Turks continue to idolize their staunchly secularist founding father. But democratic reforms have all but obliterated his Westward-looking vision.
The photograph shows a pair of men in dusty work clothes, saluting proudly as they stand at attention inside a gutted reinforced-concrete building. The caption, in Turkish, tells us that the picture was taken Nov. 10. Every year on that date, the entire country—schools, government offices, hospitals, even traffic—comes to a halt at 9:05 a.m., the exact minute of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s death in 1938. The photo went viral on the Internet this year, desperately offered via Twitter and Facebook as proof that even though an Islamist government has ruled the country for the past decade, modern Turkey’s fiercely rationalist founder remains a source of inspiration to the masses.
The question is how much longer Mustafa Kemal can remain on that pedestal. To the people of his country, Atatürk—the sobriquet means “father of the Turks”—has been both a national hero and an ideology, bolstered by decades of indoctrination in the schools and by his ubiquitous image in the form of busts, portraits, statues, figurines, T-shirts, currency, key chains, and even iPhone cases. A reformist Ottoman Army general, he led an independence struggle against the invading Greek, French, and Italian armies after the First World War, culminating in the establishment of a modern republic in 1923.
Under Mustafa Kemal’s leadership, the young republic made a clean break from its Ottoman past nearly nine decades ago, ditching the caliphate for a secular regime and turning away from the empire’s former Arab territories in favor of an anti-clerical, pro-Western vision that became known as Kemalism. He pushed for women’s suffrage, decreed the alphabet’s conversion from Arabic to Latin overnight, established parliamentary government, declared war on Islamic zealotry long before jihadism became a global concern, even banned the Ottoman fez in favor of European-style hats. Turkish schoolbooks today summarize the changes he imposed as “the Atatürk revolutions.”
Nevertheless, Mustafa Kemal’s staunchly secularist legacy is now being challenged by a new Turkish strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Free at last to espouse and promote his conservative Muslim faith publicly, the prime minister embodies the political aspirations of millions of Turks who have been alienated from the military-backed secular establishment for generations: the rural folk, the urban poor, conservative Muslim clerics, and the rising religiously conservative business classes. While studiously avoiding direct confrontation with Atatürk’s Westernized ideals, Erdogan and other pro-Islamist leaders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have inaugurated an era of deep political transformation.
With the party’s encouragement, many Turks have come to regard Kemalism as an outmoded ideology unsuited to the needs of present-day Turkey’s dynamic society. “I don’t know if Atatürk himself is dead,” says liberal academic and commentator Mehmet Altan. “But Kemalism will eventually die, as Turkey democratizes.” Altan has argued for years against the Kemalist doctrine, calling instead for the creation of a “second republic” that would be less centralized, more inclusive of Kurds and Islamists, and less rigid in its secular and nationalist policies.
That’s what’s already happening as the Erdogan government dismantles the Kemalist establishment. The military, once the country’s most powerful political force and the self-proclaimed guardian of secularism, has been relegated to the barracks and publicly reprimanded for the series of coups that have stunted democracy’s growth since Atatürk’s death. Religious conservatism is on the rise, and Ankara has turned its attention away from the country’s longstanding bid for European Union membership, seeking instead a more prominent role in the Middle East and the former Ottoman lands. Vestiges of the old Kemalist order—the headscarf ban on university campuses, restrictions on use of the Kurdish language, Soviet-style commemorations held in stadiums on national days—have nearly disappeared.
And yet liberal democrats like Altan are not happy. Many feel that Erdogan’s government has lost its reformist drive, becoming authoritarian and single-mindedly Islamic instead. Intellectuals who once supported Erdogan against the military now complain about his efforts to control the media, his intolerance for dissent, and his halfhearted concessions to Kurdish demands. “Politics in Turkey has always been a struggle between the barracks and the mosque,” says Altan. “Because we never had a proper capitalist class, the Army represented the bourgeoisie, and the mosque represented the underprivileged. With AKP, we thought a democracy would emerge out of the mosque. But instead what we got was simply the revenge of the mosque.”
A year ago Altan finally became one of the many journalists who have lost their jobs for criticizing Erdogan. It’s the same penalty commentators used to incur for finding fault with Atatürk. Altan grieves for the fading of Turkey’s European dreams. Bringing European standards to Turkey’s democracy was the only possible solution for the conflict between the secularists and the Islamists, he says. “But the EU reforms have stopped, and the government’s Islamic reflexes are more obvious now, making the division even sharper.”