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Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

The Conquest of Constantinople: How Emerge the Meanings of a Commemoration (1953-1994)

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 4 Octobre 2022, 20:40pm

Catégories : #Religion and Society, #Turkish nationalism, #Turkish nationalism and Islam

Just as any commemoration, that of the capture of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453 reflects the political atmosphere of the moment. Such a celebration is in itself a language, not only by the speeches delivered but by the ceremonial itself, its scenography, and semiology.

Whether or not to celebrate the anniversary of the conquest of the City is a central issue, as is, in general, the conception of history in Turkey, since the Kemalist republican vision of history minimizes the merits of the Ottoman period and is reluctant to see in it a valorous one. Until the AKP's rule (2002), the only heroes accepted in the narrative as "predecessors" or "heralds" of Atatürk were the Kaghan Bilge (VIIIth century), ruler of the Göktürks (Celestial Turks) in Mongolia, and the Seljuk Sultan Alparslan, who defeated the Byzantine army and captured the Emperor of Constantinople at Malazgirt (Mantzikert, east Anatolia) in 1071. In the Kemalian narrative, therefore, prominent Ottoman figures such as Mehmed the Conqueror (Mehmet Fatih) and Suleiman the Magnificent (Kanunî Sultan Süleyman) were depicted as outstanding characters but not as predecessors of the Guide.

But, undoubtedly, things are changing. The commemoration has a military character that glorifies the Turkish army as a whole, whether Ottoman or Republican. But, above all, in regard to religion, it is a momentous event that "opens the house of Islam”. This is why it is designated by the word “Fetih”. According to Bernard Lewis, “[the futûh], literally 'openings', are not considered as conquests in the sense of territorial acquisitions, but as the removal of 'irreligious' regimes and illegitimate hierarchies, and the 'opening' of their peoples to the new revelation and law”. Thus, Mehmed the Conqueror is known in Turkish as Mehmet Fatih, the Victorious, but, literally, "the one who opened". The fulfillment of the Fetih is supposed to give preeminence to the Turks within the Islamic world, and superiority over the Arabs. Indeed, the Conqueror's deed is seen as the accomplishment of a hadith of Muhammad, in which the Arabs have failed 1.

Therefore, commemorating the Fetih is ambiguous, as it is both a national and Muslim event. Since school textbooks emphasize the Fetih as a fact of European and even global significance  2 (note2), it is somewhat impossible to ignore it on its anniversary, May 29. But commemorating the Fetih may have a more general and profound meaning, which I will formulate in a forthcoming essay.

By the use of the online archives of the daily Milliyet for the years 1953 to 1994, one can observe how this celebration has more or less become part of political practices and actions, how the Republican Kemalist state has tried channeling it through a well-established military ritual, and how political Islam has recovered it for its own benefit.

Sultan Mehmed succeeded by building impressive fortresses on the Bosphorus, like that of Rumelihisar, north of the City; and by hauling warships (kadırga) by land, between the vicinities of Dolmabahçe on the Bosphorus, and Kasımpasa on the Golden Horn, so that the Ottoman army could take the defenses of Byzantium in reverse and attack the City from the northwestern side, at Edirnekapı (Andrinople Gate).


1 Cf. Bernard Lewis, Le Langage politique de l’Islam, Paris, Gallimard, 1988, 142-143. My contribution “Les prédécesseurs médiévaux d’Atatürk. Bilge kaghan et le sultan Alp Arslan”, Revue d’Etude de la Méditerranée et du Monde Musulman, issue 89-90, 2000, 217-243. Online : https://journals.openedition.org/remmm/282 (accessed September 29, 2022). And my book Espaces et temps de la nation turque. Analyse d'une historiographie nationaliste, 1931-1993. Paris: CNRS-Editions, 1997. Online: https://books.openedition.org/editionscnrs/35303 (accessed September 19, 2022).

2 Cf. my Espaces et temps..., 212-228.


The siege of Constantinople in 1453  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siege_of_Constantinople_1453_map-fr.svg?uselang=fr

The siege of Constantinople in 1453 Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siege_of_Constantinople_1453_map-fr.svg?uselang=fr

These places have all become places of remembrance and celebrations on anniversary days, and in particular the hauling way of the Ottoman kadırgas. It passes through Taksim Square, a hot spot of republican worship where stands the Republic Monument, which, in the eyes of a part of the opinion, is violated by the celebration of Ottoman history. The other place is Edirnekapı, the site of the first victorious assault. From 1953 onwards, both places became scenes of colorful historical re-enactments with reduced model ships and costumed extras. Other places of Ottoman memory are also celebrated, like Topkapı Palace, as well as the mausoleum (türbe) of the Conqueror, in the courtyard of the mosque that bears his name (Fatih Camii).

But among these places, Hagia Sophia is the most meaningful since one of the first deeds of the Sultan, just after the fall of the City, was a visit to the basilica to pray. Ipso facto, the church became a mosque, though retaining its Christian and Greek name of Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya according to the Turkish spelling). This gesture does consecrate the City's "opening to Islam”. However, by the will of Atatürk, the "Ayasofya Mosque" (Ayasofya Camii) has been desacralized in 1934 to become the "Ayasofya Museum". From then on, and until 2020, Ayasofya was no longer a place of worship, neither Christian nor Muslim, and Muslim-conservative circles have always considered the decision a betrayal. So, since 1950, the restitution of Saint Sophia to the Muslim cult became important symbolic demand of the Islamist movement. The anniversary of the Fetih, as we shall see, is the ideal moment to express it [this pressure finally resulted in the gesture of R.T. Erdoğan, who led the first prayer in Hagia Sophia Museum in March 2018; Ayasofya was fully reverted into the Muslim worship on July 24, 2020].

Nowadays, the opposition between the Kemalist conception of history and that of the Islamist trend might become blurred. Firstly, because of a succession of three episodes of relatively anti-Kemalist governments (1950-1960, 1996-1997, and from 2002 on) which have gradually inflected the Kemalist ritualization of the past. Secondly, and conversely, because the Kemalist establishment (in particular the army, from 1980 to 2002) sought to defuse political Islam by hijacking some of its heroes and symbols for the benefit of the regime: in this sense, the army participates in the commemoration of Fetih, and, similarly, generals and politicians, during the 1990s, ostensibly pray in front of press photographers' lenses 1. Finally, from 1980 to 2002, the state power, despite its discourse being more Kemalist than ever, was strongly impregnated with the ideology of the "Turkish-Islamic synthesis", and one day Mehmed the Conqueror might be presented in school textbooks as a predecessor of Atatürk on a par with Kaghan Bilge or Sultan Alparslan.


The fifth centenary and the Menderes era


From 1953 on, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Fetih, the commemoration became a political battle. By chance, this fifth centenary occurred at an exceptional time in the republic's history. The government of the Democratic Party (1950-1960), led by Adnan Menderes, was a time of reaction to Kemalism and open reference to Islam in the definition of the nation. Thus, political conditions were opportune for a celebration.

During the 1950s, the month of May was not overloaded with commemorations. The celebration of May Day was allowed long after, in 1976 and 1977, and only for a meeting. The 19th of May, the anniversary of Mustafa Kemal's landing in Samsun (1919), considered the beginning of his rebellion against the Sultan's rule, became a public holiday only in 1981. So, the celebration of the fifth centenary of the Fetih, in 1953, could take a significant weight in public life.

A few days before the anniversary of 1953 some elements of the imagery appeared in the newspapers, which already existed in history textbooks, and that remained, across the following decades, iconographic and symbolic apparatus of the event, with its heroes, sites of memory, and discursive devices. Among these places, and their images, are the walls of Constantinople, with a focus on Edirnekapı. There, according to the legend, was killed Ulubatlı Hasan, the first soldier penetrating the City, where he could wave the Ottoman banner. As soon as 1953, the figure of this obscure janissary appears as prominent as Sultan Mehmed. While the latter symbolizes sovereignty and grandeur, Ulutbatlı personifies the simple heroic soldier and represents the army – not only the Ottoman army but the Turkish army, valiant and eternal.

On May 29, 1953, the anniversary day, the daily Milliyet devoted its entire front page to the event. One of its titles seems bizarrely “provincial” today: “The Prime Minister visits our city”; the coming of the heads of state is an event within an event, which retains, at that time, a municipal character, although another article explains the global significance of the Fetih. The interior pages deal with various topics of Ottoman history and society. From 1953 onwards, the celebration is held under the auspices of the representatives of the state (the vali or prefect of Istanbul – there is no mayor before 1958), the garrison commander, and the religious authorities. And the ceremony is not secular, as it includes a prayer of the authorities at the mausoleum of the Conqueror.

As soon as 1953 was adopted the mode of historical re-enactment, then maintained for decades. So the focus was on the most spectacular episode of the capture of Constantinople, the hauling of the kadırgas across the peninsula, north of Pera/Galata, that is, the site of today's Taksim square. The parade includes model ships and extras costumed as janissaries (yeniçeri), sailors (levent), and musicians of the Ottoman military clique (mehter): these figures, in their "historical" outfits, later become emblematic. In particular, the participation of a mehteran clique in a public ceremony, a demonstration, or a party congress, became an ideological marker referring not only to Ottoman nostalgia, but also to political Islam, and even more to ultra-nationalism through the "Turkish-Islamic synthesis" 2.


1 Cf. my paper “Prier ne peut pas faire de mal (2)”. Online: https://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-esquisse-n-21-prier-ne-peut-pas-faire-de-mal-2-91606893.html (accessed September 20, 2022).

2 Cf. my contribution “'La nation turque est musulmane' : Histoire, islam et nationalisme”, in Gérard Groc (ed.), Formes nouvelles de l’islam en Turquie. Les Annales de l’autre islam,° issue 6, Inalco-Erism, Paris, 1999, 327-352. Online: http://www.susam-sokak.fr/pages/_La_nation_turque_est_musulmane_1999-7938918.html (accessed September 20, 2022).


Image published by the ultra-nationalist daily Türkiye on the occasion of the Fetih anniversary, 29 May 1998

Image published by the ultra-nationalist daily Türkiye on the occasion of the Fetih anniversary, 29 May 1998

But there was no other commemoration before 1958. Was it because the pretext of an anniversary with a round number no longer existed then? Or because of increasing tension with the Orthodox/Greek population (Rum, or Politis)? In September 1955 is launched the pogrom against the Rum in the Pera peninsula, followed by the expulsion of this ancient population of the “Polis”, considered now foreigners. Istanbul is then turned upside down and loses its soul. Significantly, on some photographs taken during the pogrom, one can notice demonstrators brandishing the portrait of Sultan Mehmed, probably aware of contributing to the fulfillment of the Sultan's victory - and this detail shows at what point the pogrom and its aftermath (Istanbul almost without Greek Orthodox) are, again, a “fetih” 1.

After the 1955 pogrom, the authorities probably felt the necessity to install the Fetih's celebration in the long term: wasn't it, somehow, a kind of legitimation of the expulsion of the Rum? From 1958 onwards, the commemoration's language and scenography are firmly set up for some of its elements, more temporary for others. The ceremonies begin with a reenactment of the Ottoman assault on the walls at Edirnekapı, and a ceremony in honor of Ulubatlı Hasan, with a historical mehter clique and contemporary military music, which fits the republican army into the ceremonial and enlarges the scope of the celebration by giving it a trans-historical meaning. A 21-gun salute is fired, ship's sirens wail, and passers-by freeze in the streets, exactly as for the anniversary of Atatürk's death.

A military parade then proceeds from the Wall to Topkapı Palace via Vatan Caddesi (Fatherland Avenue), a wide thoroughfare designed for military parades, opened in 1957. Finally, the authorities visit the Sultan's tomb. The peculiarity of the 1958 celebrations is an evening ceremony at the newly restored Rumelihisar fortress, attended by the President of the Republic Celal Bayar, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, and several ministers.

By and large, the ceremonial was identical in 1959.

In 1960, the coup d'état that overthrew the Menderes government took place two days before the anniversary of the Fetih, which, of course, was not commemorated that year, nor the following ones. Instead, the anniversary of this "revolution" of 1960, called "Freedom and Constitution Day", was celebrated from then on every 27 May, until 1977.


1 Cf. Anna Theodoridès, “Survivre en contexte minoritaire. Une étude sociologique des résistances des Grecs d’Istanbul (Rûms polites) au lendemain des émeutes de la nuit du 6 au 7 septembre 1955, Istanbul”. PhD diss., Paris EHESS, 2016. Id., “Partir ou rester à Polis. La survie des Grecs d’Istanbul au lendemain des violences de la nuit du 6 au 7 septembre 1955”, 2021. Online: https://www.susam-sokak.fr/2021/05/partir-ou-rester-a-polis-1.html (accessed September 29, 2022).


Rising tensions around the Fetih, Hagia Sophia... and Cyprus


Since 1955, Turkish-Greek nationalist tensions had aroused inter-communal unrest in Cyprus, and, from 1964 onwards, it placed the Fetih in a context of age-old rivalry between Turks and Greeks. The year 1964 was a climax in the Cypriot crisis. On Christmas Day 1963, Greek-Cypriot militias mounted coordinated attacks against almost every Muslim village or neighborhood in the isle. Throughout the first half of 1964, Turkish nationalist organizations of Cyprus organized the withdrawal of Muslims into more or less fortified enclaves, where the population remained confined until the intervention of the Turkish army in 1974. The crisis strongly revived nationalism and anti-Greek feelings in Turkey; student demonstrations, at times, were a daily occurrence. In May 1964, the crisis peaked with a severe clash in Famagusta followed by the kidnapping of thirty-two Turkish Cypriots. Turkey then prepared an armed intervention, which took place in August 1964.

The crisis dramatizes the perception of the Fetih. On May 3, 1964, the unrest was visible even in the layout of the front page of Milliyet. In the report of the ceremonies, no allusion to the situation in Cyprus. But the bold headline announcing the execution of Turkish hostages in Famagusta is topped by the now classic photo of the janissaries on the wall as if both topics were one.

From this year onwards, not only were the Fetih commemorations regular but they were increasingly marked by this anti-Greek and anti-Orthodox political tension, which from then on was to take the Hagia Sophia basilica as its nodal point. After 1960, a student movement played an important role, the Union of Turkish Nationalist Students (Millî Türk Talebe Birliği 1). Originally a left-wing movement, it shifted in 1964-1965 to the conservative, anti-communist, and militarist "nationalist-religious" (milliyetçi-mukaddesatçı) trend. In 1965, the movement barges into the Fetih commemorations by organizing, during the ceremonies, a meeting in Sultanahmet Square, in front of Hagia Sophia: a law student takes the floor, claims for the restitution of the Byzantine basilica to the Muslims, and pays tribute to Abdülhamit II, the controversial "Red Sultan”. Lawyer Ahmet Kabaklı, a columnist for the nationalist daily Tercüman, also expresses his wish "to hear again the call to prayer from the minarets of Hagia Sophia” 2.

In 1966, the national-Islamist claim on Hagia Sophia was renewed, and the MTTB collected funds for the construction of a monument to the Conqueror while calling to go to pray at Hagia Sophia, so that on May 29, the basilica-museum was cordoned off by police.

The tension strongly increases from 1970 on. Most probably in order to defuse a new demonstration by the MTTB, a "March of the Conquest" (Fetih yürüyüşü) was officially organized in Sultanahmet Square on May 29 of that year. But the nationalist students and extreme right-wing organizations retreated to Saraçhane, near the Istanbul City hall, before going to pray at the Darülaceze, a hospice created by Sultan Abdülhamit at the end of the 19th century 3. The "museum" of Hagia Sophia is then closed to the public, officially for works.

So within a couple of years, the celebration of the anniversary of the Fetih became a political demonstration whose multiple signifiers mingle one another: while glorifying the Sultan's memory, the opponents of Kemalism, who were in power from 1950 to 1960, tried to minimize Atatürk's prominence, claiming by contrast the heritage of Sultan Abdülhamit II, henceforth icon of anti-Kemalism. While demanding the re-opening of Hagia Sophia to the Muslim prayer, feeling themselves legitimated by one of the first deeds of the Conqueror, they claim a Turkish-Muslim nation. Hence, their will echoes the 1955 anti-Orthodox pogroms and the eviction of the Greeks from Istanbul. By evoking Abdülhamit's heritage, they reject the idea of discontinuity with the Ottoman age, as is firmly asserted by Kemalism. From a short-term perspective, they show their rejection of the regime established by the army in May 1960 and pay an implicit tribute to the one who was overthrown and then hanged (1961), Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. But simultaneously, the military authorities, by organizing the ceremonies, exalting the memory of the "martyr" Ulubatlı Hasan, not only praises an Ottoman hero but the “eternal” Turkish army and its exploits. Finally, all of them express through symbols and stereotyped statements the structuring role of the Turkish-Greek and/or Islamic-Christian confrontation in the vision of the Turkish nation 4.

The tense character of the decade 1964-1974, marked by the Cyprus affair and an outburst of Kurdish agitation, is worsened by violent physical and symbolic confrontations between political factions during the 1970s when the country experienced a quasi-civil war. Thus have strengthened the tensions about the set of signifiers that are tied up around the eminent and prestigious symbol, Hagia Sophia.

The 70s began with a second military coup d'état (March 1971), and the news was mainly about the mass arrests of left-wing activists. The calendar of commemorations in May became more intricate, since the anniversary of the 1960 coup, branded as the "Freedom and Constitution Day", overshadowed that of the Fetih, henceforth celebrated similarly from year to year. Moreover, as the political turmoil led to a stiffening of Kemalist values, a new focus was given to the commemorations of 19 May 1919, the beginning of Mustafa Kemal's rebellion – and Youth Day.

In May 1975, the celebrations were tense. The Cyprus issue, “solved” in the Summer of 1974 with the Turkish intervention and occupation of the north of the island, seems somehow left behind since the main concern is again political Islam. The ceremonies of May 19 were postponed "for meteorological reasons" to May 31. But in the meantime, on May 27 was held "Freedom and Constitution Day", during which General Semih Sancar, Chief of Staff, threatened political Islam and far-left organizations: "We will break the hands of those who lash out at the principles of Atatürk". On May 28, the National Salvation Party (MSP, Islamist) led by Necmettin Erbakan, then deputy prime minister - and future prime minister in 1996-1997 - attempted a provocation by announcing a "Great March of the Youth" on 29 in Ankara, which was immediately banned. As a matter of fact, Erbakan was accused of having said that "the real youth day" was not the Kemalist festival on 19, but the Fetih anniversary on 29. And on that day, he proclaimed: "This victory (the Fetih) is the victory (zafer) of those who are on the right track over those who are mistaken". Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit then announces: "The true nationalists" (gerçek milliyetçiler) are those who will participate in the May 19 celebration"... which had been postponed to May 31! In this convoluted context, however, the Fetih celebration took place as usual, with its extras, janissaries, sailors, and mehters, on the walls of Istanbul and along Vatan Caddesi.

Clashes over symbols and commemorations could even divide the government. In 1976, when an MSP-affiliated minister of state, Hasan Aksayda, announced that he would propose a debate in the council of ministers about the possibility of praying in Hagia Sophia, while the president of the republic, General Fahri Korutürk, issued a warning to the Panturquists and Islamists. Moreover, during the years preceding the 1980 coup d'état, the date of May 27 was the occasion of "warnings" by the military authorities. On May 29, 1976, as a precaution, Hagia Sophia was closed to the public, and police prevented MTTB from organizing a meeting in Beyazıt Square, in the vicinity of the basilica. But the commemorative ceremonies are held as usual again, with the parade of kadırgas from Dolmabahçe to Kasımpasa, far from Hagia Sophia, where the police manage to contain MTTB demonstrators. On May 30, Milliyet's front page reflects the dual character of this day, with a photo of the costumed extras on the walls, and another of the cord of police in front of Hagia Sophia.

May 1977 was particularly turbulent: May Day concluded in the Taksim Square massacre (5 demonstrators shot dead, 32 crushed in the crowd 5 ), and then arrests of "terrorists" followed one another; Alparslan Türkes, leader of the extreme right, escaped an attack; on 29, explosions in Yeşilköy and Sirkeci (Istanbul) killed five people. Around both anniversaries of May 27 and May 29, the confrontation became even more radical. President-General Korutürk "warned" again his fellow citizens: "Those who turn to extremism will regret it”. But Necmettin Erbakan, president of the MSP and Deputy Prime Minister, announced that he would pray at Hagia Sophia, "as did Mehmet the Conqueror”. So, these days, the police are in faction in front of Hagia Sophia and, on 28th, push back young demonstrators of the MTTB. On 29th, the Minister of the Interior closes the basilica, because "the museums close on Sunday".

That year, the meaning of the anniversary of May 29 changed: the character of military victory carried by the Fetih faded away, while that of an Islam's victory prevailed. On the 30th, Milliyet devoted little space to the official celebration and much more to the attempts to make the prayer in Hagia Sophia. Indeed, one hundred and fifty buses brought demonstrators, who gathered first at the Eyüp mosque, upstream of the Golden Horn, where is the tomb of Akşemseddin, companion of the Conqueror and first imam of Constantinople. In the morning, about 8,000 of them, according to Milliyet, headed towards Sultanahmet Square, chanting tekbir 6. The MTTB demonstration is swathed in a semiology which will be that of the later Islamist or Islamo-nationalist demonstrations, and which provide as many items to the press photographers: a clique of mehter in period costumes - this music and these musicians, henceforth, take a value of political sign -, banners "in Arabic", as always says the secularist press, pretending to ignore that they are verses of the Koran - also the writing itself is more significant than what it says; men dressed in white and wearing turbans, index finger up as a sign of political Islam, castigating "imperialism and its henchmen" as responsible for the current disorder in the country, but also shouting unambiguous slogans: "The way of liberation is the way of Allah!", "Cut the chains, open Hagia Sophia!" and, most disturbingly, "Expel the [Orthodox] Patriarchate, that den of traitors!7.


1 Cf. Turan Feyzioğlu's chronicle, years 1962 and 1963, in Türkiye'de Devrimci Gençlik Hareketleri Tarihi [History of Revolutionary Youth Movements in Turkey], vol. 1, 1960-1968, Istanbul, Belge Yayınları, 1993. Among other prominent members of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a member of this organization.

2 Ahmet Kabaklı (1924-2001) was one of the founders, in 1970, of the Intellectuals' Hearth (Aydınlar Ocağı), a nationalist and conservative think-tank, at the origin of the ideology of the "Turkish-Islamic synthesis". He was also one of the most influential columnists of the ultra-nationalist daily Türkiye.

3 About the memory of Sultan Abdülhamit II and the affair of the commemoration of the Darülaceze in 1996, see my paper “Nous sommes les petits-enfants des Ottomans”: https://www.academia.edu/32067787/Esquisse_n_36_-_Nous_sommes_les_petits-enfants_des_Ottomans_ (accessed September 23, 2022)

4 Two significant examples: on August 28, 1964, the Greek embassy was stormed by student demonstrators; on October 1, at the opening ceremony of the academic year at the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ, Ankara), the flags of all the countries of the world were raised... except the Greek flag.

5 Cf. My paper “Premier-mai sanglants”: https://www.academia.edu/21811890/Esquisse_n_13_-_Premier-Mai_sanglants_1977_et_1996 (accessed October 1, 2022).

6This word, which means "the only one," proclaims the uniqueness of God, and is uttered in Islamist demonstrations by raising the index finger; it is usually accompanied by the cry "Allahüekber!", "God is great!

7Kurtulus Allah'a giden yoldadır!”, “Zincirler kırılsın Ayasofya açılsın!”, “Ihanet yuvası Patrikhane dısarı!”.


Photomontage published on the Islamist website Fatihhaber.com. The text promises the divine curse on anyone who dares to reverse the decision of Mehmed the Conqueror to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Atatürk, who is targeted, is not named.

Photomontage published on the Islamist website Fatihhaber.com. The text promises the divine curse on anyone who dares to reverse the decision of Mehmed the Conqueror to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Atatürk, who is targeted, is not named.

The following year (1978), the state was vigilant; the anniversary of the coup of May 27, 1960, "Freedom and Constitution Day", was no longer even mentioned, and May 29, the Fetih Day, remained in the official organizational framework. In 1979, the Chief of Staff, Kenan Evren, made a threatening statement in his message to the armed forces on May 27: "Those who want to divide the country will find the armed forces in front of them”. The commemoration of the 29th was reduced to almost nothing. But some days later, at the instigation of PM Süleyman Demirel, a law proposal was presented to abolish the celebrations of May 1st and 27th "in the interests of national unity".

The night of 1980 came. The year following the 12 September coup, the commemoration of the Fetih resumed, but strictly in the same ritual forms, with the perennial re-enactment of the final assault and, in the media, the photo of the janissaries raising the flag on the walls. The celebration became routine, marked only in 1982 by the inauguration of a giant statue of the Conqueror at Bayrampaşa (Istanbul). Then, the ritual seems to die out in the early 1990s.


1994, the Islamists win the municipal elections in Istanbul: another Fetih


Of course, everything changed in 1994, when, on March 27, the Islamist party Refah won the elections and came to municipal power in Istanbul, Ankara, and many towns of the country. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan becomes the mayor of Istanbul. For the Islamist trend, this victory is a second Fetih, and Necmettin Erbakan, chairman of the Refah, promises: “When we will come to government, we will open Hagia Sophia to prayer. Hagia Sophia is afflicted [since 1934]. Hagia Sophia owns to the Fatih.

Therefore, the anniversary of the Fetih is being celebrated in a grand manner, not with historical re-enactments but with a meeting organized in the Ali Sami Yem stadium (Istanbul), on Sunday, May 29, by the municipality and the Refah youth movement, the Millî Gençlik Vakfı. Obviously, Necmettin Erbakan wants to reiterate his intention, formulated in 1975, to make May 29 “a true Youth Festival”.

Many Stambouliots are upset however. The example of some countries like Algeria and Iran are highly worrying: everybody knows what Islamism can do. The triumphant meeting of the Refah, orchestrated to stir the country, celebrated the municipal victory as a fulfillment of the Conqueror's, but also as the announcement of ultimate success, which came two years later, with Erbakan's access to power in June 1996.

Thus, on the morning of Sunday 29, 1994, thousands of people gather, coming from the working class districts of Istanbul and from all over Turkey. As Necmettin Erbakan arrives, triumphant, on the stadium's lawn in an open convertible, the crowd chants: "Here is the courageous leader of the Muslim world, here is his army, here is his commander". One can feel in the Milliyet report the fear provoked by a crowd where some people wear şalvars and turbans, and the presence of many veiled women parked in a separate stand. A famous preacher, Adnan Hoca, arrives in a white Jaguar and is cheered by the crowd: on this day, political Islam is not afraid to publicly stage with arrogance.

It should be remembered that the news of the time is felt by political Islam and a large part of the conservative Muslim opinion as generalized aggression by the Christian world, as a new crusade: the period is one of the worst moments of the Bosnian war, of the Russian aggression in Chechnya, of umpteenth repression in Palestine. Even the Algerian army, which represses the terrible wave of Islamist terrorism, is presented by certain newspapers as accomplices of the "crusaders." The demonstrators think that this "crusade" is now over and that Islam is taking the offensive again, like in the time of the Conqueror, thanks to the victory of the Refah, and the slogans chanted at the Ali Sami Yem stadium are full of this spirit: "We are the generation of the Fetih!", "Bosnia, Palestine, Azerbaijan, be patient, we are coming!", "Even at the cost of a blood flow, we will protect Al-Aqsa!", "Bosnia will be the tomb of the Serbs!".

1994 certainly was a new beginning for political Islam in Turkey. As in previous decades, the anniversary of the Fetih was indicative of the current political conflicts. In 1994, the Islamists raised their heads. During the year 1996-1997, they succeeded again, and the celebration of the Fetih, then, was a victorious and provocative historical re-enactment.



[Initially published on December 15, 2013 on susam-sokak.fr]

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