x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Muezzin ‘booted out of two mosques’ for helping protesters a hero in Turkish election debate

Fuat Yildirim, who angered the Erdogan government after he allowed protesters to rest in his Istanbul mosque during demonstrations in June, is becoming a focus of a swelling campaign debate. Thomas Seibert reports

Protesters prepare to roll a police car over during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul in June. Murad Sezer / Reuters
Protesters prepare to roll a police car over during an anti-government protest at Taksim Square in central Istanbul in June. Murad Sezer / Reuters

ISTANBUL // It is no surprise that the anti-government protests that swept Turkey this year have already become a key issue in elections expected next year. What is unexpected is that a muezzin is the focus of the swelling debate.

Fuat Yildirim angered the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he allowed protesters to rest in his Istanbul mosque during the demonstrations in June. He was later transferred from the Bezmi Alem Sultan mosque to another mosque, then again to another.

The moves were reportedly made pending the results of an investigation into allegations that the demonstrators to whom he gave safe haven from the tumult in the streets drank beer while they were in the mosque – charges that Mr Yildirim has denied.

Regardless of the questions still surrounding the incident – or perhaps because of them – his case has become a campaign rostrum, providing a glimpse of how the Gezi Park unrest might play out when voters go to the polls in March to elect local officials and in August to choose a new president.

Opposition politicians have praised Mr Yildirim as a hero for his efforts on behalf of protesters during the wave of anti-government unrest in June, which started as a local demonstration against a building project in Gezi Park in central Istanbul and later spread across the country, killing six people and injuring thousands.

The local elections will be watched closely for any effect of the Gezi unrest on the result of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Mr Erdogan, who oversaw tough police action against the June protests.

The AKP is in power in many Turkish municipalities, including Istanbul and Ankara, the capital. Mr Erdogan, who has led the government since 2003 but is barred from seeking a fourth term as prime minister under AKP rules, has hinted that he will run in presidential elections in August.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, is trying especially hard to woo members of the protest movement. This month, Gursel Tekin, the CHP’s deputy chairman and a possible mayoral candidate in Istanbul in March, said he felt the “spirit of Gezi behind me”.

Another possible CHP candidate for Istanbul mayor, Mustafa Sarigul, also said he supported the protests. “I was in Gezi Park on day one, and I also suffered the [tear] gas” fired by police, he said.

Sirri Sureyya Onder, a prominent politician of the Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), Turkey’s main Kurdish party, has also announced that he is running for mayor in Istanbul. Mr Onder made headlines when he publicly supported the Gezi Park demonstrators and was injured in a clash with the police.

Mensur Akgun, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Kultur University, said the opposition would be trying to benefit from what the Turkish media have dubbed the “Gezi factor”.

“They will try, but it will not be easy,” Prof Akgun said yesterday of the opposition. He said efforts by political parties to attract votes by expressing support for the protests were likely to be viewed as opportunistic by members of the protest movement the parties are trying to win over.

That has not stopped to procession of opposition politicians to Mr Yildirim’s door.

“We as CHP stand up for muezzin Fuat Yildirim,” Mr Tekin said on the party’s website on Friday. He said the muezzin had been “booted out of two mosques” by the state as a punishment for helping protesters. In Turkey, all mosques are administered by the government’s Religious Affairs Directorate in Ankara, and all muezzins are state employees.

Mr Yildirim has not commented on the growing political fervour surrounding his case.

While established political parties are keen to use the “Gezi factor” to their advantage, members of the protest movement, who have kept their distance from political parties, are thinking about putting up their own candidates for seats in the March elections.

“We have been discussing this,” said Fidan Ataselim, 25, an unemployed university lecturer and leading member of a protest group in Besiktas.

“We may field our own candidates in some districts.”

An attempt to enter politics would represent a new step for the protest movement, which has not formed a political party or any kind of centralised structure.

“To stop now is not an option,” Ms Ataselim said. There were about 60 local protest groups like hers in Istanbul, she said, representing thousands of voters.

“If the AKP loses some votes [in local elections], that would be a big success for us.”

But Mr Akgun, the political scientist, said the protest movement, whose supporters range from leftists to nationalists, did not have much of a political base.

“They are against Erdogan, but all the opposition parties are also against Erdogan,” he said. “The question is: does the movement have anything new to say?”