Turkey's entrant for Eurovision Song Contest has country divided

Criticism of Jewish singer picked to represent Turkey at Eurovision competition at odds with secular constitution.

Can Bonomo, a Jewish singer in Turkey.

Credit: Dilan Bozyel
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ISTANBUL // Turkey has chosen a young Jewish singer to represent the country at the Eurovision Song Contest this year, triggering criticism from both fellow musicians and Islamist circles and fanning a broader debate: Do you have to be a Muslim to be a "real" Turk?

Can Bonomo, 24, a singer from the city of Izmir, was little-known when TRT, Turkey's state television, picked him this month as the country's entry for the contest.

The yearly event is watched by tens of millions of people around Europe and beyond. The 57th edition will take place in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in May.

Bonomo, who released his first album of alternative pop music less than year ago, said he did not expect TRT to select him.

"Eurovision is really a big deal in Turkey," he said earlier this week. "Usually TRT picks much more experienced musicians," he added. "So that was the surprise."

Since TRT announced its decision on January 11, the discussion about Bonomo's selection has been overshadowed by a debate about his religion. "A Jew will represent Turkey," the Islamist news website Habervaktim reported. The website also said some video clips of the artist were alleged to have shown symbols of Free Masons. Bonomo has been confronted with questions about his religion in television interviews. In one interview on the Haberturk channel, for example, he was asked to respond to allegations that he was nominated to curry favoured with the "Israeli lobby".

The Eurovision Song Contest is hugely popular in Turkey and the country's representative always attracts widespread interest.

Turkey, which has participated in the Eurovision contest since 1975, has won the competition once, in 2003. That victory, by the singer Sertab Erener, was a source of national pride, and the show has been followed very closely in the country ever since. Recent Turkish entries, which included rock bands and both male and female solo singers, reached the top ten of the competition four times in five years. More than 40 countries, including Israel, are expected to take part this year.

Reaction from fellow artists to Bonomo's nomination has been mixed, with some critics pointing to his lack of experience. Kirac, a popular rock musician who uses only one name, called Bonomo an "amateur".

Bonomo admits his blend of pop and alternative rock with folk and jazz influences is not the standard fare in Turkish popular music, but insists he can bring a new flavour to the Eurovision contest.

"I'm not doing conventional pop music which is clearly more popular in Turkey," he said, adding that the song he will present in Baku "will have the orient and ethnic tunes of Turkish music with a healthy dose of pop and world music in it".

While working on his song for Baku, Bonomo has had to deal with the issue of his religion. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country of more than 70 million people, but also a secular republic in which a citizen's religion should play no role. Some Muslim conservatives and nationalists, however, maintain that Islam is crucial for national unity.

In comments on the Habervaktim website, one reader asked "how much money this Bonobo person will cost Turkey?".

On Twitter, one commentator accused TRT of having chosen Bonomo "to get the support of the Jewish lobby". Another tweet read: "The Jew Can Bonomo will represent the Muslim country of Turkey - where are the Turkish singers?"

Other commentators in social media and newspapers defended TRT's decision and said Bonomo's religious beliefs were his own affair. "Some have started a black propaganda against this young man because he is Jewish," wrote Ali Topuz, a columnist for the Radikal daily. He reminded his readers that the Turkish constitution banned every kind of discrimination based on religion, politics or beliefs.

Bonomo showed irritation about the fact that his religious beliefs had become a public issue.

"I'm a Turkish Jew. I can believe what I want to believe," he said.

"I don't believe art has a religion or ethnicity," Bonomo said. His ancestors had been "living in this land for over 500 hundred years. We've been raised in Turkish culture so the only culture I can bring into an art form would be Turkish. Nothing else."