Although the founder of modern Türkiye is still honored in his homeland on certain holidays, his reputation appears to be waning. Perhaps not among the supporters of the Kemalist CHP, but among those who rave about a Türkiye in which there will be a renewed fusion between the state and the “state” religion, Islam. The protagonist of this Türkiye, how could it be otherwise, is of course President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The special Turkish understanding of nation was defined differently by Atatürk than by the new Sultan in Ankara. The founder of modern Türkiye wanted to unite the crumbling Ottoman Empire into a new, independent nation. A major task, because the area was a multi-ethnic state with an estimated more than 40 ethnic groups. At that time, Atatürk decided against an understanding of nationality that was based on ethnicity or race. His criteria were shared history, the feeling and the will to be part of the new republic. Racism was therefore alien to original nationalism. In addition, for practical reasons, residence in the national territory and Turkish as a uniform language also played a role.
Atatürk also fought against forces from outside: Western countries wanted to divide the geostrategically important region between themselves after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In the War of Independence from 1919 onwards, Atatürk rallied the majority of the population behind him and swore that they would not only fight against foreign attempts for fragmentation, but would also be prepared to die for this fight. Exactly 100 years ago, Atatürk achieved his goal: he proclaimed Türkiye a republic. And with it nationalism, whose main function since then has been to give the population a new identity and preserve the unity of the country. What also united the Turks was a republic that was supposed to be secular – that is, based on a separation of church and religion. That changed under Erdogan, who used the power instrument of political Islam for his own benefit.
The systemic dispute in Türkiye over the identity of the nation can therefore be compressed into the following contrast: Erdogan’s system of political Islam or the return to Atatürk’s values. With the re-ideologization of religion and nation by the President and head of the Islamist AKP, Atatürk and his definition of the state are pushed off the pedestal.
Erdogan no longer focuses on the successes of modern Türkiye during holidays, as his predecessors did. Rather, he only speaks of the Turkish battles that the Ottoman rulers fought: the Battle of Manzikert, in which the Seljuks repulsed the troops of the Byzantine Empire in 1071, the Battle of Mohács, in which the army of the Ottoman Empire defeated the Hungarian Empire in 1526. Erdogan sees himself in line with the Ottoman and Seljuk rulers. The Republic is just the last link in a chain of previous empires, he said.
In contrast, Atatürk had subjected his republic to a cultural revolution in order to sharply distinguish it from the Ottoman past. It should be secular, modern and Western-oriented. If it suits him, the new Sultan can also return to Atatürk. Of course, only if he himself can shine in the foreground. In a greeting message, he compared Atatürk’s struggle for independence in 1922 with an event from his own time in power: the thwarting of the 2016 coup attempt. In doing so, he formulated the claim that he was as important to the country’s historical destiny as Atatürk. At the ceremony at the presidential palace, a video was played in which Turkish soldiers at home and abroad, from Iraq to Libya, assured their readiness to carry out the president’s orders. In the past, the armed forces themselves acted as hosts on Victory Day. At the beginning of his reign, Erdogan still had to fear being forced out of office by the generals, who saw themselves as the guardians of Kemalism. First, he limited their influence with the help of the EU. The 2016 coup attempt finally allowed him to “cleanse the Turkish armed forces,” as he put it himself. The reduced role of the military internally became particularly visible when the soldiers were not deployed as helpers in the earthquake areas during the earthquake disaster in February – much to the incomprehension of large parts of the population.
According to Erdogan, the military’s reputation has “only grown” under his leadership over the past 21 years. As evidence, he pointed to the successful development of his own arms industry. He did not mention that control over armaments was taken away from the Turkish military and placed under the control of the presidential palace.
Nobody has a majority in Türkiye without the nationalists. It is the triumph of a political trend that was on the wane in the early Erdogan years. The Gray Wolves with their fascist ideas date back to the 1970s. When Erdogan came to power, they were among his opponents. At that time he was still looking for peace with the Kurds. They, often pious, were among his most loyal voters. There are statements from Erdogan from this time that one can no longer believe today: He is reaching out to the Kurds, the Turkish government is sticking to the peace process, Erdogan wants to give former PKK fighters a path into society – the imprisoned PKK boss Öcalan called Erdogan’s initiatives “historic.” The friend of the Kurds: He broke the taboo and spoke for the first time about a “Kurdish problem”; the Turkish state had previously denied that there was even a Kurdish ethnic group. It was Erdogan who first allowed the Kurdish language in politics and allowed a lot of tax money to flow into Kurdish regions.
The Sultan paved the way for the nationalists, and the nationalists for him. He has made it so that every handshake with an HDP representative is tantamount to a political death sentence. He has shaped society in such a way that it gives him electoral victories. He sacrificed progress, such as in dealing with the Kurds. He saw that nothing in the country is as likely to gain a majority as a tough course against the Kurdish minority. He also distinguishes between “the Kurdish brothers and sisters,” the conservatives who vote for him – and everyone else who, in his rhetoric, is actually just called “terrorists.” This nowadays also includes the millions of refugees from Syria. Their future in Türkiye is not a shiny one!
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