On 2 May 2021, Turkish authorities removed followers of Islamic opposition figure Alparslan Kuytul forcefully from three mosques in southeast Turkey, claiming their gatherings were a provocation against COVID-19 restrictions. These followers audibly exclaimed they were reading the Koran in footage that showed a police skirmish inside a mosque in the Gaziantep province that forced their evacuation. An officer was seen using pepper spray and was subsequently suspended by the Gaziantep Governor’s Office (GGO) as a result of his actions.
Turkey entered full lockdown from 29 April to 17 May amid a surge in coronavirus cases. Although mosques were allowed to remain open for daily observance, Ramadan evening prayers and gatherings were suspended. Gaziantep authorities said group members confined themselves in the mosques during Ramadan’s final days, without permission, to perform ‘Itikaf’- an Islamic practice of isolating for a period of time, to avoid worldly affairs and focus on ‘ibadah’, or servitude.
The GGO said all 76 people who entered the mosques “are followers of Alparslan Kuytul” that were “investigated numerous times previously on terrorism charges and their aim is not worship but civil disobedience.” They are members of an Islamic group called Furkan Foundation (FF), often critical of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). On Twitter, Kuytul denied the GGO’s accusations, reiterating that group members assembled for worship, not civil disobedience. The FF ridiculed Turkish police for disrupting prayers and detaining Kuytul, his 14-year-old son Muhammed, and over 50 other members, positing that “those who allow people to gather in stadiums, public transportation and factories despite the full lockdown have prevented a small group from worshipping at a mosque.” Notwithstanding accusations of violating pandemic restrictions, the FF and a lawyer representing Kuytul insisted the group adhere by wearing masks and social distancing.
The same Kuytul attorney also claimed to witness “some very unpleasant police actions,” recalling “they used force on people… hitting and beating them while detaining them,” and no “goodwill on the police’s part here.” Footage of Muhammed Kuytul being handcuffed went viral, angering social media users throughout Turkey. Citing Alparslan Kuytul, Turkish media reported that police raided the Gaziantep mosque without removing their shoes, which is considered disrespectful. Despite additional camera surveillance supporting Kuytul’s recount, the GGO denied it.
Perhaps the FF’s lacking permission to isolate inside the mosques resulted from past terrorist charges, which may explain the government’s apparent inconsistency in enforcing regulations. However, the GGO’s denial of wearing shoes into the Gaziantep mosque is contradicted by video evidence and damages their credibility. The officer’s suspension for using pepper spray may suggest efforts to denounce excessive force but is lackluster as others who abused detainees were not punished. Nearly one week after being apprehended, Kuytul and many others who were detained were released and placed under judicial supervision. Whether they were released to placate the public, or because they were wrongly detained is unclear. The clashes between Turkish police and FF members highlight ongoing tension between both groups in recent years.
According to Stockholm Center For Freedom, Alparslan Kuytul claimed he was pursued by Turkey’s government for criticizing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. President Erdoğan accused them of organizing rogue soldiers into attempting a coup in 2016 which resulted in over 2,000 injuries and 300 deaths. Henceforth, Turkey’s government has imprisoned critics on terrorist propaganda charges, citing speeches, social media posts and newspaper columns as evidence. Rebuking Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, Kuytul was charged in 2018 with “inciting hatred” and “insulting the president,” for questioning Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” military offensive against the Kurds and jailed along with four others. Within 48 hours of his 2019 release, Kuytul was arrested again for making additional defying comments, shown in a social media video.
The mosque incidents correspond with the government’s regard for free speech, and appear a continuation in conflict, beginning with Kuytul’s comments over the Gülen movement. The initiative to deter rebellion, especially given the 2016 coup was the most violent in Turkey’s history, is pragmatic for any legitimacy, but does not excuse brutality. Another Furkan spokesperson observed that the government wanted all religious leaders to be silent, regardless of criticisms. “Many Muslims and the Islamic communities saw it [necessary] to side with the government in order to guarantee their jobs and their livelihood,” the spokesperson continued. Consequently, there should be little surprise at civilian dissatisfaction, dissent, and groups believing they are repressed and sympathizing with insurgents. One focus should be determining whether punitive actions instigate public dissent or if criticism prompts crackdowns, though the former seems more likely. Nevertheless, if the government continues repressing speech and castigating dissenters, conflict will persist as tensions will rise, potentially leading to similar situations like those of 2 May.
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