Turkey is commemorating its 100-year anniversary as a republic, but many of the festivities planned for Sunday have been called off against the backdrop of Israel’s escalating attacks on the besieged Gaza Strip.
The low-profile affair shows the far-reaching impacts of the bloody Israel-Hamas war, but also brings up uncomfortable divisions within Turkish society over the state’s secular legacy, elements of which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to challenge.
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On Sunday, Erdogan laid a customary wreath at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s revered founding father. “Our country is in safe hands, you may rest in peace,” he said.
Erdogan was scheduled to travel to Istanbul afterward to watch a procession of military ships on the Bosporus, followed by a drone and fireworks show. He was expected to deliver a speech marking the milestone, to play up his government’s accomplishments.
However, Turkey cut down on much of the fanfare expected for the once-in-a-century event. It held no official state reception and cancelled special TV coverage of planned concerts and festivities, citing the “alarming human tragedy in Gaza”.
Erdogan’s appearance at a pro-Palestine rally in Istanbul the day before also partly eclipsed the centennial. There, he accused Israel of behaving like a “war criminal” and said there was a “vicious massacre happening in Gaza”.
Turkey’s scaled-down centennial celebrations angered some citizens who believe Erdogan is glossing over the occasion to undermine Ataturk’s secular legacy in pursuit of his own political vision — and that of his religious support base.
’’The government did its best to make these celebrations forgotten and to trivialise them,” said Gul Erbil, a 66-year-old retired film director who will be toasting the centennial at a restaurant with friends. “The sad thing is … it’s [their] republic too. It’s something that gave [them] freedom, too.”
Ahmet Hakan, columnist for the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper, argued that the subdued celebrations were “inevitable” due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
Still, many Turks held their own private celebrations, while opposition-run municipalities organised concerts and parades. Music, including a song that was written to mark the republic’s 10th anniversary, blared from cars adorned with Turkish flags. Many wore red and white — the colors of the flag.
Turkey’s history is intimately tied to Ataturk, a nationalist leader who prioritised development reforms and separated religion from public life. During his 15-year reign as president, he abolished the Ottoman Caliphate, replaced the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, and enshrined women’s right to vote.
Even today, Ataturk is deeply venerated throughout Turkey, where his poster is seen on the walls of schools, offices, and homes. On the anniversary of his death every year, traffic comes to a halt as thousands observe a minute of silence. His signature is tattooed on the arms of many citizens.
But not all Turks are equally inspired by Ataturk’s legacy, including Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, who look fondly upon Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic past. And while Erdogan pays homage to Ataturk’s early military accolades, he rarely lauds his republican-era leadership.
“Erdogan wants to see Turkey become [a country] that embraces Erdogan’s values, that is socially conservative, not necessarily part of the West and also, I would say, has a significant role for Islam from education to public policy,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute and author of books on Erdogan.
Critics say Turkey’s president has already pushed the country away from its founding principles.
Official functions today often start with prayers. The Directorate of Religious Affairs enjoys a budget that dwarfs those of most other ministries. The number of religious schools has increased in line with Erdogan’s stated goal of creating a “pious generation”.
In 2020, Erdogan converted the former Byzantine-era church Hagia Sophia — which was turned into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul — back into a functioning mosque. Ataturk had transformed the structure into a museum in a nod to its Christian and Muslim legacy.