On the first day of 2024, tens of thousands marched in Istanbul to protest Israel’s military actions in Gaza. The demonstration was organized by the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA), which is funded by the government and run by Bilal Erdogan, a son of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), which oversees mosques in Turkey, reportedly issued instructions to imams serving in Istanbul to participate in the protest and to encourage their congregations to also take part.
This demonstration, orchestrated by TÜGVA and the National Will Platform along with the participation of 308 NGOs, commenced after the morning prayer at major mosques in the city. The protesters gathered and proceeded to march toward the Galata Bridge, chanting slogans in solidarity with Palestine and denouncing Israel.
Diyanet President Ali Erbaş said on social media, “Thousands of our brothers and sisters are gathering at the Galata Bridge to support the just cause of the oppressed Palestinian people and to curse Zionist Israel.” He further said that all imams serving in mosques across Istanbul would advise their congregations to contribute to this important gathering. Nordic Monitor also learned that the Diyanet informed the imams of the event through its Istanbul office.
During the rally some of the young people wore keffiyehs similar to those used by Abu Ubaida, the spokesperson for the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, with their faces covered as they marched. Abu Ubaida has gained prominence in the office of Hamas-aligned Turkish President Erdogan and among radical Islamist groups in Turkey. In these circles Abu Ubaida was lauded as a hero, and the unexpected terrorist attacks executed by the al-Qassam Brigades against Israel on October 7 were celebrated as a significant triumph.
Selçuk Bayraktar, one of the owners of a government-supported military drone company, and another of Erdogan’s sons-in-law, former economy minister Berat Albayrak, were among the participants in the demonstration along with Bilal Erdogan, whose involvement as a keynote speaker led political observers to interpret the support of the sons-in-law as an attempt to prepare Bilal for a potential future role and to increase his prominence, succeeding his father as president.
There were calls to boycott brands perceived as pro-Israel, and protesters expressed opposition to Israel’s attacks on Gaza during the rally.
Criticism has been directed at the protest, pointing out the perceived hypocrisy in President Erdogan’s policies towards Israel. Despite Erdogan’s accusations of Israel committing war crimes in Gaza, his government faces criticism for not severing diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel.
A recent investigation by journalist Metin Cihan revealed that business between Turkish companies and Israel remains unaffected despite Ankara’s condemnation of Israel. The investigation revealed that companies owned by or associated with Erdogan’s other son, Burak, have continued trading with Israel
The Diyanet’s siding with Hamas and support for its attacks on Israeli targets align with the broader policy pursued by Erdogan’s government. The organization has not only declared a boycott against companies supporting Israel but has also actively mobilized its global network in support of Hamas. It held online emergency meetings with participants from 92 countries, condemning Israel and expressing support for Hamas fighters, describing their armed campaign as justified by international law as well as religion.
The Diyanet’s involvement in anti-Israel and pro-Hamas activities extends to the encouragement of congregations to attend demonstrations. On October 28 Erbaş attended and led a prayer at the “Great Palestine Rally” organized by the Turkish government, featuring President Erdogan as the keynote speaker.
Nordic Monitor previously reported that during a speech at the 43rd Consultative Meeting of Provincial Muftis on November 16, Erbaş issued a religious edict stating that it is forbidden for Muslims to support any country aligned with Israel. “Remaining indifferent to oppression and injustice, staying silent in the face of tyrants and traitors, is directly or indirectly supporting oppressors, occupiers, terrorists and killers. Supporting those who support them is also forbidden,” he said.
During a speech delivered before a concert in Ankara last month, Erbaş drew parallels between the Jews of the past and their descendants today, suggesting that like their ancestors, they engage in destruction and conspiracies.
According to Erbaş, the events unfolding in Gaza reveal the true nature of a mindset that seeks to portray itself as the master and reformer of the world, exposing the dark reality behind its facade. Protests staged on behalf of humanity, the law and morality, in Erbaş’s view, have no influence or meaning for these corrupt individuals and their supporters.
Erbaş pointed out that the Quran references the forefathers of Israel, stating that it illuminates the mindset of these disruptors. “Just as they were on that day, today the descendants of those troublemakers, the descendants of those corrupt individuals, are walking the same path,” Erbaş added.
As of September the Diyanet was overseeing 89,327 mosques in Turkey and hundreds abroad, employing 141,149 personnel, primarily imams. With a budget of 23.3 billion Turkish lira in 2022, the Diyanet has a significant financial portfolio, half of which comprises real estate holdings valued at TL 1 billion. The budget for next year is set to grow substantially to TL 91.8 billion, reflecting a 151 percent increase from the current year’s budget of TL 36.4 billion.