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“Minarets (and cell towers) are our bayonets”: reflections on the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey

"Finally on a TV appearance on July 30, Erdogan declared his desire to bring the vigils to an end with a massive rally in Yenikapi, Istanbul on August 7."

Asil Peker Dogra
8 August 2016
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Turkish men in traditional costumes on stage at the Democracy and Martyrs' Rally for over a million in Istanbul, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Emrah Gurel / Press Association. All rights reserved.Coup attempts  – successful or not – are not rare in the history of the Turkish Republic. But the failed July 15 coup attempt stands out as in many ways, unprecedented. So do the developments in its aftermath, particularly the 3-month long state of emergency declared on July 20 and the changes brought about through state of emergency decrees.  This included  the substantial institutional restructuring of the military and the closing of hundreds of private media, health, education and charity orgazinzations linked to the Gulen movement (which is accused of being behind the coup plot), as well as massive purges and detentions from military and civilian public institutions.

As of the end of July, the number of civil servants that have been sacked has reached close to 70,000. The largest share of the purges is from the Ministry of Education (almost 43,000) but there seems to be no sector of bureaucracy left untouched, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Finance, to public universities, police forces and the judiciary. Aside from the purges, more than 15,000 people (two thirds of whom are military personnel) were detained and over 8,000 of those were arrested in relation to the coup attempt.  

The avalanche of developments in the three weeks following July 15 has been so overwhelming and the need to keep track of the institutional restructuring and the threat of authoritarian restoration under the now victorious AKP government so great, that the dynamics of the actual coup attempt itself might soon become overshadowed. However, the developments of the night of July 15 and July 16 hold keys to understanding the changing nature of state-society relations in Turkey.

Of particular interest for this piece are the unique and direct instruments that the AKP regime has developed and put to use to mobilize its own support base and a popular resistance against the coup attempt. It should be clarified at the outset that my purpose here is not to overlook the significance of the popular mobilization in defeating the coup attempt or to question the democratic credentials of its participants. Rather, I am interested in the novel channels of communication and signaling that the AKP regime has shown itself to command when under attack. Iwant to ask what longer-term implications and future uses these tools might have.

Indeed, one of the most unique aspects of the July 15 coup attempt was the civilian response against it. In an unprecedented way, civilians came out in large numbers to resist the putsch and clashed with and in some cases were fired at, crushed and killed by the coup soldiers. We have seen memorable images of civilians climbing tanks, blocking military vehicles, surrounding and defending state buildings, gathering in public squares despite the curfew announcement on state TV.

On the darker side, there were also images and reports of civilians beating (and even attempting to lynch) soldiers turning themselves in –in some cases uniformed conscripts who were following orders. Even though many people seem to have reacted to the news of the coup by coming out the streets on their own accord, civilian mobilization has been strongly encouraged and sustained by Erdogan and other AKP actors who, from Erdogan’s first TV appearance in the early hours of the coup attempt when the outcome was quite unclear to three weeks after its defeat, continued to urge people to come out and stay out on the streets and town centres in defence of democracy and their homeland. As aspects of Erdogan’s reinvigorated populist authoritarianism, these innovations in political mobilization deserve further scrutiny.

July 15 - 16

Let us take a closer look at some of the critical developments of the night of July 15 and early morning of July 16. After the news of the closing of the two bridges and airports in Istanbul as well as the unusual sightings of low-flying fighter jets in Ankara and Istanbul began to surface, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed that there was an ‘uprising’ by a clique within the military. Soon after midnight, the coup plotters took control of the state TV channel, TRT, and had the announcer repeatedly read their manifesto. After some speculation as to his whereabouts, President Erdogan himself appeared on CNN Turk, via Facetime on an iPhone held in the hands of the TV anchor. After condemning the coup attempt and claiming it was a conspiracy by a minority within the military, Erdogan made his first plea to the public: I am calling on to our people, he said, I am inviting them to the city squares, to the airports. Whatever this clique will do, let them do it to the people. 

Within an hour after Erdogan’s plea to people, something quite unprecedented started to happen. Mosques all over the country began to broadcast Ezan (the daily call to prayer) and Sela (the prayers read on Fridays or to announce that someone from the community has passed away). As the Ezan is read from the minarets only at the precise times of the day to alert Muslims that it is time for prayer, the untimely broadcasts from the mosques awoke and alerted those who were unaware of unfolding events. In many places, the Ezan and Sela’s were followed by announcements by mosque preachers calling people to the streets. According to eyewitness reports and various recordings, with some minor variations, these announcements urged people to come out to the streets for the love of God, for the love of Mohammed, for the sake of our state, our homeland, our president, to defend democracy and the will of the nation, and to stand up against coups. Some made references to national unity. Some urged people to go to the tow or city centres.

The Sela’s and the announcements were repeated throughout the night and into the next day. Later in the day on July 16, once the dust started to settle and the outcome of the coup attempt seemed clear, we learned that the unusual, untimely prayers and announcements were prompted by an SMS message from the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs to preachers in mosques all around the country. The message from the director urged his religion-loving brethren to invite people from the minarets to resist this treason without resorting to violence. The lights on the minarets will remain on tonight, it said, and with Sela’s, the nation will be invited to defend its law. The head of the directorate was also reported to have called Muftu’s (the top religious officials) in each town to make sure that the task was followed through.

According to the Directorate, there are close to 85,000 mosques around the country – over 3,000 just in Istanbul alone. Although it is difficult to estimate what percentage of the preachers followed through with the directive, it seems like a large portion did. There were news reports in the following days about some exceptional occurrences, like the Imam of a mosque in Izmir who was beaten up by people in the neighbourhood for the repeated Sela’s, and a Muhtar (village headman) in Duzce who was arrested later on for preventing the Imam from broadcasting the Sela on the eve of the coup attempt. A local newspaper in Denizli published on July 21 that investigations were under way against imams who refused to read the Sela and make anti-coup announcements, for being Gulen sympathizers. As part of the post-coup purge, 492 employees were sacked within the Directorate of Religious Affairs itself. There was also news that a special anti-coup Friday sermon was being prepared by the Directorate, to be read all around the country and to warn people against future threats.

‘Democracy Vigils’

In many places, the Sela’s and announcements continued for days after the coup attempt itself was defeated. In fact, the announcements urged people not to get lax, and to continue to guard democracy and stay on the streets. The public gatherings, now named ‘Democracy Vigils’, continued in cities and towns across the country. In later days, in Ankara and Istanbul, some of the announcements specifically encouraged people to gather in Kizilay and Taksim squares, the main centers of the two large cities with political significance. Public transportation was made free to help people easily access city centres. Free food and water was provided in various places for those attending Democracy Vigils. After almost a week of nightly gatherings, on July 20, as President Erdogan chaired back to back National Security Council and Cabinet meetings, pro-government crowds awaited in city squares for what was supposed to be a very important announcement, as indicated by Erdogan the previous day. When Erdogan finally made his appearance on TV around midnight, giving the news that a State of Emergency was declared, the same crowds on democracy watch cheered jubilantly.

The mosques were not the only means of calling people to the streets and mobilizing pro-government groups during and in the aftermath of the coup attempt. Past midnight on July 16, just as the coup plotters were having their manifesto broadcast over state TV, many Turkish citizens received a text message on their cellphones that read: We invite all our people to the squares to defend democracy and national will. It was from ‘The State of the Republic of Turkey’. Another text message signed by President Erdogan himself came soon after, urging the children of the nation to defend their democracy and peace, to claim their state and their nation.

Elected mayors of individual towns and neighborhoods from AKP also sent repeated text messages to people who resided in their districts, throughout the night and in the following days, urging them to come out and stay on the streets, directing them when and where to gather that day. To give but one example, a resident of Cekmekoy, a district on the outskirts of Istanbul, received a total of 25 text messages from the mayor in the one week from July 15 to July 22. The mayor, Ahmet Poyraz, has continued to send an average of one or two text messages to his constituents in the two weeks since then. President Erdogan himself, in a follow up text message on July 21, reminded people that the Democracy Vigils would continue until further notice. Finally, on a TV appearance on July 30, Erdogan declared his desire to bring the vigils to an end with a massive rally in Yenikapi, Istanbul on August 7.

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Turkish anti-coup protesters use their cell phones to take images before the speech of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Democracy and Martyrs' Rally in Istanbul, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Emrah Gurel / Press Association. All rights reserved.

Children of the nation

In the days following the defeat of the coup attempt, the so-called democracy celebrations and democracy vigils began to increasingly resemble pro-Erdogan and pro-AKP rallies. Crowds gathered in city squares were heard chanting to reinstate capital punishment; Turkish flags were everywhere; Islamist banners as well as pro-AKP and pro-Erdogan insignia were common sights. Attacks on Alevi neighborhoods and journalists were reported in the early days. More recently, a young man was beaten for allegedly not holding a Turkish flag; another for allegedly insulting Erdogan, and the police intervened at a democracy vigil in Hakkari organized by the pro-Kurdish HDP party. This news, as well as the images and eyewitness accounts of beatings and lynch attempts against soldiers from July 16 continued to circulate and haunt critics of the AKP regime, even those who felt as strongly against the coup.

In fact, even though there was univocal condemnation of the coup attempt in many circles, and especially among those for whom the bitter memories of previous –successful – coups were too fresh, many of the same people reported feeling estranged and excluded, even intimidated, by the popular mobilization on the streets, as they felt the pro-AKP message had increasingly taken over the pro-democracy message and the government seemed intent on riding the tide to further its own agenda.

On July 15-16, Turkey witnessed something unprecedented in its history rich with military interventions: civilians standing up against armed soldiers, who, in some cases, were firing live munitions at them, confronting and being crushed by tanks, denouncing and confronting coup plotters in large numbers. It is beyond doubt that the civilian response against the coup attempt has played a critical role in its failure, and there is much to celebrate there. However, in a setting where democracy is predominantly understood in its majoritarian form, repression and intimidation of minorities and political opposition has been on the rise for quite some time, the possibility of a peaceful, political resolution with the Kurdish movement has been shut off and social polarization is at an all-time peak, the ways in which the popular resistance against the coup attempt has been mobilized and sustained has a further significance.

The new ordinary?

The AKP regime no doubt has a large, diverse and committed popular base. It also commands various channels of communication that allow it to transmit powerful symbols and messages to this base and beyond –not just through cellphones and minarets as seen during the coup attempt, but also through its extensive control over the mainstream media and censorship and active manipulation in the social media.

This is one of the cautionary tales in the aftermath of the coup attempt. It could be argued that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. What has happened in Turkey since the night of the July 15 has indeed been extraordinary, and in more than one way. However, in a context where political problems are framed as security threats, actual security threats abound, regional and domestic stability are virtually non-existent, and conspiracy theories have long become part of the official narrative, extraordinary itself can easily become the new ordinary, the new routine. The state of emergency declared by the AKP government, with the possibility of extensions, makes that prospect very real and very frightening.

The title quotes a poem by Ziya Gokalp that was recited by Erdogan, the then mayor of Istanbul, in 1997: at the time, this got him a ten-month prison sentence and a political ban.

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