ISTANBUL (AP) — For those who love him, a mix of the religiously conservative and the rising middle class, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the powerhouse who drove economic success, gave Islam a greater role and boosted regional standing. Now, Uzun Adam, or “Tall man” as he’s nicknamed in Turkish, is also the hero who stared down tanks and fighter jets.
He could not have done it without them.
The rush of thousands heeding Erdogan’s call to the streets against Friday night’s failed coup showed the religious-nationalist bulwark that shores up his rule. In their eyes, he is a man of the people who shaped the identity of modern Turkey, putting it on a par with Europe and establishing its place as a leader among Muslim nations where they feel it belongs.
“He is a hero the entire Islamic world,” said Semiha Pacal, a 50-year-old whose shop is across the street from the building where Erdogan lived for nearly 20 years in central Istanbul’s Kaptanpasa neighborhood. She notes with pride how Turkey’s most powerful politician has always kept in touch with his old neighbors.
Erdogan has made her proud to be Muslim, she said. “He has legalized headscarves. Before that it was banned in universities. Muslim people were relieved,” she said. “Even our cemeteries are cleaner, there are flowers blossoming there. He restored all the historical sites and mosques, made them visible.”
Erdogan sought to help his country by joining the European Union, even though, she adds, “they will not take us in since we are Muslim” — echoing the government line that membership talks have stalled because of rising Islamophobia in Europe. To prove her point, she pointed to a Quranic verse hanging on her shop wall, reading, “And never will the Jews or the Christians approve of you until you follow their religion.”
Erdogan rose through politics touting himself as the representative of Turkey’s conservative Muslim heartland, pushing against the secularism enforced by the military. Tussling with the military-backed establishment along the way, he became mayor of Istanbul in the late 1990s, rose to prime minister in 2003 and has dominated politics ever since.
Throughout, he broke secular taboos, most symbolically by allowing women wearing the headscarf into the public sphere. At the same time, he pushed a market economy agenda that helped fuel an economic boom, lifting many — including among his conservative supporters — into the middle class.
Liberals have been alarmed by the overt religiosity and by what is seen as Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and erosion of their freedoms. Like many rulers in the region his rule was challenged when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the summer of 2013 in protests sparked by opposition to government plans to uproot trees at Istanbul ‘s Gezi Park to build a shopping center. In post-coup speech, Erdogan told his supporters late Monday he will go ahead with government plans to build a mosque and a museum there “whether they want it or not.”
Erdogan’s lock appeared to be weakening in June 2015 elections in which his party lost its parliament majority — until his supporters drove him to surprise victory in a new vote months later.
His 14 years in power have transformed the country, said Ebuzer Ceyhan, a 34-year-old sandwich shop owner.
“Turkey has closed an era and opened a new one . We now see ourselves at a higher place than other countries. Now we compare ourselves with the EU. We can even say now we are surpassing EU countries,” he said.
“If the military took over, we would never have heard the calls to prayer again.”
He was at his shop in central Istanbul when news broke of the coup. The 34-year-old couldn’t go out to join Erdogan’s supporters because he had his two young sons with him, but he was transfixed watching the events unfold on TV.
On his way home after closing shop, he was cut on his forehead by flying shrapnel from clashes between soldiers and Erdogan backers. He later learned a friend was shot to death as he tried to wrestle a soldier off a tank.
“This is something you never forget,” Ceyhan said, his voice cracking.
That makes him worry about the country’s future. He said he always saw the military as part of Turkey’s identity — mandatory service means everyone feels a part of it. But he said there had long been talk of the growing influence of anti-Erdogan powers in the military, and now part of the army had turned its guns on people and ran them over in the street.
For him, Erdogan evokes a powerful Ottoman ruler, promoting Islamic culture and relations with Muslim nations. He said Erdogan took a bold risk to help fellow Sunni Muslims in Syria against President Bashar Assad’s campaign to crush the rebellion against his rule.
Huseyin Ustunbasi, a 65-year old retiree, marched in the streets when the call went out Friday night.
He was coming to the aid of an old friend. He and Erdogan lived in the same building for nearly 20 years. Three years Erdogan’s senior, he watched his rise from young political activist taking part in rallies, clashing with security and calling out corrupt officials to become the towering figure in Turkish politics.
Throughout, Erdogan kept in touch with his people, visited and joined them at weddings, Ustunbasi said. When Ustunbasi’s father-in-law died, Erdogan found a burial plot when cemeteries said no spaces were available.
“It is because of his closeness to the people, that they wanted to topple him,” he said.
Mustafa Akyol, a lecturer on politics and faith at Istanbul Fatih University, described Erdogan’s power base as moderate Muslims, some ultra-conservatives and the rising middle class. A wide section of the bureaucracy backs Erdogan, and the post-coup purge will increase that as Erdogan brings in loyalists.
“That community is now very agitated and think Turkey is under attack, they have to defend the government,” said Akyol. “That euphoria is understandable. But it also has the risk of turning into witch-hunts and enmity against people who have nothing to do with the coup but who are just critical of Erdogan.”
Opposition parties and many of Erdogan’s critics were unified against the coup attempt, but there have been reports on social media of attacks near gatherings of government supporters on people suspected for whatever reason of being secular, such as one man with a tattoo who was attacked. At least three websites critical of the government, including a left-leaning one, have been shut down.
Ustunbasi dismisses fears Erdogan will have no tolerance for opponents after the failed coup. He calls that sort of talk propaganda. The man he knows always tried to lead by example, not force. To prove his point, he said that even though he drinks, smokes and doesn’t pray — all violations of the code of a pious Muslim — it never hurt his friendship with Erdogan.
He said Erdogan would see him walking to a bar, and instead of criticizing him would tease him, “Which mosque are you praying at Huseyin?”
Associated Press Cinar Kiper contributed to this report from Istanbul
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