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Erdoğan rival’s prayer rug faux pas sparks debate

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A photo showing presidential candidate and main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu stepping on a prayer rug with his shoes on has triggered a debate in Turkey, with pro-government media outlets and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) figures targeting him for allegedly insulting religious values.

Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the joint presidential candidate of an opposition bloc of six parties known as the Nation Alliance, is one of two main contenders in Turkey’s presidential election on May 14, with the other being the country’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

President Erdoğan, whose ruling AKP has its roots in political Islam, attracts frequent criticism for abusing people’s religious sensitivities to remain in power and to keep his voter base happy. Public surveys show the AKP losing significant support amid serious financial problems in the country.

The photo, taken during an iftar gathering on March 31 as Muslims observe the holy month of Ramadan, went viral on social media, prompting pro-government media outlets and ruling AKP figures to target Kılıçdaroğlu.

The CHP leader apologized for the incident, stating he had not noticed the prayer rug on the floor due to the crowd and that the photo was being used as part of a defamation “operation” against him.

Erdoğan took advantage of the situation, getting Kılıçdaroğlu booed by a crowd at an election rally in İstanbul on Sunday.

The incident has sparked a debate about the differences between secular and conservative lifestyles in Turkey, which Erdoğan has exploited for years to further polarize society.

Former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş defended Kılıçdaroğlu, questioning whether it was worse to step on a prayer rug by mistake or to “market the Quran for the sake of votes.”

Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi identity has also been an issue in the race, with some arguing that Turkey’s Sunni Muslims wouldn’t vote for him.

Erdoğan’s 20-year rule as first as prime minister and then as president saw him champion the rights of conservative Muslims after decades of more secular rule.

Kılıçdaroğlu has been trying to woo Erdoğan’s core supporters and attract some of the AKP’s vote by abandoning his party’s hard-line secularism and embracing a more moderate tone toward conservative Muslims.

Erdoğan is facing a united opposition in the upcoming election, which analysts say could prove a significant challenge for him on top of recent earthquakes that hit the country in February and killed more than 50,000. While the first decade of his rule was marked by surging economic growth, the last 10 years have seen a decline in prosperity, which has dented his popularity with voters.

Despite the incident, Kılıçdaroğlu remains committed to reaching out to conservative voters as a presidential candidate. He attended another Ramadan event organized by the Islamist Felicity Party on Saturday, which supports his candidacy.

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