It’s not only radicals who shout ‘Allahu Akbar’

It’s not only radicals who shout ‘Allahu Akbar’

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been reelected but the results were disputed. It was 2009, right after Iran’s presidential election. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been reelected but the results were disputed. Tens and thousands of people took to the streets, chanting “Where is my vote?” Protests erupted in Tehran then spread to other main cities. The protests were generally peaceful but the Basij paramilitary troops attacked protesters with batons. Hundreds were detained. The leaders of the opposition, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were put under house arrest.

Because the crackdown was so brutal, people started staying away from the streets after a while. Every evening at exactly 10 p.m., people would turn off their lights and chant “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest) from their windows or their roof tops. This is what people also did to oppose the Shah during his era. It was a cry for justice; a cry for peace. Every evening I turned my lights off too and listened to a people’s civil, peaceful resistance. Although I’m a secular person, this chant used to make tears fall from my eyes.

One evening I was talking to a close friend from Turkey with a sharply secular perspective. People started chanting again. I told her to listen to how people were crying for justice and freedom. But she was shocked. She could only say, “Oh my God, you must leave that country right away.” In our secularist mindsets, groups chanting “Allahu Akbar” are not usually good news. We have associated it with the more brutal side of our Ottoman history, and with cruel fundamentalist groups who tend to abuse women and frighten masses. Words have different connotations in different times.

After many nights of chanting and asking for justice, Iranians were eventually able to get a more conciliatory government elected. The current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is probably not the perfect choice, but his being in this position with his more moderate discourse is something. Ultimately, the chants carried reformists to the power.

In Turkey, on July 15, the night that the coup attempt took place, calls to prayer started coming out of the mosque minarets. Then crowds came out onto the streets chanting “Allahu Akbar.” They stood in front of tanks. Somehow, they helped stop the coup. It was the triumph of the regular lower middle class Turkish guy on the street, not that of the wealthy privileged. The only way they know how to struggle is by asking for help from God. They prayed and also stood against the soldiers firing at them. Probably this was how they found strength, by screaming again and again, “God is the greatest.” 

Possibly many secularists watched the coup attempt and worried about what would come next with fear. They feared both the coup and they feared the “Allahu Akbar” chanting crowds. The secular middle class is still anxious about what is coming after all that has happened. Will Turkey become more authoritarian? Will it become less secular? That remains to be seen.

But it is high time for the privileged to understand the common guy. This way or that, majorities maintain power in democracies. The fact that the masses are religious or conservative does not change this fact.
It is not always brutal Islamist totalitarianism that comes after people take to the streets chanting “Allahu Akbar.” Sometimes it can be a call for justice and equality. Democracy can come out of these chants too. It is high time in Turkey for all sides to get to understand each other and build the system based on this.