Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his powers newly enhanced, flies into Turkish occupied north of Cyprus this week for an official visit that is likely to be met with trepidation by Turkish Cypriots who pride themselves on a secular lifestyle at odds with the strongman leader’s Islamist outlook.
Hours after being sworn in, Erdogan will make his first overseas trip to the island’s breakaway Turkish republic on Tuesday, barely two weeks after his unexpected first-round victory in snap presidential and parliamentary polls in which his Justice and Development party (AKP) emerged as the winner although it finished short of an overall majority.
But behind the fanfare that will greet the president there is also thinly disguised dread.
Officials in Ankara have announced that the visit will be dominated by the opening of the monumental Hala Sultan mosque. Its controversial construction on the outskirts of northern Nicosia has come to symbolise Erdoğan’s embrace of political Islam. Built to accommodate 6,000 worshippers, the mosque is by far the biggest in the self-styled state.
The prospect of Erdoğan, who won 52.2% of the vote, enjoying sweeping powers under a strengthened presidential system that will allow him to form the next government has reinforced fears among Turkish Cypriots that their own traditions could be threatened by his increasingly autocratic style of leadership.
“Nobody here wanted him to win,” said Yasar Alpin, who was 24 when war split the Mediterranean island between Greek Orthodox Christians in the south and Muslim Turks in the north. “He wants to change our way of life, put our women in headscarves, tell us how to live.”
Turkish Cypriots delight in being among the most liberal Muslims in the west. Their cherished lifestyle, including an open fondness for alcohol, is traced back to colonial times under the British.
Thirty-five years after the breakaway state unilaterally declared independence, government officials are clearly concerned.
“We have to respect the result,” the labour and social security minister, Zeki Çeler, said in an interview in his third-floor office, stroking his pet cat, “as long as they don’t interfere too much here.”
Although recognised solely by Ankara and dependent on its largesse, Turkish Cypriots – emboldened perhaps by the 40-mile stretch of sea that separates them from Turkey – have not been shy about voicing dissent. Anger has mounted as imams have arrived, religious schools have opened and mosques have proliferated under the stewardship of the AKP.
As the territory’s youngest MP, Çeler has been a vociferous opponent of Turkey’s efforts to transform the entity’s secular culture into one that resonates more with Islamic norms. When thousands took to the streets to protest against the perceived Islamisation of daily life under Turkey’s tutelage two years ago, he decried religious influence in an eight-hour filibuster before parliament.
“Of course I am [concerned],” says the 37-year-old social democrat. “Turkish Cypriots are secular.”
But Çeler, who worked as a barman, discotheque manager and traditional dance instructor before entering politics, concedes that the tiny state would struggle without Turkey.
Since invading Cyprus in 1974 in response to a coup aimed at union with Greece, up to 45,000 Turkish troops have been stationed in the island’s north – territory seized in the invasion – with Ankara boosting public finances and providing vital infrastructure and aid. The country’s role as guarantor power and saviour, even today, remains paramount.
“Turkey is our mother,” he says, lamenting the lack of progress in UN-mediated talks to reunify the island in a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. “When your mother gives you something but also tells you what to do, you do what she says.”
Turkish Cypriots are among the least observant Muslims globally, with most not wearing Islamic headwear and only rarely visiting mosques, in stark contrast to the Anatolian settlers who, encouraged by Ankara to move to northern Cyprus, have changed the territory’s demographic makeup.
Analysts say fears go beyond religion. Locals have watched with alarm as Erdoğan has ruthlessly imprisoned opponents in the crackdown following a failed coup that left 250 dead and more than 2,000 injured in July 2016.
“Turkish Cypriots don’t want to be told how to live,” said Ahmet Sozen, who chairs the department of international relations at the Eastern Mediterranean University in northern Nicosia.
“They particularly don’t like the idea of a government questioning whether they should drink alcohol or practice religion,” he said. “And they are afraid that if Erdogan’s hand is strengthened, and Turkey becomes ever more authoritarian, by extension society here will become less democratic too. It is why a solution to the island’s division is so important.”
But the leader’s increased authoritarianism could also, ironically, hold the key to peace on Cyprus. Although the failure of the AKP to win an overall majority makes the party dependent on its electoral alliance partner, the ultra-nationalist MHP, there is also a growing belief that Erdoğan’s enhanced powers could help him break the logjam in the quest to reunite Cyprus.
“If he personally decides to solve the problem it will be that much easier for Turkey to commit to it now that he has concentrated power in his hands,” said Kamal Baykalli, a prominent Turkish Cypriot peace activist. “Strong authoritarian leaders can make big decisions more easily. After all, we saw it in Algeria when De Gaulle was in power in France.”