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Erdoğan demonizes Boğaziçi protestors over Islamic symbols like he did at Gezi Park

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Serap Demir

When then-Turkish Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan realized in 2013 that İstanbul’s Gezi protests had spread countrywide, he invented a lie that the “secular, anti-Islam protestors beat a woman wearing a headscarf in Istanbul.”

He announced it on June 7, 2013 when addressing his party members, claiming that protestors had attacked the daughter-in-law of a close friend.

The media, under his control, made a huge fuss over this claim, labeling the Gezi protestors as having attacked Islamic symbols and Muslims.

Elif Çakır, a journalist from a pro-government daily, even interviewed the then-anonymous woman. She was later revealed to be Zehra Develioğlu, the daughter-in-law of a mayor from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Although Erdoğan claimed he had footage showing the moments of the attack, the video has never surfaced because it was a lie, which led three journalists to apologize — after years — and confess the story they published was fake.

The story first made up by Erdoğan during a public speech, however, played a significant role in the AKP demonizing the Gezi protestors and getting more support from the pious people in the society.


Transforming the debates over his authoritarian rule into another discussion with “Islamic” motives is a game Erdoğan has played well for years to consolidate his power, motivate his supporters and smash protestors and any dissident voices.

That’s what he is trying to do now at Boğaziçi, one of the most prestigious universities in Turkey.

Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu, a pro-government rector with a low academic profile, as head of the university on January 1, 2021, with a presidential decree.

Criticizing the politically motivated decision, hundreds of students have been demonstrating for weeks, which has led to clashes with police.

Boğaziçi students did not welcome Bulu and urged him to resign. Bulu has not  managed to take control of the university for weeks as no academics are eager to become board members.

Seeing that maintaining control over Boğaziçi was not an easy feat, Turkey’s strongman claimed that Boğaziçi protestors insulted religious values in a poster depicting the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred site, with LGBT flags.

The police arrested two students on Sunday on charges of inciting hatred.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu tweeted that “LGBT perverts” had been detained for “disrespecting the Great Kaaba,” despite no such offense specified in Turkish law.

Police searched the fine arts and LGBTI+ student clubs at the university. The statement said police found books on an outlawed Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and rainbow flags.

Bulu, the rector under protest, tweeted that an attack on Islamic values was unacceptable and had no place in the university’s values.

With 95 percent of it controlled by Erdoğan, the Turkish media has been extensively covering LGBT and the controversial poster for days.

And Erdoğan praised the youth of his AKP during a public speech on Monday, saying that they and not the LGBT community “would carry the country into [a bright] future.”

“You are not LGBT youth, You are not the youths who vandalize but those who mend vandalized hearts,” he said in apparent reference to the unrest at Boğaziçi University.

Erdoğan uses Islamic symbols and rhetoric as a political lever when mass protests take place. First, the polarization over Islamic issues leads him to garner more public support. Calling his opponents anti-Islam consolidates his power over Islamic sensitivity. Next, he finds a strong “reason” to disperse the protestors, arrest and silence them after demonizing them. And lastly, he takes advantage of changing the debate over his authoritarian management, economic crisis and loss of popularity as the latest polls show that his AKP is losing support in advance of the 2023 elections.

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