same month the İstanbul Pride March was dispersed by force by the police. LGBTQ+ rights, like women's rights, were already elements of political polarization between the AKP supporters and the opposition. Karakurt's post reignited the clash and also earned more support for the team. Her successful performance following the online attacks further fueled the growing fandom's devotion to her and the team.
After the team qualified for the semifinals, another controversy followed. On social media, some users alleged that TRT, the public broadcaster, knowingly cut the team's chanting of İzmir Marşı, an anthem that has been embraced as a symbol of defiance against the conservative government. TRT General Manager Zahid Sobacı immediately responded on Twitter, saying TRT had no say over the live broadcast controlled by the broadcaster in Bulgaria. All these controversies, along with Karakurt's viral social media posts combining humor and determination to win, contributed to the visibility of Turkey's women's national team. With popular support for the team becoming stronger, they ended the European Championship with a bronze medal. As in the cases of Behzat Ç. and Leyla ile Mecnun, the local political specificities affected the unfolding of fan activism in support of the Turkish women's national team. While politicization followed fan loyalties in some of the earlier examples, in the case of Turkey's women's national volleyball team, the preexisting polarization and politicization intensified fan activism and helped the fandom grow.
Image 2: Screenshot of turkmillitakimleri1 account's post demonstrating the growing popularity of the team. Captured by Şebnem Baran on August 8th, 2021. Although the original post didn't identify the artist, an attribution to Hong Kong-based illustrator Jasmine Tse's Instagram account @tsesaipei was added later.
This new wave of increased fan visibility and politicization coincided with the intensification of political polarization and tension between the AKP government's supporters and opposition. Since the summer of 2021, more questions about censorship and control have been raised concerning many celebrity and media controversies, further demonstrating the effects of power struggles on popular culture. Fans and fandoms have been part of the recurring clashes between the two sides in the past two years. In 2023, football fans’ chants against the governments after the earthquake in February conjured up memories of fan participation in the Gezi Protests ten years ago. This April, the RTÜK fines targeting the TV show Kızılcık Şerbeti (Cranberry Sorbet)—a show focusing on the tensions between a conservative family and a secular family brought together by marriage—were met with fan reactions similar to the responses to RTÜK attacks on Behzat Ç. during its run. As happened between 2011 and 2013, the visibility and politicization of fans and fandoms have increased, particularly due to their mobilization against the AKP rule. Whether this new wave will come to a halt like the previous one did in 2013 is yet to be seen.
With the AKP-led People’s Alliance winning the majority of seats in parliament during the elections on 14 May and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan winning the presidential race during the runoff elections on May 28th, Turkey is at another turning point. Elections further contributed to the polarization in the country. The public’s trust in the elections was significantly weaker than in the previous ones. Today, the disappointed opposition voters are concerned about the economic, political, and cultural effects of another term of AKP rule. Therefore, the politicization of fans and the AKP’s reactions to this politicization will matter even more after the elections. In the near future, the interactions between fandoms and politics, or the lack thereof, will give us clues about the tone of Erdoğan’s third term as president. If there is one fandom that is immune to the worries about the future, it is the triumphant fandom of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at least for now.
[Note: An earlier version of this article was published in Henry Jenkins' “Global Fandom Jamboree Series” in 2021. It was the opening statement for a two-part conversation with Rafay Mahmood on fandoms in Pakistan and Turkey.]
 For more on the ban:
 For more on the clashes around popular culture:
Burak Özçetin, “‘The show of the people’ against the cultural elites: Populism, media and popular culture in Turkey.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 22.5-6 (2019): 942-957.
Lisel Hintz, “The empire’s opposition strikes back: popular culture as creative resistance tool under Turkey’s AKP.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 48, no. 1 (2021): 24-43.
 Dağhan Irak, “Istanbul United: Football Fans Entering the ‘Political Field.’” In Everywhere Taksim: Sowing the Seeds for a New Turkey at Gezi, edited by Isabel David and Kumru F. Toktamış, Amsterdam University Press, 2015: 145.
 For more on football fans and activism:
Dağhan Irak, Football fandom, protest and democracy: Supporter activism in Turkey. Routledge, 2019.
Ömer Turan and Burak Özçetin. "Football fans and contentious politics: The role of Çarşı in the Gezi Park protests." International Review for the Sociology of Sport 54, no. 2 (2019): 199-217.
 For more on the growth of authoritarianism after 2013:
Bilge Yeşil, “Performing nationalist populism in Turkey: an exploration of anti-Western, anti-elite and Muslim conservative undercurrents,” Celebrity Studies 11.3 (2020): 336-350.
Menderes Çınar, “From moderation to de-moderation: Democratic backsliding of the AKP in Turkey.” The politics of Islamism: Diverging visions and trajectories (2018): 127-157.
 For Sobacı’s tweet:
Lisel Hintz and Kenan Behzat Sharpe, “A Turkish pop video went viral. Is it just a catchy song — or an anthem for the opposition?” Washington Post, February 23, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/02/23/turkish-pop-video-went-viral-is-it-just-catchy-song-or-an- anthem-opposition/