On October 29th, the centenary anniversary of the Turkish Republic’s founding is observed. However, it is unfortunate that the prevailing mood in the country does not reflect celebrations of its establishment; it is as if people are watching the decline of the republic. Moreover, the political Islam cadre in the government, which has not been sympathetic to the idea of the republic and its founder Atatürk from the beginning, does not assign any importance to this anniversary. The circles expected to support the republic are suffering from government repression and are still under the influence of the recent electoral defeat, looking ahead to the second century of the republic with no hope.
If we look back today to the past hundred years, we see an ongoing, bitter struggle between yesterday and today, tradition and modernity, the East and the West. Ataturk once set out to build an entirely new state on the lands that remained after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. In the fifteen years between the declaration of the republic in 1923 and his death in 1938, he changed the society’s fate through a series of remarkable reforms. In the nation’s parliament that had upheld the slogan ‘The complete sovereignty of God’s law’ for several centuries, he wrote: ‘Sovereignty is fully and unconditionally vested in the people.’ He assumed that Turkey would no longer be a country for the sheikhs and their followers. The correct path is rather the path of knowledge and civilization.”
In a one-party regime under one-man leadership, a new constitution, new education, clothing, music, language, art, culture, and calendar were imposed on society. This was accompanied by a comprehensive social revolution. Women in Turkey gained the right to vote 36 years before women in Switzerland. The Ottoman alphabet was replaced with the Turkish alphabet in Latin script. As a result, the literacy rate increased rapidly in a very short period. Girls went to school, and women became part of public life. The caliphate was abolished, and the influence of religion on politics was broken. A secular republic emerged from the caliphate system. Anyone looking at Afghanistan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia today understands what a radical transformation that represents. Turkey became the world’s only example in the Islamic world of establishing a secular democratic republic, because of Ataturk.
In the past one hundred years, only one Turkish president has managed to surpass Ataturk’s 15-year term, and that is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, initially serving as Prime Minister and later as President. The Turkish Republic spent its first fifteen years in Ataturk’s reforms, and the last 21 years have witnessed Erdogan’s counter-revolution.
Even before assuming authority, Erdogan was already attacking secularism, considered the most significant republican reform. “You cannot be a Muslim and secular at the same time. Either you are a Muslim or you are secular because God is the absolute sovereign.’ He stated. He also claimed to be a follower of Islamic Sharia and suggested that secularism could be abandoned if the nation desired it. This amounted to a complete rejection of the foundational philosophy of the republic.”
In contrast to Ataturk, who oriented himself towards the West, Erdogan once posed for a photograph alongside the leader of the Afghan mujahideen, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and promised to bring generations to power that, like him, had been trained by imams. When it became clear to him that he would not attain power through this type of rhetoric and policy, he briefly disavowed this image and presented an alternative image of Erdogan to the West, under the guise of a ‘democratic liberal.’ It was during this time that he initially received applause and support. However, after gaining authority, partially thanks to this support, he reverted to his true image, that of an Islamic autocrat.
Turkey had evolved on the Western civilization model and approached the goal of full membership in the European Union. Today, it has become closer to Russia and is at risk of losing its fragile democracy.
Several long-standing reasons existed behind this, predating Erdogan’s rule. Ataturk’s reforms couldn’t be supported by the country’s economic transformation, and they didn’t reach urban and rural populations at the same pace. The forced implementation of reforms led to a social shock. Subsequent governments that followed Ataturk’s era relaxed the reforms. The multi-party democratic system introduced in Turkey after World War II witnessed a fifty-year confrontation between the secular military (acting as the guardian of the republic) and conservative Islamic parties. Erdogan came to power due to the collapse of centrist policies during this conflict and the weak economy at the same time. The masses wanted a new name.
During his first term in government, Erdogan gradually succeeded in creating new allies: big corporations, liberals, religious communities, Western governments, and the mafia. With the support of these allies, each of whom showed a different face, he managed to eliminate the secular military, which he considered the biggest obstacle to his rule. Erdogan then dealt with each one individually. He built his wealthy class, imprisoned liberals who had supported him for a time, completely crushed his former major supporters, the Gulen movement, abandoned the goal of EU membership, organized his own mafia, and constructed a vast network of corruption. At the same time, instead of relying on the military, he established a police force linked to his party, suppressed protests, and arrested dissenters. Through restructuring the education system and using mosques for political purposes, Erdogan succeeded in raising an Islamic generation and placed them in key positions within the administration and the judiciary, thereby strengthening his power.
A hundred years ago, Turkey turned towards the West under the leadership of a single reformist man. Today, after a hundred years, under the leadership of a man from the counter-revolution, Turkey is moving away from the West, abandoning democracy, and becoming an autocratic one-party state under a system reminiscent of the Kremlin but with minarets.
Will Turkey abandon Erdogan’s 21-year rule and return to democracy? Given the global developments, optimism is challenging. It seems the only hope is that half of Turkey’s population, despite all the repression, gathered in the recent elections under one slogan: ‘No to Erdogan.'”
Source: Zeit online