Turkey coup: Erdoğan-as-savior gets boost from potent blend of images

Ever since the coup attempt was defeated, flag-waving Turks have nightly thronged city plazas across the country, rallying around nationalism, Islam, and democracy.

Hussein Malla/AP
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold placards and wave their national flags during a pro-government rally at Kizilay main square, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday.

At the edge of the crowd in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, where thousands of flag-waving Turks have rallied every night this week, was a single carpet, just large enough for four or five people to pray shoulder to shoulder.

The carpet faced Mecca – the traditional direction of prayer for Muslims. But it also faced a sign just a few feet away in Turkey’s national colors of red and white that reads: “Vigil for Democracy.”

At nightly rallies in squares across the country to honor citizens who surged onto the streets a week ago to thwart a military coup, stopping tanks and disarming soldiers, a powerful new symbolism is meeting politics.

It is a potent blend of images that tug at Turkish hearts by combining nationalism, Islam, and democracy. Most are aimed at further boosting the political fortunes of Turkey’s charismatic but divisive president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is portrayed by acolytes as a divinely protected guardian of democracy.

From the flags and public prayers to full-page newspaper ads, placed by big companies and state entities like Turkish Airlines, thanking Turkey’s commander-in-chief and proclaiming, “Democracy Wins,” Turks are being inundated with images that are shaping their political future as they cope with a national trauma.

Devotees vow to give their lives for Mr. Erdoğan – one young man in Taksim wore a white sheet as a death shroud, with the words, “I am ready to die for this.” The crowd chants “God is great!” repeatedly, all night.

And there is a universal enemy: Effigies of Fethullah Gülen, the cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania and accused of leading a “terrorist” movement to bring down Turkey’s elected government, are strung up and desecrated.

Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are seen by many to be converting a moment of national unity – all the main political parties condemned the coup – into a political one that bolsters their own Islamist-rooted worldview. But the catalyst was a moment of great national distress felt by everyone, including, some say, the president.

“Erdoğan is certainly using this to galvanize his base…. There is no doubt it will deepen the cult of personality around Erdoğan,” says Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish analyst and columnist, and author of “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”

“But I think beside him using [it], Erdoğan is himself deeply affected by this,” says Mr. Akyol. “It’s not just, ‘He’s making these very meticulous evil plans to bring more political support.’ He and everybody around Erdoğan is really thinking that the country is in urgent danger, and you can’t blame them for thinking like that.”

Shockwaves through nation

“The people who rightly criticize this should see the incredible thing that created it,” says Akyol, noting that the attempted coup included soldiers shooting at citizens and airstrikes against the parliament building. Some 250 people died.

“I don’t know how Americans would feel if Congress was bombed by American jets – it would really shock the nation and create shockwaves,” adds Akyol. “That is what is happening in Turkey right now.”

Erdoğan announced that July 15 will become “Martyr’s Memorial Day” in Turkey, and said: “Future generations will never forget the heroic resistance of July 15th, in the name of democracy.”

On Thursday he said a new three-month state of emergency would strengthen, not harm, democracy in Turkey, though Amnesty International warned that it “must not pave the way for a roll-back in human rights” as tens of thousands of police, soldiers, judges, educators, and others are being investigated for alleged links to the coup-plotters.

The public rallies are a response to Erdoğan’s call to remain on the streets, a message renewed at dawn Thursday in a presidential text to all cellphones and addressed to “saintly citizens.”

“To teach the terrorist organization … a lesson we must continue to seize democracy,” the text read. “The tanks are not the owners of the squares.”

Huge demand for flags

So many Turkish flags are being waved, draped on buildings, and attached to car convoys and boat flotillas that the country’s flag makers report being overwhelmed by the demand.

Each night, state and pro-AKP broadcasters show split-screen live images from half a dozen city squares at a time, giving the impression that the entire population is spontaneously on the streets, celebrating and “defending” democracy. And while the celebration has been genuine, it has also been facilitated by days of free public transportation, while food, drink and other services are provided by local municipalities and charity groups.

A banner put up across the offices of state broadcaster TRT in the capital, Ankara – where soldiers took control and issued statements during the coup – reads: “Citizens, alongside our Commander-in-Chief, we became the owners of freedom!”

One television spot shows Erdoğan, pre-coup, burnishing both his nationalist and religious credentials as he prays at the graves of soldiers who fell in the war against Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey. Few have missed the Erdoğan-as-savior message, which has grown more frequent over the last year as Turkey has witnessed more than a dozen suicide bomb attacks.

“It is only Erdoğan who can bring hope,” says one citizen about the messaging, as he mocks the nightly rallies. “And it is only Erdoğan who can bring darkness.”

In his own comments, Erdoğan has stated repeatedly how he was minutes away from being captured and perhaps killed by coup-plotters who came for him at a holiday resort. And everyone has heard the report that pro-coup fighter pilots had Erdoğan’s plane in their gun sights as it flew toward Istanbul, but for unknown reasons didn’t fire.

'The dog of Satan'

And then there is the “enemy.”

Pro-government newspapers have run full front-page “Wanted” posters for Mr. Gülen, the exiled cleric and former Erdoğan and AKP ally-turned-arch-foe. He is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt through what Turkish prosecutors since 2013 have called the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization (FETÖ).

Turkish officials this week officially requested Gülen’s extradition, and say ties with the US will suffer if he is not handed over. Stories in state-run newspapers describe a number of Turks “rushing” to courthouses to change their names from Fethullah.

In a video that emerged Friday, Gülen says the Turkish reaction is “stupid right now, they are laughing and acting like they have achieved success, like in a large celebration…. But the world is ridiculing them.”

In case there were any doubt about official rage, the largest single banner that hung this week in Taksim Square – several stories high, more than twice as wide, and flanked by portraits of Erdoğan – was explicit.

“FETÖ is the dog of Satan,” the banner read. “We will hang you and your dogs by their own leashes. With God’s permission, the flags of democracy will wave in the skies.”

The final line signs off: “This is the saint of the nation’s [Erdoğan’s] valiant young men.”

“Some of the things we are seeing in Turkey today is certainly worrying,” says Akyol. “It’s a culture of anger, given a feeling of lynching.… The government should calm down the masses, and this should not be going on and on and on – that’s the danger ahead right now.”

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