Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and sermons blaring from speakers continue to echo throughout the cosmopolitan districts of Istanbul in the wake of Friday’s failed military coup, creating a “surreal” scene and stoking fears a nation that remained proudly secular for the last century could be hurtling down the path to full-blown Islamic rule.
As the coup attempt unfolded, President Recep Tayip Erdogan rallied his supporters to the streets and squares of major cities. Long Erdogan’s base, the nation’s most fervent Muslims had steadily been moving from smaller cities and rural villages into the secular intellectual bastions of Istanbul and Ankara. His urgent call amid the coup attempt brought into sharp relief the cultural clash that defines Turkey’s past, and likely, some fear, its future.
“There was a truck with enormous speakers parked next to the main Ataturk statue, blaring first a sermon by an imam, during which everyone stood quietly with their hands held out,” said Paul Loomis, an American expatriate who was in Istanbul’s Taksim Square Saturday night. “Then the soundtrack switched to a `Recep Tayyip Erdogan’ chant set to a beat, and the crowd went wild.
“Religious fervor and support of Erdogan seemed to have fused into one,” he mused, calling the scene “surreal.”
The rhetoric of Erdogan, who has been prime minister or president of Turkey since 2003, has been increasingly religious in recent years and accompanied by crackdowns on the judiciary, the press and critics. In the wake of the failed coup, in which more than 250 people were killed, his government has detained nearly 6,000 military and judicial officials.
Critics who support the secular tradition begun in 1923 when Mustafa Kemal, the leader better known as Ataturk, founded Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, fear the failed coup will give Erdogan all the justification he needs to transform the nation into an Islamist state.
Indeed, the presence of Koran-quoting, pro-Erdogan crowds in Taksim Square was seen by some as a symbolic step back from the freedoms and traditions that have long made Turkey an anomaly among Muslim nations. The Square includes Gezi Park, which in 2013 became a symbol of resistance to Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism as thousands took to the streets in protest of the government.
Other signs that Erdogan’s opposition had been turned included a mosque in Istanbul’s opposition stronghold Besiktas district, which was one of several relaying the president’s call on the faithful to “take to the streets to protect our country from the threat it is facing.”
For some, the impact of the sudden religious fervor was immediate. Selin Nurlu, who has lived in Istanbul, working for an executive search firm since completing her studies in London three years ago, said she made a conscious decision to dress more modestly in the hours following the coup attempt.
“I was going to wear what I would normally wear on Saturday when I was going to leave the house, which is a relatively short black dress,” said the 26-year-old. “But I decided not to at the end because I have no idea how people are going to react now. So, instead, I decided to put on my jeans despite the boiling weather.”
On social media, reports emerged of people attacking those drinking out in the streets in Istanbul’s traditionally secular district of Kadikoy. And even before the weekend’s events, there were signs that brazen mobs were already enforcing strict Islamist rule. A record shop launching a Radiohead album release in one of Istanbul’s hip neighborhoods, Cihangir, was attacked last month during Ramadan over rumors wine was being served during the holy month.
With city squares now filled with Islamist supporters of Erdogan, many who witnessed the 2013 uprising in which those same spaces were occupied by people calling for freedom are fearful.
“I don’t understand,” Duygu Cagdas, 32, said. “We have over 250 people killed, soldiers beaten in the streets, a parliament targeted by our own country’s jets, and yet we are taking to the streets to celebrate.”
Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said yesterday that “complete control around the country has been achieved” by the government, and cast the call to occupy city squares as the “people’s watch for democracy.”
“We will go on with our business and daily lives,” Yildirim said, “but we will not leave the squares at night. We will continue this watch for democracy.”