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Monday 25 September 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Burhan Ozbilici/AP/Press Association Images
Column Modern Turkey is torn between Ataturk's legacy and Erdogan's vision
The riots of the past week may mean the Turkish people have finally found a voice for themselves against the yoke of their masters – be they secular or religious, writes Eric Daly.

ON THE FACE of it, the Republic of Turkey is a place so full of contradictions and paradoxes that it defies easy analysis. Though ostensibly secular, it is a place rooted in Ottoman and Islamic traditions from which, despite surface changes, it has never truly broken free since its establishment in 1923. To outsiders it must seem an enigma, bordering two continents, deeply indebted to the past yet struggling towards modernity.

Much of the contradictory nature of the country may be traced back to the character of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. A military genius and borderline polymath, Atatürk emerged from the Great War as a public hero and saviour, with designs for his homeland that transgressed its Islamic traditions.

Outward-looking changes

Atatürk (meaning ‘Father of the Turks’, a name granted exclusively to him by the Turkish Parliament) realised that the one unifying characteristic that trumped the religion of a people was their collective sense of security. Having driven out the Allied invaders and established a new republic, he set about making outward-looking changes that, at the time, may have been perceived as radical in some contemporary Western countries, let alone a country as traditional as Turkey.

He granted women the right to vote and work as early as the 1930s, built international allegiances with the Soviet Empire and the United States as well as neighbouring European countries and changed the alphabet of the national language from Arabic to a modified Roman one (enlisting the help of US educational reformer John Dewey to do so).

In a move that offended some swathes of the population, Atatürk also made it illegal for women in the public service to wear traditional Islamic headwear in the course of their work, which he saw as being redolent of a less enlightened age. On the subject of religion, Atatürk was slightly ambivalent. He claimed that religion and politics should remain separate and wished to rid his country of what he saw as ‘superstitious attitudes’ in favour of the guiding principles of reason and science. Modern scholars, however, now maintain that Atatürk may have been close to what we regard as an atheist.

The cult of identity

In doing so, Atatürk created a deep schism in Turkish identity. He created a cult of identity, where his portrait was (and still is) present in every room of every public building in Turkey. Since the beginning of his reign, the predominantly Islamic Turkish people have been obliged to worship a man who required them to at least partially suppress their religious expression.

But beneath his modernising, trailblazing veneer, some have argued that Atatürk was a despot, who used military might to further his vision of the Turkish Republic to great human cost.  Among other acts, he has been criticised for what some see as his role in the Ottoman government’s Armenian genocide of 1915-23. After his death in 1938, his successors were far more heavy-handed in their political tactics, though lacking any of Atatürk’s indubitably visionary quality.

Unlike European countries, where social reforms such as voting rights for women occurred through a process of ‘bottom up’ grassroots protest movements, Atatürk’s Kemalist policies were ‘top-down’. In effect, no matter how appealing, enlightened or progressive his policies appear to modern eyes, it is of doubt that his people had any choice in accepting them.

Cosmopolitan attitudes v traditional ways

Today, Atatürk’s vision of a modern European cosmopolitan Turkey is embodied in the two main cities of Ankara, the Turkish capital, and its more historic and tourist-friendly big sister, Istanbul. As one travels towards the east of the country, one finds the sale of alcohol disappearing from shops and the people live a lifestyle more akin to that predating Ataturk’s rise to power.

The schism between modern cosmopolitan attitudes and the old traditional ways has been well documented in Turkish culture. It was one of the main themes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s critically acclaimed 2011 film ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’.

This is evident in modern Turkish politics which, since Atatürk’s death, has been represented by clashes between the secular military and the Islamic traditionalist body politic, which represents the views of a great proportion of both Turkey’s metropolitan and rural population. The escalation of conflicts and bloody coup d’etats has meant that the political culture of Turkey has become one where the threat of the outbreak of violent conflict is omnipresent.

Enter Erdoğan

The war between the secular and religious sections of Turkish politics was brought to a definitive end with the 2003 election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Charismatic, Istanbul- born and bred, the former mayor of his city and seemingly liberal in some of his policies, Erdoğan wasted no time in sending most of his old military foes , and any journalists who opposed his policies, to jail.

He also wasted no time in amassing a police force that, in scale and ethos, resembled more a private army. When I taught in an Istanbul university last year, several of my students talked of the corruption and violence native to their country’s police force. They claimed that they asked for ‘soup money’, bribes that ensured you got a legal pass for misdemeanours. According to them, such practice was commonplace and expected. More shockingly, they claimed that while asking a policeman for directions in an inebriated state as a foreigner was likely to yield just that (Istanbul values its tourist industry, after all), doing the same as a Turkish native would most likely land you with a physical beating.

Since 2003, Erdoğan has shown his true political colours and become increasingly autocratic. He has placed some of the heaviest consumption taxes in the world on alcohol, putting it all but out of the price range of the average working Turk (but, again, not tourists or wealthy ex-pats). He has also chipped away at the legality of the provision of abortion services and has sought to make the morning after pill available only on a prescription basis (the shame of having to ask your family doctor for a prescription would be more than sufficient deterrent for many young women from more traditional backgrounds).

Power games

In doing all this, Erdoğan has invoked the anger of Turkey’s secular population, but has secured the tacit support of the traditional Islamic section of society to which he owes his success.  The weekend protests, which featured demonstrators from all strands and age groups of Turkish society, have shown that this is no longer the case. It is apt that the catalyst for the wider protests was the decision to replace a city park with a gaudy Ottoman-style shopping mall. Erdoğan has shown that behind his outward religious agenda, his concern for business interests outstrips that of his regard for the welfare and quality of life of his people.

In many ways, Erdoğan now resembles his bête noire, Atatürk . Both had political agendas, one traditional and religious, the other modernising and secular, both disguising their deeper motive: the oldest political agenda of all, namely, the accrual and maintenance of power. The difference between then and now is that Atatürk was dealing with a frightened  post-war population of an empire in decline, one which desperately longed for a leader to point the way to the future and provide their country with a sense of meaning and purpose (in many ways, in this, he was successful).

Erdoğan by contrast, seems to be offering a way backwards: a society where personal freedoms and the freedom of the press are luxuries to be distributed at the government’s discretion and where people are obliged to live under policies based on religious doctrine, regardless of their personal beliefs, or lack thereof. Some have even gone so far as to compare his behaviour to that of an Ottoman sultan. Unfortunately for him, he is now dealing with a society that has had 90 years to develop a sense of independence and solidarity, one which has become tired of existing at the transitory whims of totalitarian regimes, be they religious or secular in ethos.

The political future of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (from whom he has become increasingly isolated) is as yet undecided. Doubtless, they will suffer in the country’s next general election and their demise may occur sooner than that. What is clear is that the Turkish people last weekend sounded a salient message to their heavily armed oppressors: we’ve had enough.

And that is something to celebrate.

Eric Daly is a English language teacher and editor. In the 2011/2012 academic year, he worked as an instructor in an private university in Istanbul. He has also lived in Italy and Australia and currently resides in London. He is a regular contributor to the comedy website ‘Dave on the Dole’, which you can also find on Facebook and Twitter.

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