Can Mosques and Minarets be Tools For Democracy?

Photo Credit: Raindrop Turkish House. cc-by-nc-nd

It is quite common for a military regime to change the names associated with public spaces (e.g., squares, avenues, streets) and public institutions (e.g., schools, hospitals), particularly if these are associated with a previous regime or ideologies designated as subversive or simply as the “arch-enemy”. After the 12 September 1980 coup in Turkey, for instance, the military regime in Turkey cleansed public spaces and institutions of “unsuitable” names.

But it is not only the military who are interested in renaming schools. For as long as militarism is considered a viable ideology, civilian governments can also be intent on naming schools after military figures, events, or martyrs. That is exactly what has happened in Turkey. Turkey is now full of schools named after martyrs.

Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled Turkey since 2002, this militarist practice intensified:

“In 2007, for instance, the Provincial Education Directorate of Kars changed the names of seven village schools with a single decision. The schools were named after the village they were located in. These schools now carry a name that has nothing to do with the village or the region. The schools have been turned into sites marking a never-ending conflict.”[1]

Local governments controlled by AKP played their part diligently. Even parks for children were named after martyrs. Municipalities in Istanbul played a major role in promoting martyrdom in the context of the Battle of Gallipoli, known as the Victory of Çanakkale. But Sincan Municipality, which is part of metropolitan Ankara and long considered to be a bastion of political Islam, surpassed all others in 2012: the mayor announced that 36 parks would be named after martyrs. Many parks were previously named after key figures from the Ottoman dynasty, such as Gazi Osman and Orhan Gazi. It was quite clear that the local administration had an agenda: the public needed to be reminded of the magnificent heritage of the the Ottoman Empire and young people, in particular, indoctrinated into seeing the martyrs as examples to follow.

Mosques and vigils

After the failed coup attempt on 15 July last year, the zeal for renaming public institutions reached an unprecedented high. This time mosques were targeted, too. Mosques, initially used to mobilize the public against the coup attempt, soon became tools for a political machine that wanted to keep the entire population on the verge of something.

The regime was eager to develop novel channels and strategies of political communication. The goal was to reinforce two notions. First, the regime was in control, and secondly, the regime and the nation were one entity. The regime was determined to use this “god-sent” opportunity to consolidate its control and public support.

One of the new channels was “democracy vigils“, initiated and staged by central government in AKP-controlled municipalities. Each vigil was highly publicised, totally safe to attend and orchestrated in a top-down fashion. And they had nothing to do with democracy. Rather, these provided stages for large numbers of extras to be summoned every night to deliver what they were expected to deliver – night after night. The vigil in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, for instance, was more like a major film set. It was on television, on social media, on YouTube, and politicians kept repeating the message, “Democracy has been saved.”

The vigils ended on 10 August with major gatherings. In Pendik, on the Asian side, crowds were greeted with big banners at the National Will Gathering. They were provided with the opportunity of a photo shoot. In the background, it said “Thank you Pendik, thank you Turkey, thanks for saving your will“, meaning that it was the public who saved the regime. (They now saved the administration it was their will to elect.) Before the photo shoot everybody was given a flag. And it was left to the person to decide if they wanted to contribute a political message to this setup. Some contributed the “four finger” gesture, introduced into Turkey’s political scene by President Erdoğan. The gesture, imported from Egypt, came from a tradition of hardcore political Islam.

The vigils fulfilled a very important function. They raised the emotions, made people feel like they were part of a democracy that they had never really participated in. If the vigil and the festive activities were democracy, crowds were the living proof of it. But the vigils served a more subtle function, too: they legitimized the regime’s militarism and belief in violence. The crowds were also celebrating the violence directed at anyone and everyone accused of being associated with the failed coup, with Gülenists, and all the rest. Those who wanted to overthrow the regime were all to be regarded as subhuman, dehumanized.

One of the many videos broadcast on television shows an officer shouting insults at captive soldiers and officers in a military area in Etimesgut, in Ankara. He calls them dogs, traitor, traitor dogs and so on. The voiceover says he is teaching them a lesson. He accuses them of following someone “who has not been circumcised” meaning not even a Muslim. Associating non-Muslims, particularly the Armenians, with “terrorists” has been common practice for decades. Many AKP politicians have endorsed the practice and had no problem admitting that they did not have respect for non-Muslims. In 2014, President Erdoğan apologized for uttering the word “Armenian” in public. After 15 July, dehumanisation became the norm in the way the regime framed its opponents. Opponents were simply subhuman enemies and were turned into outcasts.

Flag-waving during the speech of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Democracy and Martyrs’ Rally in Istanbul, Sunday, August 7, 2016. Depo Photos/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Mosques with a new name

The Directorate of Religious Affairs, which is in charge of all mosques and religious affairs in Turkey, asked all preachers to call people to the streets in the hours following the coup attempt. But the preachers were ordered to continue sela calls on 16 July and the following day. The mosques were turned into political tools to repeatedly remind the population of the coup attempt.

The last two times that the ezan and the sela were incanted outside of ritual time occurred before the Republic of Turkey’s boundaries were established in 1923. During World War I, as the British and French laid siege to Istanbul at the Battle of Gallipoli, Ottomans heard the ezan and the sela sounding across the Marmara Sea. In 1922, Greek soldiers retreating from Anatolia ostensibly left the port city of Izmir with recitations ringing in their ears. In both cases, the ezan and sela were used to marshal Ottoman Muslims to defend their communities.

Reciting the call to prayer outside of normalized Islamic ritual time rendered this July coup a kind of war against Turkey itself.[2]

The persistent use of mosques indicated, more than anything, that Turkey was indeed in extraordinary times, a time of war. For those against political Islam, each sela was a reminder of that infamous line, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets….”

Turkey was indeed under a state of emergency and the government initiated a campaign to associate mosques with the resistance to the 15 July coup attempt. The coup attempt was over and the country was under the firm control of an authoritarian regime. So clearly, the campaign to associate mosques with the resistance was first and foremost a political move.

In August, the campaign started in İzmir. Yamanlar Koleji, one of the first of the many private schools in Turkey founded or associated by the Gülenists, was transformed into a religious school for girls. The new name of the school, Şehit İlhan Varank Kız Anadolu İmam Hatip Lisesi, not only sounded long and awkward but was very much an amalgamation of several victory messages. First, the school was named after a “democracy martyr”, a professor from a university in Istanbul. Secondly, the renaming proved the fact that the regime was conquering and eradicating Gülen schools and turning them into their kind of school, an “imam hatip” school. Third, this was going to be a girls-only school in a city where such schools and the regime were not welcome. The private school had a large structure built as a mosque but used as a library. The structure was also seized and turned into a mosque with the name “15 July Martyrs Mosque.”

Pendik, a big municipality on Istanbul’s Asian side, was next. A mosque commissioned by a businessman who had made a fortune in the construction business was renamed “15 July Martyrs Mosque.” The businessman was linked to Gülen. He was first arrested and then released with an electronic device attached to his leg. His business empire was under attack by the regime. Amidst these troubles, he asked the mosque to be renamed.

More mosques were renamed as the 15 July Martyrs Mosque. In Bahçelievler, on the European side of Istanbul, a mosque that carried the name Çobançeşme, the name of the neighborhood, was renamed. In Bafra, a city near Samsun in the north, a mosque named after Ismet Pasha (Ismet Inönü) was renamed. Also in the North, a new mosque in a village called Üyükören was renamed.

In Antalya, in the south, Denizkenarı Mosque was renamed. In Çerkezköy, which is the west near Tekirdağ, Tepe Emlak Konutları Mosque also became 15 July Martyrs Mosque. In Çelikhan, which is in the east about 90 km. from Adıyaman, a groundbreaking ceremony for the 15 July Nation Martyrs Mosque took place. And in central Turkey, a new mosque was built in a village called Hilalli in Çorum Province, also with the same name.

Not only in Turkey

What is particularly amazing is the geographical spread of the idea to name mosques after 15 July. One of the first mosques to be named as such was located in Bulgaria: It was named as “15 July Democracy Martyrs Mosque” on 21 August. The opening ceremony was attended by the heads of the Muslim religious establishment in Bulgaria and also by three high-level representatives of the DOST party.

The idea reached as far as Kyrgyzstan, thanks to the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which is very closely associated with AKP, and said to be active in more than 100 countries. For years it commissioned mosques around the world, including the biggest mosque in Vietnam. Recently, the foundation named two of three mosques it commissioned in Kyrgyzstan after the 15 July Martrys.

Diyanet working overtime

The renaming campaign was led by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (or Diyanet), which is now an extension of the ruling party. It is provided with the budget of 5-6 ministries combined. It now has a television channel, a radio channel, many publications and vast powers. Now nobody in Turkey seems to be surprised when Diyanet backs each and every political move by the regime.

This week Diyanet is working over time. Diyanet is supposed to oversee religious activities but this week it is busy organizing many activities, including a new publication: a new book (15 July as Told by the Veterans), a documentary and short films about 15 July. Next, an special exhibition with 15 July as the theme. Diyanet publishes a monthly magazine: this July it has a special issue dedicated to 15 July. High-level Diyanet officers are going to visit the families of “15 July martyrs” and also the “15 July veterans”.

Friday is when Diyanet is always more active. On 14 July, special activities, all titled “Commemoration of Our Martyrs,” will be held across the country in Quran courses for children. Quran reading sessions will be held across the country before Friday prayers. One hundred thousand prayers will read in honor of martyrs. Friday prayers and the sermons will focus on 15 July.

And then there will be activities on 15 July. Diyanet will hold special activities with the slogan, “From Coups that Silenced Prayers to Sala that Silenced Prayers.” A web page devoted to 15 July will be published. And on Saturday night Diyanet will organize for sala calls from minarets at 00:13 across the country in 90 thousand mosques. The lights of the mosques and minarets will be on all night.

Diyanet was founded to oversee and manage religious affairs, and to serve the new secular republic. It is not part of any ministry. It is attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, just like many other key agencies. In the 80s it turned into an umbrella for variants of political Islam to organize under. Under AKP, it turned into a political mechanism serving the regime.

After 15 July and under the state of emergency, Diyanet has no reason to be shy. The regime has no reason to be careful. Mosques, funerals, martyrs are all in the service of a one-man regime. If anyone has any doubts about the predominance of this strain of political Islam in Turkey, this week they should be watching the mosques in Turkey and aware of how mosques, as well as schools and parks have been renamed.

Last year the regime in Turkey organized an unprecedented campaign to make the world believe that last year democracy was saved on 15 July. It is true that the regime survived. And the regime has turned the coup attempt into a survival strategy because it has no other way to claim legitimacy. The frenzy around 15 July has a very good explanation. That infamous line, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers,” fits the strategy well.



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