The sounds of the recent military coup will long be remembered by people in Turkey.
Yet as Turks in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other urban centers strained to differentiate the sounds of explosive devices from the sonic booms of F-16s on July 15, 2016, they were most shocked by another sound, at once familiar and deeply startling: the Islamic call to prayer.
As an ethnomusicologist, I study distinct and often contradictory ways people make and listen to music and sound. July’s coup created a new soundscape for communities in western Turkey: sounds of violence combined with the call to prayer.
Known in Turkish as the “ezan,” this intricate, melodic recitation is a quintessential marker of daily life, inviting the devout to pray. In Muslim communities, an ezan, or “adhan” in Arabic, is heard five times daily: before dawn, at midday, in the afternoon, when the sun sets and at night. In populated urban settings in Turkey, residents will hear multiple calls projected from mosques simultaneously. Some areas in Istanbul are celebrated precisely for their ezan soundmarks, unique places or territories made meaningful by the sounds heard there. Skillful reciters respond to one another in stunning call-and-response patterns.
But for all its familiarity, few Turks had ever heard the ezan outside official times. That changed in the early hours of July 16. As members of the Turkish military sought control of the country, Turks began hearing both the ezan and the “sela” (“salat al-janazah” in Arabic)—a prayerful recitation asking forgiveness for Muslims who have died—in a cacophony that lasted hours.
Turkish listeners were astounded. Were these calls to prayer meant to be calls to arms?
Locating the call
Several Turkish news outlets reported that religious leaders at mosques throughout Turkey were directly asked to recite the calls by the state-run Ministry of Religious Affairs. In other words, the democratically elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) used the ministry to deploy the ezan as a call for citizens to confront soldiers attempting the coup. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also appeared on CNN-Turk via FaceTime to invite people to gather in public squares to resist the coup.
The last two times that the ezan and the sela were incanted outside of ritual time occurred before the Republic of Turkey’s boundaries were established in 1923. During World War I, as the British and French laid siege to Istanbul at the Battle of Gallipoli, Ottomans heard the ezan and the sela sounding across the Marmara Sea. In 1922, Greek soldiers retreating from Anatolia ostensibly left the port city of Izmir with recitations ringing in their ears. In both cases, the ezan and sela were used to marshal Ottoman Muslims to defend their communities.
Reciting the call to prayer outside of normalized Islamic ritual time rendered this July coup a kind of war against Turkey itself.
During the coup attempt, some listeners found the calls inspiring and mobilizing. They believed that answering the call by gathering in the streets demonstrated support for either the AKP or the party’s Islamic roots.
Other listeners—who may or may not support the AKP or Erdoğan—flooded public squares primarily to protest the violence that has almost inevitably followed previous military coups.
And another group of listeners anxiously heard the ezan and the sela in light of the Egyptian coup of 2013, when mosques in Cairo projected similar recitations. They worried that Turkey now sounds more like the Middle East than Europe, and that their country is leaning more toward authoritarianism than democracy. They continue to question whether this latest coup might initiate a contagion of violence that would further destabilize Turkish social life.
Listening in Turkey after the coup
Such differences in the way people listened to and interpreted the sounds of the coup amplify Turkey’s longstanding polarization between state secularism and public practices of Islam. As morning gave way to afternoon, and the coup was formally quieted, Turks took to social media to discuss the recitations.
“In the past, secular coup instigators silenced the ezan,” a politician observed. “Now the ezan silences the coup instigators.”
In the weeks following the coup, the call to prayer has resumed its role in the everyday, yet it continues to haunt the ears of many cosmopolitan Turks unfamiliar with living amidst sounds of violence.
A day after the coup, a man was interviewed standing before a tank as police pulled soldiers from it. “You did a coup in the ‘60’s, you did a coup in ‘70’s,” he shouted at the camera. His words would circulate on social media in the days to come. “You did a coup in the ‘80’s. You did a coup in the ‘90’s. At that time our fathers and grandfathers were silent but we will not be silent!”
This metaphor of sound resonates with our own English language expressions. To “have a voice” is to have political power, whereas “the voiceless” have no political agency or representation.
Refusing to be silent is to take up sound as power. But this coup’s most lasting change will not be found in raised voices, nor in the making of noise. Rather, the coup and its aftermath have engendered new, conflicting forms of listening.
That indeed is something to which we should be attuned.