How Turks Mobilized Against the Coup

The Power of the Mosque and the Hashtag

H. Akin Unver and Hassan Alassaad

The Arab Spring movement has long been characterized as a primarily secular phenomenon that was powered by social media. But some scholars, such as Kat Eghdamian, Seyla Benhabib, Michael Hoffman, and Amaney Jamal have challenged this narrative, arguing that mosques were a silent but central driver of the Arab Spring. Eghdamian, in particular, makes a convincing case that mosque networks acted as anchors across socio-economic strata, unified grievances, and legitimized and helped support popular mobilization. Although convincing, these arguments often lack empirical evidence, mostly because there hasn’t been enough measurable data on how mosque networks operate in relation to digital media in times of crises. But the recent coup attempt in Turkey, which generated one of the most successful hybrid, religious–political mobilizations in the country’s history, could bridge that gap, thanks to widespread access to digital media, as well as the emergence of new analytical tools.

The anti-coup protests produced a flood of digital data with millions documenting the events and protesting against the coup online. We gathered this information using a combination of algorithms that can comb social media and other open data sources in real-time and capture data with a high level of spatial and temporal granularity. On top of this first layer of data, we mapped Istanbul’s extensive mosque network, which served as a traditional, grassroots channel for mobilization. We found that the mosques, in addition to digital media, did play a significant role in mobilizing Turks who were against the coup to frustrate rogue military forces, such as by physically blocking their movements and overwhelming their defensive positions in the strategic areas of Istanbul. 

Surprisingly, our analysis showed that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played a belated role in mobilizing Turks to his defense. The general consensus is that social media “saved” Erdogan after he used FaceTime and Twitter to implore citizens to join the resistance and they responded, in the millions, by taking to the streets to “foil” the coup attempt. But our

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