From Ataturk to Erdogan

Is the 90-year-long ‘commercial break’ of a 600-year-old empire now over?

Each day seems to bring another step away from Ataturk's republic, writes Lepeska [Getty Images]

A hundred years ago this week, an Ottoman army lieutenant-colonel stationed in Sofia as a military attache received a telegram from the Ministry of War back in Constantinople. In the months prior, as World War I intensified and the lieutenant’s requests for a divisional command were refused by Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Empire’s military leader, he’d grown weary of his post and impatient to fight. He’d even spoken to friends of enlisting as an ordinary foot soldier. But the telegram, from Enver’s deputy, appointed the lieutenant commander of the army’s 19th division.

Mustafa Kemal hurried back to Constantinople and then to Tekirdag, along the Marmara Sea in Thrace, to assemble his division. Those efforts were cut short on February 25, when he and his men were ordered to Gallipoli, a mountainous peninsula that divides the Marmara and Aegean Seas and controls the all-important maritime access to Istanbul and the Black Sea via the Dardanelles.

Two months later, the British attempted a naval landing on the peninsula, sparking one of the war’s most hard-fought battles. Directing his forces with inspired strategy and legendary stamina, Kemal won the battle of Gallipoli, proved the mettle of the Turkish soldier and made his name as a bold, brilliant and tireless leader.

End of Ataturk’s century

This week may not mark the centenary of the birth of modern Turkey, in 1923, nor of the event widely considered the conception of the republic, in May 1919, when Kemal, later known as Ataturk, or Father of the Turks, landed in Samsun and began to organise the Turkish army of resistance.

Yet by January 1915, Kemal had fought in Palestine and Syria, Libya and the Balkans, but never among Turks on home soil. Thus his taking command of the 19th division could be said to mark the moment the seeds of Turkey were first sown, kick-starting the transition from the long crumbling Ottoman Empire to the modern secular republic.

Today, that republic seems to be moving away from much of what its founder built, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) work to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, or at least its most prominent symbols. Turks are facing the end of Ataturk’s century. As an AKP parliamentarian recently tweeted, “the 90-year-long commercial break of a 600-year-old empire is now over”.

Erdogan seen remoulding Turkish presidency

Ataturk sought to build a modern secular state, and thus a crucial early objective was to cleanse the new republic of religion. Out went the caliphate, the Sharia Council, and Islamic judges. In came European legal codes, headscarf-free public buildings, and Friday workdays. Today, the tide is coming back in.

A rash of news stories have detailed the gradual Islamisation of the Turkish state in recent years. Religious education is on the rise – for four-year-olds, high schoolers, college students and even in military academies. Ankara revoked the ban on headscarves in schools and public buildings. AKP officials often preach a strict moral code and the government seeks financial control of the arts. 

Each day seems to bring another step away from Ataturk’s republic, though some receive broad support. The AKP has, over the past decade, converted several Christian churches into mosques, but earlier this month Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced plans to build Turkey’s first new church since the founding of the republic. The Ottoman-era tradition of zenne, or male belly dancers, has been returning to Turkish nightclubs after decades out of sight. Ataturk famously shifted Turkish from Arabic script to the Latin alphabet. Observers believe the AKP is looking to undo that change with their recent revival of Ottoman Turkish.

Reintroduction of the caliphate?

Some Ottoman echoes are deeply troubling. In November 1914, the grand mufti of the Ottoman Empire declared jihad, or Islamic holy war, urging all Muslims of the caliphate to take up arms against Britain, France, and their allies. In November 2014, a columnist for the pro-government Turkish daily Yeni Akit proposed the creation of a new caliphate, just as observers accused Ankara of continuing to support the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL) and other jihadists fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Few expect Turkey to turn into Saudi Arabia or reintroduce the caliphate anytime soon. Still there’s little telling how far Erdogan might go with his New Turkey. The AKP is an electoral juggernaut, winning nine out of nine votes since its 2001 founding, with a 10th, for parliament, expected in June. The party expects to run the country for decades to come.

In October, Erdogan moved into a new 1,100-room, $615m palace in Ankara. Illegally constructed on a protected green space carved out by Ataturk, Ak Saray (“White Palace”) is reminiscent of the vast palaces built by long-reigning sultans.

When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Turkey’s president at the new palace a couple of weeks ago, the two leaders shook hands beneath a staircase lined with men in various coats of armour, brandishing spears and topped by shiny headgear. They were meant to represent the 16 empires founded by Turkic men over the ages.

Conspicuously absent was an avatar of one blue-eyed, blond-haired Ottoman army lieutenant-colonel. It seemed a hint, if any more were needed, of how Erdogan intends to commemorate the founding of the republic.

David Lepeska is a freelance writer based in Istanbul. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.