Turkey at 100: What will become of Ataturk’s legacy? – Elmas Topcu / DW English

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A century ago, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish republic based on secular values. Today, many fear his vision is under threat by conservative President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

29 October, 2023, Elmas Topcu, DW English.

This article was originally written in German.

For weeks, secular Turks had been wondering whether the conservative Islamic government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic on October 29. Until just a few days ago, there was no official program planned. Foreign diplomats were also rumored to be asking one another if anyone had received an invitation.

Finally, on October 20, Erdogan’s communications department announced that there would be a series of events — in which the Erdogan era would take center stage. The news confirmed secular fears that Erdogan is trying to downplay the legacy of founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and, in his place, create a cult of Erdogan as the leader of an Islamist country.

Erdogan in the spotlight

The « Turkish Century » was the campaign slogan with which Erdogan won the elections again in May with his Justice and Development Party (AKP), securing his power for another five years. Already in government for more than 20 years, he now wants to go down in history as the statesman who led the republic into its second century.

Two great leaders? Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (l) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (r) on banners at a naval ceremony in Istanbul this summer. Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/ AA picture alliance.

Beate Apelt, head of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s Turkish office, sees a lot of symbolism in the run-up to the anniversary that aims to make Erdogan equally significant to Ataturk. Apart from the using the phrase « Turkish century, » large portraits of the two state leaders are being exhibited side by side. The suggestion being that Ataturk may have been the initiator, but Erdogan is the clincher of a great century project, Apelt said.

She has observed growing resentment among Turks that the centennial anniversary of their country not only lacks the suitable pomp, but that many of the events are being associated with religious elements. This is « certainly not in Ataturk’s spirit either, » she said, explaining that he introduced a clear separation of religion and state. In the name of secularism he also abolished religious brotherhoods and the caliphate — one reason why Islamists still harbor bitterness toward him today.

Erdogan, by contrast, has supported such religious groups since he came to power, granting them many privileges. He also never speaks Ataturk’s full name. Instead, it’s « veteran Mustafa Kemal. » Perhaps that’s because « Ataturk » means « forefather of the Turks,” a concept that Erdogan is widely seen to reject. Ataturk’s liberal private life, including relationships with several women and alcohol consumption, are also despised in AKP circles.

Conflicting visions

Ataturk dreamed of a Westernized, modern and secular republic, ordering a number of major reforms in just a few years. He had the Arabic alphabet exchanged for the Latin alphabet, adopted Western codes of law and introduced women’s suffrage. A new hat law saw people abandon Ottoman religious headgear such as the fez or turban in favor of styles from London, Berlin and Paris.

A long-term goal was also to forge a Turkish nation from the ruins of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. This has only been partially fulfilled, as major disputes continue among minorities such as the Armenians, Alevis and Kurds. The armed conflict with the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) alone has killed nearly 40,000 people since 1984.

Turkish forces on the Iraqi border monitor the PKK in 2018Image: Ozkan Bilgin/AA/picture alliance

While today these reforms are often associated with Ataturk, they were secondary at the time, says Salim Cevik, a Turkey expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Following defeat in the First World War, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the grueling war of liberation against the victorious powers, Ataturk and his followers had only one goal: to save the remaining state entity from complete decline and establish a strong republic that would withstand any attack, both foreign and domestic.

« And for the most part they succeeded, » Cevik said. Over the past century, the Turkish state has grown into a strong regional power whose existence is not questioned or threatened from the outside. Through its membership in NATO or other alliances, it is also now a firm part of the international political system.

A key interlocutor

« Turkey is an important player especially in the space between Europe and the Middle East, » said Beate Apelt of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an organization close to Germany’s business-friendly Free Democratic Party.

This is due to its geostrategic position as a NATO state between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, with control over the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. Equally important, she said, is its central location between the European Union, Black Sea rival Russia and the extremely problematic region to the southeast along the borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Erdogan has skillfully exploited this status in recent years, offering himself as a middleman between regional conflicts, Apelt said. For example, between Ukraine and Russia or currently between Israel and Hamas. In her opinion, Erdogan has the opportunity to play a constructive role there, as he did with the grain agreement for Ukraine.

He also simultaneously tries to extract the maximum benefit for himself and Turkey from every constellation. The most recent example was blocking Sweden’s NATO accession and tying his pledge to Turkey’s resumption of accession negotiations with the European Union, Apelt said.

She also sees the country playing an important role in relation to irregular migration to Europe, despite the controversial 2016 refugee Turkey-EU deal between Turkey under which refugees in Turkey were to be prevented from continuing on to the EU. Still, this matter will be more difficult to manage in the future because acceptance of refugees from Syria and elsewhere has declined massively amid economic troubles for Turkey in recent years, causing a spike in discrimination against these populations, she said.

Increased militarization

After the founding of the republic, Ataturk initiated a peaceful foreign policy. According to political scientist Cevik, his goal was to protect the young republic from international crises. Turkey has remained true to this course — with the exception of the conflict over the Greek-Turkish Mediterranean island of Cyprus in the mid-1970s.

Erdogan also avoided foreign policy conflicts during his first years in government. It was only during the revolutionary movements of the Arab Spring a little more than a decade ago that he accepted confrontation with the Arab world and sided with the insurgents, albeit peacefully.

In recent years, however, a more aggressive tone has prevailed along with increased militarization. Ankara’s soft power has become less convincing, so that Erdogan saw military strength as his only means, Cevik said. Airstrikes in northern Iraq and northern Syria, the arming of jihadist groups in Syria, and the deployment of mercenaries to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh have all provoked criticism in the West.

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