Five times a day, the loudspeakers affixed to the spires of some 90,000 state-run mosques crackle to life, and the Islamic call to prayer bathes the streets of Istanbul and other Turkish cities.
For the faithful, the undulating Arabic hymn, called the adhan, is a reminder of Turkey’s historic place in the Muslim world. For others, it’s an unavoidable reminder of Turkey’s turn from the secular under its current leadership.
On Tuesday, a lawmaker was expelled from his own party for suggesting the adhan be uttered in Turkish again. “Chant the adhan in Turkish. I would understand it,” Ozturk Yilmaz, with the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, said on a talk show earlier in the month. “Read the Quran in Turkish. My language, if you speak it anywhere in the world, I will understand it. Why do we have this, this insult to Turkish?”
His suggestion not only sparked an immediate shouting match with other guests on the show, but reignited a touchy topic in Turkey: What exactly did Turkey’s founders want the country to look like?
For more than 14 centuries, across the Muslim world, the adhan has been recited in Arabic, a standardized ritual akin to the Latin Mass. But it was not always so in Turkey.
Between 1932 and 1950, the state prohibited the Arabic adhan, and instead, a Turkish translation was recited. The ban was part of a series of restrictions on religion imposed under the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
When Ataturk died in 1938, the CHP, which he founded, was the sole entity allowed to hold power and ruled unopposed until 1950, when the country’s first free multi-party elections were held. Lifting the ban on the Arabic adhan was among the very first laws passed by the new Parliament.
Each year Ataturk’s death is officially marked on Nov. 10 at 9:05 am by a moment of silence. Traffic stops and passengers emerge to stand next to their cars, silent and still.
But deep resentment for Ataturk’s policies simmers just below the surface of Turkey’s society.
At a commemoration ceremony this Nov. 10 in the western city of Edirne, a 21-year-old woman in a face veil was arrested after she allegedly shouted “Ataturk is not God. Allah has laws. Ataturk brought the West’s laws,” during the moment of silence.
The woman was tackled by police officers and faces up to three years in prison for “insulting Ataturk’s memory.” Yet just hours later, President Erdogan, speaking at a memorial ceremony in Ankara, attacked the CHP, and indirectly the party’s founder, for its role in prohibiting the Arabic adhan.
“The fact that today the Turkish adhan, one of the defining atrocities of the [1938-1950] single-party period, can be defended publicly, be longed for, is a sign of the endless struggle for the values of this nation,” Erdogan said.
The criticism is part of a largely successful long-term initiative by Erdogan to reshape the narrative of Turkey’s founder, said Soner Cagaptay, a historian and author. “You are seeing an overall trend where Turkey is embracing conservative Islam in general, driven by government policy and use of state resources.”
Every mosque in Turkey has been under the control of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, since 1924, its imams reading an identical Friday sermon every week. The Diyanet was initially used by Ataturk to shape Turkey’s spiritual life — with policies like the Turkish adhan. But under Erdogan it has become the primary means of reversing the trend. Its annual budget has ballooned to $1.6 billion, and it employs more than 110,000 people.
The Diyanet was instrumental in thwarting a 2016 military coup that sought to unseat Erdogan. Officials sent out a memo ordering mosques to turn on their loudspeakers and invite the public not to prayers but to the streets, to confront tanks and fighter jets.
Along with the adhan, the mosques broadcast a hymn that has a long history in the Islamic world of being used to rally the public in times of war. In World War I, for instance, locals climbed the minarets of mosques in Istanbul to sound the alarm as European forces advanced on the city. In 1922, the same calls were made as Ottoman soldiers, under the command of Ataturk, took control of Izmir from Greek troops.
“It wasn’t so much the social media, or Internet-based communication, but mosque loudspeaker network density that explains how much each Istanbul district mobilized against the coup attempt,” said Akin Unver, an associate professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
Unver and other researchers mapped the sonic range of mosque loudspeakers in Istanbul and overlaid that information with reports on social media of anti-coup marchers and clashes. The adhan and other hymns broadcast from mosques, they found, “were instrumental and offer a direct causal mechanism to explain what really drove mobilization that night.”
Despite occasional complaints from residents, many of those loudspeakers were apparently left at high volume. The complaints drove the Diyanet to issue another memo last year ordering the adhan to be no louder than 80 decibels.
As a result of the coup attempt, the idea of changing the adhan again, said Cagaptay, is “incredibly unpopular” among the vast majority of Turkish voters. So how do Turks reconcile the fact that Ataturk wanted the adhan to be in Turkish?
“Ataturk draws a huge amount of respect regardless of where someone falls on the political spectrum. If you don’t like him as a reformer you at least like him as a liberator,” Cagaptay said. “Erdogan and his supporters, they think [Ataturk] made a wrong turn, but they embrace his image and legacy as Turkey’s liberator.”
In presidential elections this June, Erdogan won 52.6% of the vote. Muharrem Ince, the CHP’s candidate, garnered just 30.7%, despite outreach to disenchanted conservatives that included having his headscarf-wearing mother and sister sit on the stage at stump speeches.
With elections for local governments scheduled for March, the CHP had little choice but to distance itself from Yilmaz and his unpopular stance on the adhan, said Cagaptay.
In fact, many in Turkey believe its time to end the taboo on discussing Ataturk altogether. To them, his policies, and his party, the CHP, represent a danger to the Islamic way of life.
“The idea to ban the Arabic adhan is always in the CHP’s subconscious, and sometimes it comes out, like in the case of Yilmaz,” said historian Mustafa Armagan.
Armagan, editor of an often provocative magazine called Deep History, is facing a 15-month prison sentence for “insulting Ataturk’s memory” by suggesting the man once known as Mustafa Kemal had not been faithful to his first and only legal wife.
Mustafa Kemal, an Ottoman commander became a national celebrity for winning a multi-front war against European powers in the aftermath of World War I, earning the title Ataturk, or “Father of the Turk.”
In 1924, the Ottoman caliphate, the successor to an institution stretching back to Islam’s founding in the 7th century, was abolished. Schools were put under state control. In 1925, the turban and fez were banned. In 1928, the Turkish alphabet itself, a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, was prohibited and replaced with a system based on the Latin alphabet. In 1934, the Surname Law required all citizens to choose a fixed, hereditary surname that could not include foreign words.
“All these reforms were basically meant to cut people off from the Islamic world, from their Islamic heritage,” said Armagan. The imposition of the Turkish adhan “was a systematic thing, not some kind of coincidence.”
That Ataturk instituted these policies is not disputed in Turkey today, but whether the public welcomed them is a different matter.
“We know well how in the years just after [Ataturk’s] death, until 1950, in the single party era, our nation’s values, our faith, our culture, our heritage were tossed aside,” Erdogan said in his Nov. 10 speech. “Today’s youth read about the single-party era from books, if they exist, or from newspaper archives. Because we were taught a false history. We are witness to the atrocities of that era.”
Many people simple boycotted mosques between 1932 and 1950, said Armagan. Police were posted at the door of mosques in villages across the country, and anyone found reciting the adhan in Arabic faced up to three months behind bars. Yet, in dozens of cases Armagan has documented from that period, locals continued to challenge the law.
Feigning mental illness, men climbed the minarets of mosques and chanted the Arabic adhan. They popped up in crowded movie theaters and began chanting the adhan. The day the ban was lifted, June 16, 1950, “was a day of celebrations,” Armagan said. “It was like the country had been liberated from a foreign occupation.”