Atatürk: A Legacy Under Threat

The founders of countries occupy a unique position within modern society. They are often viewed either as heroic and mythical figures or deeply problematic by today’s standards – take the obvious examples of George Washington. Long-held up by all Americans as a man unrivalled in his courage and military strategy, he is now a figure of vilification by leftists, who are eager to point out his ownership of slaves.

Whilst many such figures face similar shaming nowadays, none are suffering complete erasure from their own society. That is the fate currently facing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose era-defining liberal reforms and state secularism now pose a threat to Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

To understand the magnitude of Atatürk’s legacy, we must understand his ascent from soldier to president. For that, we must go back to the end of World War One, and Turkey’s founding.

The Ottoman Empire officially ended hostilities with the Allied Powers via the Armistice of Mudros (1918), which amongst other things, completely demobilised the Ottoman army. Following this, British, French, Italian and Greek forces arrived in and occupied Constantinople, the Empire’s capital. Thus began the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire: having existed since 1299, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) ceded large amounts of territory to the occupying nations, primarily being between France and Great Britain.

Enter Mustafa Kemal, known years later as Atatürk. An Ottoman Major General and fervent anti-monarchist, he and his revolutionary organisation (the Committee of Union and Progress) were greatly angered by Sèvres, which partitioned portions of Anatolia, a peninsula that makes up the majority of modern-day Turkey. In response, they formed a revolutionary government in Ankara, led by Kemal.

Thus, the Turkish National Movement fought a 4-year long war against the invaders, eventually pushing back the Greeks in the West, Armenians in the East and French in the South. Following a threat by Kemal to invade Constantinople, the Allies agreed to peace, with the Treaty of Kars (1921) establishing borders, and Lausanne (1923) officially settling the conflict. Finally free from fighting, Turkey declared itself a republic on 29 October 1923, with Mustafa Kemal as president.

His rule of Turkey began with a radically different set of ideological principles to the Ottoman Empire – life under a Sultan had been overtly religious, socially conservative and multi-ethnic. By contrast, Kemalism was best represented by the Six Arrows: Republicanism, Populism, Nationalism, Laicism, Statism and Reformism. Let’s consider the four most significant.

We’ll begin with Laicism. Believing Islam’s presence in society to have been impeding national progress, Atatürk set about fundamentally changing the role religion played both politically and societally. The Caliph, who was believed to be the spiritual successor to the Prophet Muhammad, was deposed. In their place came the office of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet – through its control of all Turkey’s mosques and religious education, it ensured Islam’s subservience to the State.

Under a new penal code, all religious schools and courts were closed, and the wearing of headscarves was banned for public workers. However, the real nail in the coffin came in 1928: that was when an amendment to the Constitution removed the provision declaring that the “Religion of the State is Islam”.

Moving onto Nationalism. With its roots in the social contract theories of thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kemalist nationalism defined the social contract as its “highest ideal” following the Empire’s collapse – a key example of the failures of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state.

The 1930s saw the Kemalist definition of nationality integrated into the Constitution, legally defining every citizen as a Turk, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Despite this however, Atatürk fiercely pursed a policy of forced cultural conformity (Turkification), similar to that of the Russian Tsars in the previous century. Both regimes had the same aim – the creation and survival of a homogenous and unified country. As such, non-Turks were pressured into speaking Turkish publicly, and those with minority surnames had to change, to ‘Turkify’ them.

Now Reformism. A staunch believer in both education and equal opportunity, Atatürk made primary education free and compulsory, for both boys and girls. Alongside this came the opening of thousands of new schools across the country. Their results are undeniable: between 1923 – 38, the number of students attending primary school increased by 224%, and 12.5 times for middle school.

Staying true to his identity as an equal opportunist, Atatürk enacted monumentally progressive reforms in the area of women’s rights. For example, 1926 saw a new civil code, and with it came equal rights for women concerning inheritance and divorce. In many of these gender reforms, Turkey was well-ahead of other Western nations: Turkish women gained the vote in 1930, followed by universal suffrage in 1934. By comparison, France passed universal suffrage in 1945, Canada in 1960 and Australia in 1967. Fundamentally, Atatürk didn’t see Turkey truly modernising whilst Ottoman gender segregation persisted

Lastly, let’s look at Statism. As both president and the leader of the People’s Republican Party, Atatürk was essentially unquestioned in his control of the State. However, despite his dictatorial tendencies (primarily purging political enemies), he was firmly opposed to dynastic rule, like had been the case with the Ottomans.

But under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, all of this could soon be gone.

Having been a high-profile political figure for 20 years, Erdoğan has cultivated a positive image domestically, one focused on his support for public religion and Turkish nationalism, whilst internationally, he’s received far more negative attention focused on his growing authoritarian behaviour. Regarded widely by historians as the very antithesis of Atatürk, Erdoğan’s pushback against state secularism is perhaps the most significant attack on the founder’s legacy.

This has been most clearly displayed within the education system. 2017 saw a radical shift in school curriculums across Turkey, with references to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution being greatly reduced. Meanwhile, the number of religious schools has increased exponentially, promoting Erdoğan’s professed goal of raising a “pious generation of Turks”. Additionally, the Diyanet under Erdoğan has seen a huge increase in its budget, and with the launch of Diyanet TV in 2012, has spread Quranic education to early ages and boarding schools.

The State has roles to play in society but depriving schoolchildren of vital scientific information and funding religious indoctrination is beyond outrageous: Soner Cagaptay, author of The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, referred to the changes as: “a revolution to alter public education to assure that a conservative, religious view of the world prevails”.

There are other warning signs more broadly, however. The past 20 years have seen the headscarf make a gradual reappearance back into Turkish life, with Erdoğan having first campaigned on the issue back in 2007, during his first run for the presidency. Furthermore, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), with its strong base of support amongst extremely orthodox Muslims, has faced repeated accusations of being an Islamist party – as per the constitution, no party can “claim that it represents a form of religious belief”.

Turkish women, despite being granted legal equality by Atatürk, remain the regular victims of sexual harassment, employment discrimination and honour killings. Seemingly intent on destroying all the positive achievements of the founder, Erdoğan withdrew from the Istanbul Convention (which forces parties to investigate, punish and crackdown on violence against women) in March 2021.

All of these reversals of Atatürk’s policies reflect the larger-scale attempt to delete him from Turkey’s history. His image is now a rarity in school textbooks, at national events, and on statues; his role in Turkey’s founding has been criminally downplayed.

President Erdoğan presents an unambiguous threat to the freedoms of the Turkish people, through both his ultra-Islamic policies and authoritarian manner of governance. Unlike Atatürk, Erdoğan seemingly has no problems with ruling as an immortal dictator, and would undoubtedly love to establish a family dynasty. With no one willing to challenge him, he appears to be dismantling Atatürk’s reforms one law at a time, reducing the once-mythical Six Arrows of Kemalism down to a footnote in textbooks.

A man often absent from the school curriculums of Western history departments, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk proved one of the most consequential leaders in both Turkish history, and the 20th Century. A radical and a revolutionary he may have been, but it was largely down to him that the Turkish people received a recognised nation-state, in which state secularism, high-quality education and equal civil rights were the norm.

In our modern world, so many of our national figures now face open vilification from the public and politicians alike. But for Turkey, future generations may grow up not even knowing the name or face of their George Washington. Whilst several political parties and civil society groups are pushing back against this anti-Atatürk agenda, the sheer determination displayed by Erdoğan shows how far Turks must yet go to preserve the founder’s legacy.

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Erdogan: Modern Sultan?

Merkel, a behemoth of European politics for the last sixteen years, will soon retire from office leaving big shoes to fill – shoes that Olaf Scholz, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), will find spacious. With the SPD gaining the most electoral votes, it is likely they will be the principal partner in a ‘traffic-light’ coalition that sees Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) out of the federal government for the first time since 2005.

With the SPD historically being the party of Turkish-Germans, this critical voter constituency is one that will attract even greater attention. Will Olaf Scholz be able to force himself into the chasm left by Merkel, or will the ‘New Sultan’ Recep Tayyip Erdogan aim to fill the vacuum left in her wake instead? History suggests that Erdogan is seen as the chief political authority for many Turkish-origin people in Germany and other European nations.

Erdogan has consistently exploited a lack of social cohesion in Germany and Western Europe at large. Aiming to place Turkish-Europeans against their governments; the Nationalist-Islamist rhetoric he purports is incompatible with liberal democratic norms. Indeed, he has managed to foster a Turkish-German identity with himself at the fore. Although there is a great deal of importance attached to Turkish cultural maintenance, it is Erdogan’s leverage of faith that ultimately holds the key. Much has been noted of the Turkish-state efforts to consolidate a robust Turkish identity within Germany. This strategy is implemented through entities such as the ‘Diyanet İsleri Türk İslam Birligi’, an Islamic Turkish Muslim identity organisation that is prevalent in mosques across Germany and espouses Turkish Islamist nationalism. Another organisation of this sort is ‘Milli Gorus’, which has over 30,000 members in Germany.

It is through these behind-the-scenes organisations that Erdogan further instils his ideological preferences into the Germans he views as his subjects. Erdogan’s posturing and denunciation of ‘Eurofascism’ and ‘Nazi’ German social policy that he perceives as anti-Turkish, has irked European leaders and riled up Turkish-origin people in the EU alike. He has found most success through deeming European liberal-democratic custom as incompatible with – and often directly inflammatory towards – the Muslim faith. Perceived rampant secularism and a lack of state assistance when it comes to Muslim immigrant integration has led to Erdogan labelling Germany as an ‘enemy of Turkey’. He has willed on Turkish-Germans to not vote for German political parties, have more children, and crucially, not to culturally assimilate. Through this interference he has succeeded in setting Turkish-Germans against the German state – placing himself as the foremost political figure for many of them.

Erdogan’s posturing, along with his work behind the scenes, has had a palpable effect. Polling and statistics have shown ever increasing disillusionment with Germany. Brookings data has shown that Turkish-German attachment to Turkey rose from 40 percent in 2010 to 49 percent in 2015. During this period, attachment to Germany fell from 26 percent to 19 percent. 2018 data from the University of Duisberg-Essen also showed a lack of interest in German politics compared to Turkish politics, among Turkish-origin Germans. This is further echoed by DATA4U survey data from 2020.  On a scale of 1-10, ‘Turkishness’ ranked 8.10 in importance among Turkish-heritage Germans – as opposed to a German identity importance score of just 5.37. It is clear as day that there is an uncomfortable degree of disillusionment amongst Turkish Germans – a form of national detachment that should worry those in Germany who prioritise social cohesion and migrant political incorporation.

2016 Münster University data also shows that 47 percent of Turkish-Germans believe that following the core tenets of Islam are more important than the laws of Germany. This is striking considering the role Islamist rhetoric plays in Erdogan’s appeal. Further compounding this, the same 2020 DATA4U survey also showed German political figure favourability. Merkel averaged a rating of 5.32 out of 10, overshadowing the likely incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s dismal rating 3.65.

Scholz’s low rating indicates a lack of respect for him among Turkish-Germans. With Merkel’s exit, the data suggests that more Turkish-Germans will soon pledge their political loyalty to Ankara than Berlin. Unfortunately for Scholz, with the SPD’s current coalition plans, his grasp on power is minimal. He will have no choice but to rely on Turkish-German votes. Given this, if Erdogan were to term Scholz an enemy of his diaspora – as he has with other European political leaders – Scholz could find votes swinging against him, with Erdogan seeing the balance of power swinging towards him.

The neo-Ottoman aspirations of the ‘New Sultan’ could be the solution to economic and political stagnation at home. Just as the Sultans of old looked westward with glee, Erdogan could look to re-establish his hegemony over Anatolia with a push west. Erdogan knows he can threaten social cohesion in European countries such as Germany through his Islamist-nationalist rhetoric which resonates with Turkish-origin people in Europe who feel disconnected from their domestic political institutions. Erdogan has a veritable toolbox of political mischief ready to unpack to exert further influence in Europe and to catalyse anti-authority sentiments in Turkish-origin communities in major European countries.

As the sun sets on Merkel’s Germany, Erdogan will see Scholz’s accession as a new dawn for pan-Turkish aspirations.

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