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Film Hinting at Bisexuality of Sultan Divides Country

June 13, 1996

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ A blockbuster movie has conservative Turks up in arms over what they say are hints that a feared 17th-century Ottoman sultan was bisexual.

The dispute is about more than the movie _ it is part of a battle over Turkish society being waged between Turks who want a secular society and a growing movement that wants to impose strict Islamic law.

``Istanbul Under My Wings″ is breaking box-office records for Turkish-made films. It tells the story of Hazerfan Ahmet Celebi, a Turkish scientist who built his own wings using Leonardo da Vinci’s blueprints and supposedly was able to fly.

Central to the movie is Sultan Murad IV, who offered shaky support for Celebi’s endeavor. Murad is depicted in the constant company of a handsome young man. He is shown patting the man’s head and talking to him in an intimate manner.

The producers contend they never meant to suggest that Murad was bisexual. In numerous scenes, he is shown in bed with women from his harem.

But a lawmaker from the pro-Islamic Welfare Party demanded in Parliament that the government explain how such a movie could receive state funds.

Culture Minister Agah Oktay Guner, known for his ultranationalist leanings, condemned the movie for ``insulting our history″ and said he would ask that the funds be returned to the treasury.

``Nobody has the right to swear at Turkish history by portraying a sultan as gay using the (state’s) money,″ he said. The money was granted during the previous administration, when the ministry was run by a social democrat.

A Welfare mayor in the central city of Kayseri banned the film.

The Islamic political movement, led by the Welfare Party, has been gaining strength in the last few years. While it could muster no more than 10 percent of the vote in the 1970s and 1980s, it has drawn 25-30 percent of the vote in recent elections.

Now the largest party in Parliament, Welfare is looking for partners to form a coalition government after a center-right coalition collapsed last week.

Welfare wants to push Turkey toward the East, and says the country would be better off leading the Islamic world than trying to tag along behind its richer and more powerful Western allies, who have different values anyway. Secular Western-oriented leaders advocate unity with Europe.

The tensions frequently spill over into everyday life. For example, Welfare is trying to lift a ban on female lawyers covering their heads in court. And then there’s the sultan.

Many intellectuals, newspaper columnists and historians criticized the culture minister for his denunciations and the mayor for banning the movie. Some said that even if the sultan had been bisexual, it wouldn’t be a big surprise.

``If you read between the lines in Ottoman history, you’ll clearly see that homosexuality was widespread,″ Erdal Yavuz, a professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, wrote in the liberal newspaper Yeni Yuzyil last week.

The controversy over the sultan’s sexual orientation has revived old disputes over other aspects of his life.

In the history books, he is best known for his ruthless campaign against alcohol. Hundreds of people were hanged on the spot when he made unannounced sweeps of Istanbul’s bars.

Historical records show he died at 27 of cirrhosis of the liver _ a condition that often results from drinking.

Islamic activists say the cause of death was falsified by non-Muslim historians at the time to make Murad look bad.

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