Unusual times result in unusual measures. It’s been two months since 90,000 mosques in Turkey have been closed for mass prayers due to the coronavirus pandemic. They will be reopened on May 29 with the new rule that mass prayers will be held only with social distancing measures and only twice a day, at noon and in the mid-afternoon.

But Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, invented another way to reach everyone during the lockdown, believers and unbelievers alike: after each nighttime prayer, the mosques are loudly broadcasting a so-called “coronavirus prayer,” a combination of hymns and salawat. Since March 24, coronavirus prayers lasting up to 20 minutes have been made in every neighborhood and city.

Even secular people cannot ask openly why exactly such prayers are needed at such a loud volume, if such a practice fits Islam. People know that by asking a single question on the subject, they could be targeted or investigated.   

However, it was one of the founders of the AKP, Bülent Arınç, who said that these prayers are exaggerated.

 “Are we grossing everyone out or keeping religious feelings alive? For me, this is called ‘bi’dat.’” This specific Arabic phrase refers to making something up that has no relevance to Islam. 

Nobody can question Arınç’s piousness, as he is one of the Islamist masterminds behind the AKP. But he has stirred up the party before, making critical comments about some of Erdoğan’s policies, such as discharging hundred of thousands of people who allegedly had Gülenist ties. 

As expected, Arınç’s remark on coronavirus prayers was targeted by pro-Erdoğan media figures. On social media, trolls created the “ResignArınç” hashtag, calling him a Gülenist and saying that he was one of the coup instigators. Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Bahçeli jumped in as well, saying “He should shut up.”

Arınç made a public announcement saying that he stands behind his words and that nobody can question his piousness nor his stance against a coup: “One day it will be clear that those who make these campaigns have nothing to do with love for the country and nation, nor do they have any religious devotion.”

People usually concentrate and talk about the cracks and flaws within the AKP, since there are not many. But I think of the coronavirus prayer debate as a striking example of how the Erdoğan-Bahçeli alliance is using religious symbols and nationalism to create total control over the public.

Another example of how symbols and campaigns are changing is the anniversary of May 19, which is celebrated as the Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day. Under AKP rule for 18 years, Erdoğan and the AKP made it very clear that they are against the modern Turkish Republic celebrations that had been carried out for years, such as May 19. All festivities commemorating Atatürk were slowly but determinedly wiped out by the state, leaving secularists with only individual celebrations. On such days, it is custom to hang flags picturing Atatürk and to sing marches. It seems to be the last refuge for the secularist opposition to show their devotion to Atatürk and their disgust for those (such as the AKP) who are harming secularism. But even Atatürk as a symbol seems to have been partially adopted by the regime. 

This year, the May 19 celebrations were held within homes due to the coronavirus lockdown. Nationalist and neo-nationalist accounts called for a united celebration at exactly 19:19 in the evening.

However, this time AKP figures joined in, as well: the Minister of Health, Fahrettin Koca, as well as Minister of Treasure Berat Albayrak, used the tag “19Mayıs1919” to celebrate the day. 

The secular neighborhood I happily live in started to celebrate at exactly 19.19, waving their flags from their balconies and joining in singing old Turkish marches and patriotic songs for half an hour.

I wondered if they knew that the ruling party now claims ownership over Atatürk as well. I wondered if they are really aware of how the Turkish Republic has been transformed into an authoritarian state with the support of neo-nationalists — if they knew about the loss of democracy, freedom of speech and rule of law. I wonder who cares.