Erdogan Fights Ataturk Secularism With Islam Fervor Once Denied

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

When an earthquake toppled a school in eastern Turkey last year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government opened a new one at the same site, with one difference.

It was no longer named after Turkey’s founder and secular hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. A smiling Erdogan cut a red ribbon and posed for pictures in front of the elementary school, now named after his late mother, Tenzile. A week later on Oct. 29, police used tear gas and water cannons against opposition supporters marching to Ataturk’s mausoleum in Ankara to celebrate the republic’s 89th anniversary.

Many admirers of Ataturk say the way of life he enshrined is at peril under the Islamist-rooted Erdogan. Defenders of Turkey’s secular traditions rallied again on Nov. 10, the anniversary of Ataturk’s death in 1938, when more than 400,000 visited the mausoleum. Their grievances include the conversion of secular schools into religious ones, the spread of Islamic headscarves in public offices, the jailing of secular-minded generals and journalists, and a diplomatic shift away from Europe and toward the Islamic Middle East.

Erdogan’s government is “purposefully trying to erode the place of Ataturk in the Turkish collective memory,” said Svante E. Cornell, research director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program in Stockholm. “Turkey is becoming a model, but not the one we in the West believe. It’s a model for how Islamist parties can accede to power and stay in power.”

New Entrepreneurs

Erdogan counters that he has transformed Turkey from an indebted and coup-prone country into the regional power Ataturk always wanted it to be. Growth has averaged 5.5 percent since 2002, compared with about 4 percent in the 1990s. Gross domestic product in dollar terms tripled to almost $800 billion, exports quadrupled and foreign investment rose to a record as companies such as Vodafone Group Plc and BNP Paribas SA acquired units.

Buoyed by the economy’s success, Erdogan has pushed his party to the center of the business world as well as political life.

New entrepreneurs are emerging with ties to Erdogan’s government. While established businesses have benefited too, their share is shrinking. In the decade under Erdogan, the benchmark Istanbul share index has jumped about 600 percent. Koc Holding AS and Haci Omer Sabanci Holding AS, the two biggest diversified groups with roots in the early republic, rose about 375 percent.

Business Boycott

Erdogan in September repeated a vow to boycott Tusiad, the business federation that groups Koc, Sabanci and Turkey’s other biggest companies. His ministers are more likely to show up at meetings hosted by its rival Musiad, a pro-Islamic business group whose members are typically smaller and more likely to be from outside Istanbul.

After narrowing escaping a court ban in 2008 for undermining secular rules, his Justice and Development party last week proposed legislation to bolster the powers of the president at the expense of parliament. While the post is currently mostly symbolic, the move could pave the way for Erdogan to become the first elected head of state in 2014.

Three election wins for Erdogan have already left Turkey’s secularists on the defensive as his Justice and Development or AK Party cements its control of state institutions. The army, a bulwark of secularism which has ousted four elected governments since 1960, has been shorn of its political influence and hundreds of military officers, as well as journalists, are in jail on charges of plotting a coup.

Postwar Turkey

“The prime minister wants us all to live in the Republic of Tayyip Erdogan,” said Huseyin Emre Altinisik, deputy chairman of the Ataturk Thought Foundation. “It’s a country where we can only think and breathe the way he wants us to.”

The increasingly prosperous Turkey that Erdogan presides over contrasts with the conflict-ravaged land where Ataturk took charge after World War I. As Turkey’s traditional Ottoman rulers capitulated and Western powers drew up plans to partition its territory, Ataturk mustered a rebel army and freed the country from occupying British, French, Greek and Italian troops.

He then abolished the Ottoman Empire and its Caliphate, the office through which the sultans had claimed leadership of the Islamic world, and proclaimed a secular republic of Turkey. The new state introduced the Latin alphabet to replace the Arabic one, and promoted European styles in clothing and culture. It also banned opposition parties.

Stand to Attention

On Nov. 10, Ataturk’s devotees repeated the rituals marked each year since he died. Tens of thousands marched to the mausoleum through the rain, some wearing masks of Ataturk and holding red carnations. In central parts of Ankara, Istanbul and other cities, drivers pulled over and honked their horns at 9:05 a.m., the time of his death, and pedestrians stood to attention.

In much of the country, though, the moment passed without notice. In a hotel in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa, guests continued with their breakfast and outside it pedestrians kept walking.

“Observance of the ceremony is no longer as universal as it used to be,” said Azeem Ibrahim, a fellow at the Michigan-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which specializes in Islamic politics. “Turks are instead looking ahead to the next ten years. And if Turkey does change from a parliamentary to a presidential system, then those years will almost certainly be Erdogan’s.”

‘With Gratitude’

In Brunei for an official visit, Erdogan became the first premier to miss the commemoration in Ankara, according to the pro-secular Cumhuriyet newspaper. He posted on Twitter the day before that “we once again remember Ataturk with gratitude.”

Erdogan rebuffed criticism over his absence. “Is it a crime?” he said on the plane home, according to Hurriyet daily.

It’s illegal to denigrate Ataturk, and his framed portraits still decorate schools, businesses, public offices and homes, while banknotes and coins feature Ataturk’s profile. When coins without it, printed to commemorate a cultural festival, appeared earlier this year, secular newspapers protested.

Erdogan’s party has proposed that lawmakers should no longer be required to swear loyalty to Ataturk’s principles and the secular republic when taking their oath of office, Hurriyet newspaper reported yesterday, citing submissions to a parliament committee in charge of rewriting the constitution.

Erdogan also rejects claims that he doesn’t show due deference to Ataturk. In parliament on Nov. 13, Erdogan accused the main opposition Republican People’s Party, founded by the country’s founder, of exploiting his legacy and announced that the government is rebuilding two houses owned by Ataturk’s father in Macedonia.

No Sermons

“We’re not the kind of people who sermonize, or memorize speeches,” he said. “We’re taking care of Ataturk’s legacies and relics.”

Education Minister Omer Dincer has also rejected opposition charges that the change of name at the Van school was disrespectful, saying Ataturk’s name was given to another larger school nearby. The expansion of religious education was a response to public demands, he said.

“No one has a monopoly on Ataturk,” Nusret Bayraktar, a lawmaker from Erdogan’s party, said by phone yesterday. “We should take his views as a base and if necessary adapt them, according to changes in today’s world, to develop and progress Turkey further and fulfill his vision.”

The legacy of Ataturk is nevertheless too powerful for any Turkish leader to overcome, says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.

Ataturk was determined to restore Turkey’s great-power status so it could “successfully compete against its historic European rivals,” Capagtay said. While Erdogan’s Turkey may not seek to emulate Europe, it will still treat it as a measuring-stick, he said. Also, both leaders favor “top-down social engineering,” seeking to raise generations of Turks who shared their ideas, Cagaptay said.

“Kemalism may be dead, but Ataturk’s way of doing business appears to be alive and kicking,” Cagaptay said.

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