DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY - More than 100,000 people gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, last week to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering was one of the most powerful displays of the rising power of Islamists in the region, which is stoking tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement.

Young and old came from all directions, chanting "God is great" and "Islamic Kurdistan.” It was a powerful show of force by Islamists. Leading Kurdish Islamists and others from elsewhere in the Middle East attended the rally. One of the biggest cheers was given to a Hamas representative.

Speakers promised to return the region to its religious past, a promise that one man said cannot come too soon.

The event's organizers, Prophet Lovers, a collection of Islamist groups, distributed religious literature and canvassed across Diyarbakir's neighborhoods ahead of the rally. Many districts were recently opened up to the Islamists after security forces reinforced strict control in areas that were once strongholds of the secular PKK rebel group, which is fighting the Turkish state.

A masked demonstrator walks around a bonfire durin
A masked demonstrator walks around a bonfire during a gathering to celebrate the spring festival of Newroz in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 21, 2016.

Cemil Cahit Unsal, head of organization for the rally, says its message offers a way out of the region's violence.

"We come together for our prophet's birth.  He has installed fraternity and peace, and that's why we say in messages that if we, as the people of the region, take him as our role model, live his life, these fights, these wars, this chaos will not continue and will not have any meaning," he said.

The promotion of religion and rise of Islamist groups raise suspicions and fears among some supporters of Kurdish nationalists. The nationalist movement sees the establishment of equality for women as one of its biggest achievements. Many key positions in the pro-Kurdish HDP are held by women, including mayors.  The party is often accused by Islamists and the government of being anti-religious, but local HDP acting Mayor Azize Deger Kutlu rejects the charge.

Diyarbakir, Turkey
Diyarbakir, Turkey

"Religion should not be the monopoly of the political parties. Such a statement is not true.  Everyone can and does practice their religion the way they want.  The HDP has always argued for separation of religion and politics and is against the use of religion as a tool in politics," said Kutlu.

The Syrian conflict a few hours away is adding to tensions between secular and religious Kurds.  Many of those fighting for and against Islamic State in Syria are Kurds from Turkey.  Muhammed Akar, local head of the ruling AK Party in Diyarbakir, acknowledges there are dangers.

"In all societies, differences carry the potential of conflict. There is this risk, I accept this. Turkey's democratic standards will not allow these societal groups to get into conflict with each other," said Akar.

Islamists and Kurdish nationalists violently clashed 18 months ago in Diyarbakir, leaving nearly 50 dead. The trigger? Syria. The dead are not forgotten on either side.