The "17th Feminist Night March" had aimed to celebrate the International Women's Day and protest women's rights violations in Turkey, but police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the women. Pictured: Police in riot gear, backed by a water cannon, move to disperse thousands of mostly female demonstrators participating in the march, on March 8, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
In a recent statement, the Women and Family Coordination Office of the pro-government "Turkey Youth Foundation" (TÜGVA) described the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, as a call to radical action.
"To us, the adhan is the renewal of our intention to conquer Rome, New York, Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Berlin, Paris and to complete our unfinished conquest of Vienna," said Seher Şenyüz, the vice coordinator of the Diyarbakir branch of the Women and Family Unit of TÜGVA, referring to the unsuccessful Ottoman attempts at conquering the Austrian capital.
Şenyüz's statement appeared aimed at supporting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused the participants of the "Feminist Night March" in Istanbul of "disrespecting Islam by booing the adhan". The organizers of the march denied the accusation.
The march, which took place on March 8 in Taksim, a central neighborhood of Istanbul, was blocked and attacked by the police.
TÜGVA, whose founding members include Bilal Erdogan, the son of the Turkish president, have seemingly benefited from a warm relationship with the government. According to Ahval News:
"Reports have revealed that various foundations with close government ties, including TÜGVA, enjoyed an exorbitant amount of donations from the state... like low-rent contracts and by-laws paving the way for foundations which are approved by the president Erdoğan to acquire public land free of any cost, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality granted 74,3 million lira ($13.9 million) to TÜGVA in 2018 and previous years."
The feminist march, which prompted Şenyüz's statement had aimed to celebrate the International Women's Day and protest women's rights violations in Turkey, but police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the participants.
Since then, many Islamists and pro-government media have been targeting the participants of the march, and claiming that the women chanted while a nearby mosque was reciting the adhan (call to prayer).
In an election rally in the city of Adana, for instance, Erdogan said: "They disrespected Islam with their boos and slogans. They are directly attacking our freedom and our future by disrespecting our flag and the adhan."
He went on to claim that the opposition parties in Turkey are "the enemies of the flag and the adhan".
The next day, many pro-government news sources covered Erdogan's remarks in their headlines, calling the Feminist March and the opposition parties "the enemies of the flag and adhan".
The independent news website, Sendika, drew attention to how the broader pro-government media has been parroting the same propaganda against the Feminist March in an attempt to "find a way to discredit the rallying women":
"As if dictated from a higher office, the pro-government papers headlined exactly the same lie with exactly the same wording and exactly the same emphasis that the women had started booing and whistling against the prayer call coming from the mosque, and even tried silencing it. The headlines across the country read, 'Women Groups Attacked Prayer Call'."
The organizers of the Feminist March, however, repeatedly noted that the chanting and whistling was part of the protest against the police violence and was not aimed at the call to prayer. They also issued a public statement rejecting Erdogan's accusations and protesting "the lynching attempts against them in the press and on social media":
"The police violence against tens of thousands of women who participated or tried to participate in the Feminist Night March cannot be covered up through discriminatory-polarizing language, fake news and hatred and by turning the march into a material for elections. Although they try to disguise it, this is called misogyny. This year the police tried to block the march that had been carried out by independent feminists without any problems for the last 16 years.
"The police did not care about the adhan as they blocked the women, did not allow them to come together, sprayed pepper gas at them or searched their bodies.
"Those who prevented us from marching on the road where we had marched for the 16 years and held us near a mosque now say that we are against adhan. Let no one distort [the facts]. Our rebellion is against police barricades, and against those who want to prevent the women's march and March 8... Our problem is with patriarchy and misogyny."
After Erdogan's pointed verbal attack against the feminist march, a group of Islamists gathered in Taksim, threatening the feminists and shouting slogans such as "Break the hands that target adhan," "Allahu akbar" and "Even if our blood is shed, the victory is of Islam." The police dispersed the Islamist demonstrators using pepper spray and rubber bullets.
Erdogan, however, continued targeting the feminists at his election rally in Iskenderun:
"Inshallah [Allah willing], are you ready to hit together at the ballot box with a strong Ottoman slap the indecent, immoral ones who boo the adhan of [Islam's prophet] Mohammed in Istanbul, which has been entrusted to us by [the Ottoman sultan] Fatih [the Conqueror] and those who make fun of the Friday prayers?"
In Ankara too, he continued his slanders against the feminists: "On March 8, they [the feminist marchers] wanted to embark on a movement of occupation... We [can] crush them with our police and soldiers."
The Islamist demonstration in Taksim -- the slogans shouted there and the targeting of feminists by the government and its media -- are reminiscent of provocations that led to several pogroms and massacres against minorities in Turkey:
- In 1955, misinformation from government and media regarding the bombing of a home stoked a nightmarish pogrom against Greeks and other non-Muslim minorities in Istanbul.
- In 1978, in Kahramanmaraş, false rumors and a government cover-up resulted in over 110 deaths during a massacre targeting Alevi civilians, a persecuted religious minority in Turkey.
- In 1980, in Çorum, wrongful reports and apparent government involvement culminated in the slaughter of more than 50 people -- once again, primarily targeting Alevi civilians for about a month and a half.
The common denominators of these examples are: 1) false news perpetuated by unethical media outlets, 2) government-led incitement and propaganda falsely accusing minorities of committing crimes against Islam or "Turkishness."
On March 14, the interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, referred to the 1978 and 1980 massacres and warned the rallying women:
"Unfortunately, this ugly incident [the alleged booing of adhan by feminists] took place. Such incidents scare me. Do you know how the  incidents in Kahramanmaraş were started? I have read extensively how the incidents in Kahramanmaraş and  Çorum were started. The worst issue in Turkey that would basically scare us would be to provoke issues through our fault lines."
Here Soylu acknowledged this historical pattern of provocations leading to massacres. Yet, rather than condemning the misinformation and discouraging the repetition of this dark history, Soylu warned civilians and would-be targets of violence not to rock the boat, framing the victims as provocateurs.
Sadly, Soylu and other government officials are not defending freedom of assembly or freedom of expression. They are not only falsely accusing women of something they did not intend to do but also justifying past massacres by implying that the perpetrators were provoked by the victims, and threatening the participants of the Feminist March, knowing full well what type of consequences their threats could lead to.
The historical cycle of media misinformation, government incitement, and subsequent violence against non-Muslim minorities and political dissidents will likely continue rolling forward until Turkey and its government acknowledge these practices and begin heading the other way.
Uzay Bulut, a journalist from Turkey, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. She is currently based in Washington D.C.