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Ramadan becomes political battleground in Turkey

Lavish Ramadan gatherings by Turkey's ruling party have fueled public outrage amid staggering inflation and skyrocketing prices.
People break their fast on May 16, 2018, near Taksim Square in Istanbul.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits different households during the holy month of Ramadan. This year, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) special focus is on the youth, as the youth vote for the AKP has been on a steady decline. 

AKP officials have been organizing fast-breaking iftar and suhoor (the meal before sunrise) gatherings with various youth groups. Since 2016, Erdogan has advised AKP officials to refrain from attending extravagant gatherings during Ramadan. This year, ruling party heavyweights publicly warned its members to avoid joining lavish iftar and suhoor meals through a memorandum amid the country’s staggering economic turmoil. 

Yet a suhoor gathering held on April 7 in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern city of Agri set off a public uproar. Agri, which lies along the Turkish border of Iran, is known as one of the poorest cities in Turkey. 

The suhoor gathering in Agri organized by the AKP youth branch has gone viral after Halil Ibrahim Selcuk, head of AKP’s youth branch in Agri, posted a video of the gathering on social media.

The video angered various segments of society. Pious Muslims, for example, questioned the authenticity of the video as they couldn’t believe that the AKP would organize a suhoor gathering where young men and women would sit together, eating and singing with live music playing.

The rest questioned who funded the gathering and why live music was allowed as bars and clubs around the country are not allowed to play live music after midnight. The video shows bowls full of honey, cheese, olives, eggs — all the basic goods whose prices have skyrocketed in the last couple of months, reaching a forbidden sum for lower- and middle-class citizens who have to wait in long lines just to save a few Turkish liras on bread. 

Opposition groups criticized the images on social media, comparing the lavish gathering to suhoor meals served at college dorms

As criticism on private chat groups and social media soared, a prominent AKP member openly asked the chair to delete his tweet. Mehmet Metiner, a former AKP lawmaker and a columnist for pro-government daily Yeni Safak, wrote, “Our Agri youth branch chairman, who shared this post (referring to the now-deleted video of the suhoor), would you please delete it immediately?” Metiner was not critical of the gathering for its lavish style, but he was upset that it was shared with the public. Both tweets were deleted shortly thereafter.

A senior AKP member speaking on the condition of anonymity explained to Al-Monitor the reason why the tweet was deleted: “There is a threshold for patience. Celebration videos such as that suhoor can trigger social unrest.” 

But deleting the tweet did not help, forcing the AKP's Agri Mayor Savci Sayan to turn the tables by arguing that the criticism leveled at the lavish gathering amounted to discrimination against the Kurdish youth. Sayan also said the gathering brought together 600-700 students and cost only 21,000 Turkish liras (around $1,400). Yet Sayan’s statements also failed to calm angry voices.

On April 8, Mahir Unal, a deputy head of the AKP, fanned the flames further when he paid a visit to a home shared by college students with cameras in tow. Walking into the kitchen and checking the stove, Unal was surprised to see sujuk (dry fermented Turkish sausage) included in the meal, arguing that the sujuk was refuting the opposition circles' complaints of the high cost of living. Unal said, “Look, they have sujuk here. Weren’t they just complaining [about living expenses]?” 

His remarks unleashed angry outbursts on social media, with people asking if it would be acceptable for students to eat just stale bread.

Ramadan usually marks harmony, sharing and caring for each other, so why did things become so contentious in Turkey? 

Abdullah Aydogan, a political scientist and data analyst, told Al-Monitor, “Due to their disconnect with the realities of the population in general and youth in particular, these PR projects frequently end up with unexpected outcomes from an AKP perspective. For example, the extravagant suhoor organization in Agri received a big backlash. Rightfully, many young voters who have been struggling to cope with the rising prices criticized the event.”

Regarding Unal’s reaction to sujuk at the student dinner, Aydogan said, “In Anatolian culture, people tend to treat their guests with the utmost generosity. Particularly when people host guests that they think are special, they often serve food that they couldn’t afford at regular times. Making fun of the food he was served and the student’s comments on the household economy is a big disappointment. But also with those comments, he confirms that sujuk became such a hard-to-afford food for ordinary people.”

Failing to acknowledge how real the struggle is for ordinary people is becoming a serious concern. Serkan Tanyildizi, a social media expert, told Al-Monitor, “Unfortunately, AKP politicians try to explain the rising prices with incomprehensible reasoning — for example, when they said they increased the price of meat to reduce the lines. These mind-boggling statements and attempted jokes indeed touch a nerve with people who question [whether they are being ridiculed]."

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