In Selected Opinion

By Al-Monitor –

On the centennial of the Turkish Republic, its citizens are debating the country’s evolution and how it measures up to the vision of modern Turkey’s deeply secular founder.

Turkey marked its 100th year as a republic on Oct. 29 with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist leader seen as the antithesis of the country’s militantly secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, at its helm. The question of just how much the country has changed is a matter of intense debate, with opinion on both sides of Turkey’s perennial Islamic-secular divide assessing progress through the lens of religion and its impact on political and social life.

During two decades in power, Erdogan, a professionally trained imam, has been steadily unraveling Ataturk’s secular legacy. Islamists and their erstwhile liberal allies say the soldier-turned-statesman carried modernism to excess through his determined erasure of piety from the public sphere. Erdogan restored society to its natural equilibrium, with covered women no longer banned from parliament and public office and with the number of mosques and religious courses increasing by the day. Critics riposte that secularism and women in particular are under threat like never before. Even as the number of  femicides  continued to swell, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention that aims to combat violence against women five years after it was ratified by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2012.

“Ataturk would have been very saddened,” asserted Ali Yaycioglu, a historian of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey at Stanford University. Erdogan and the AKP are “after a new supremacist ideal in which adherents of the Hanefi branch of Sunnism are seen as the ‘true owners’ of Turkey,” Yaycioglu told Al-Monitor. At the same time, Erdogan is seeking to create “a new aristocracy around a new dynastic structure, namely his family,” through the creation of a new class of wealthy Turks in hock to his regime, Yaycioglu added.

Why else, many ask, would Erdogan be planning to spend Republic Day celebrations in the wooden pavilion on the Asian side of the Bosporus named after Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, rather than at the Dolmabahce Palace, where Ataturk spent his final days?

Ataturk envy

Yet the results of Erdogan’s attempted counterrevolution — the conversion of a Byzantine icon, the Hagia Sophia, from a museum to a full-service mosque was a defining moment in his “New Turkey” — are in fact mixed. Numerous studies reveal that a growing number of young Turks are ditching faith as the government doggedly keeps pushing ever more of it down their throats. Islam has thinned spiritually, said Selim Koru, a Turkish scholar and editor of the KulturKampf blog, becoming more of a transactional tool for achieving profit and power.

In an October survey, Metropoll, an Ankara-based polling outfit, found that 41% of respondents favored Republican rule while 19% plumped for Islamic governance. (A measly 3% yearned for a return to the sultanate.) The same survey indicated that 64.4% endorsed secularism versus 28.6% who did not. Some 44.9% said they wanted Turkey to resemble Germany. The first runner-up was Qatar with 9.4%, and the second China with 5.2%.

“Young women who are inclined to shift away from the piety of their family are deeply intrigued by Ataturk,” remarked Ayse Cavdar, a Berlin-based ethnographer who has written extensively about Islamist mobilization in Turkey. “Women who discard their Islamic head coverings and who are distancing themselves from religiosity are everywhere and the AKP know this perfectly well, as it is happening in their own homes, neighborhoods and social circles,” Cavdar told Al-Monitor.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that while Erdogan invited world leaders to his third inauguration in June, few if any have been invited to what ought to have been the biggest celebration bash in the republic’s history.

“There is no doubt that Erdogan aspires to overshadow Ataturk’s historical significance and to replace him,” said Cavdar. “He apparently realizes that he has failed in this objective and this is why he opted to keep the Republic Day celebrations low-key,” she noted.

Ataturk “may have been eclipsed in the media crush on Ottoman heroes introduced by the Islamists, but I think most people still revere him as the savior of the country from the ‘evil’ Western powers,” said Jenny White, an American anthropologist and the author of “Muslim Nationalists and the New Turks.”

‘The Same Old New Turkey’

The freshly published “A Companion to Modern Turkey’s Centennial,” a 734-page compendium charting Turkey’s trajectory over the past century, records the massive development achieved since Ataturk built a new nation from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and provides a wealth of criteria by which to measure the republic’s success.

Today, Turkey has the world’s 17th-largest economy, the world’s top airline by number of passenger destinations and in 2022 was the fourth most visited country in the world. Its population has risen sixfold since 1913 to reach 86 million. Almost half are under 30. Over 76% of them live in urban areas. Erdogan and the AKP carried economic expansion to new heights and despite their current woeful state, Turkey’s finances are likely to survive. On the diplomatic front, Turkey is increasingly assertive and revisionist in ways that have rustled relations with its NATO allies. Its membership talks with the European Union that began under Erdogan are on ice, yet Turkey, not least thanks to geography, is incontestably influential.

Yet as academic Hakki Tas observed in his essay for the compendium titled “The Same Old New Turkey,” the country remains riven by divisions and insecurity. “The question of who exactly is a Turk remains an open-ended one with no definitive answers, marking Turkey’s permanent identity crisis and bolstering anxiety of the country collapsing like a house of cards,” Tas wrote.

Indeed, what is most depressing about Turkey a century on is how little it’s changed.

“The political culture of personalized loyalty and unquestioning subordination to a strong leader and omnipotent state where connections are more important than rule and merit,” was true in the early years of the republic as it is today, White noted in a recent lecture.

The country remains deeply polarized along ethnic and confessional lines. A just and lasting solution to the festering Kurdish issue remains ever elusive. Even as Erdogan blasts Israel for killing babies in Gaza, Turkish drones are killing women and children as they hunt down militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Syria and Iraq. Human rights are in sharp decline across the board, with thousands of people including elected officials, academics and activists jailed for their thoughts. Independent media is all but dead. With the opposition decisively trounced and discredited in the May elections, the exodus of young white-collar professionals has accelerated. Racist violence against an estimated 3.7 million Syrians who poured into Turkey since the start of the civil conflict in 2011 is on the rise. On modern Turkey’s 100th anniversary, Ataturk’s motto, “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk,” barely applies.

Missed opportunity

Ataturk gave women the right to vote ahead of their sisters in Switzerland, made them equal before the law and banned polygamy, for which he is lionized by pro-secular women, though few realize Turkey’s feminist movement dates back to Ottoman times. (..)

To be sure, Erdogan came closer than his predecessors to fulfilling many of the Western ideals that Ataturk purported to espouse. The deepest irony of all is that rather than undoing Ataturk’s legacy, Erdogan has been more successful in reversing his own. 


Photo credit: Arte

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