Turkey has long been perceived to be undergoing a struggle between the secular and the religious. The population in its Anatolian heartland and east is generally more religious and conservative, while people in the coastal areas and major cities tend to be more liberal. The local election results in March this year bore this generalisation out, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s more “religiously-aligned” AK Party holding power in its traditional strongholds while the more secular parties such as the CHP grabbed control of the coasts and even Erdoğan’s once trusted city of Istanbul.
However, there is a deeper aspect which transcends this polarising debate that many do not realise; the figure of founder of modern Turkey himself: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The man’s statues can be seen occupying the squares and monuments of every city in the country, and his picture gazes at you in every classroom and office you happen to walk into. His all-pervading presence was particularly felt last weekend, when the 81st anniversary of his death was commemorated across Turkey.
It is understandable why Turks hold Ataturk in such high esteem as the dominant figure of modern Turkish history: his military genius and political aptitude resulted in the recapture of the entire Anatolian and Bosphorus regions at a time when the imperial powers were dividing the territories of the Ottoman Empire between them. With the French, Armenians and Russians on one side and the Greeks, Italians and British on the other, Turkey was being feasted on after the First World War, until Ataturk’s victory in the War of Independence drove them out and restored some semblance of sovereignty in the form of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
The hero worship of Ataturk, however, has turned into something of a cult. Last week, videos emerged on Twitter showing commemoration ceremonies in which schoolchildren were being directed by their teachers to bow to an image of the Republic’s founder, with one child holding a sign saying “1881” – the year of his birth – and another holding a sign with the infinity symbol. Another clip showed a teacher getting her pupils to say that, “Ataturk is your creator”.
The construction of Ataturk into this god-like figure who is infinitely alive and cannot die has been ongoing for the past eight decades and has predictably angered many practicing Muslims in Turkey and beyond, strengthening their argument that the earlier celebrity worship has led to actual idolatry. Couple that with the fact that Ataturk was responsible for imposing harsh restrictions on any outward expression of Islam and for suppressing religious freedom in order to enforce secularism, and the divide becomes even wider.
Putting aside the common Islamist-secularism debate, though, there has emerged a barrage of Western critics and Turkish political opponents in recent years who have accused Erdoğan of attempting to usurp Ataturk’s legacy by cementing his own in its place, putting an emphasis on religious values and removing some secular restrictions. While this has a grain of truth to it in that he has been a voice for the religious population for almost two decades and made many reforms, Erdoğan has not changed Turkey into an Islamic state, as many of his critics would like to believe. His disdain for usury and interest has not made him withdraw Turkey’s economy from the global banking system; nor has his refraining from alcohol led him to ban it from supermarket shelves; and nor has his building of mosques forced him to destroy churches and other places of worship.
Moving away from aspects of faith, Erdoğan has done hardly anything against the legacy of Ataturk himself. He has stated previously that he will protect Ataturk’s legacy, and on this year’s anniversary of the founder’s death he retained that stance without any hindrance to the annual ceremony at the Ankara mausoleum.
Throughout his rule, Erdoğan has indeed created something of his own legacy, starting out as a peacemaker with the Kurds in the south-east, a repairer of the ailing Turkish economy, a reviver of religious values, and a reformer of the country’s government into a Presidential system. One of his proudest achievements, however, was to save the nation from the attempted coup in 2016, making him the first leader in the modern Turkish Republic to defeat a military coup and survive the wrath of the “guardians of secularism”.
Turkey and the rest of the world is yet to see how far Erdoğan can and will go towards building his legacy, but at present the fact remains that it has not even come close to surpassing that of Ataturk. He is regarded by few as a unifier of the nation, his image is not found in every classroom and office, and his statue does not grace every – or even any – town or city within the country. While the Turkish President does have a legacy to leave behind, he is neither worshipped as a demi-god nor is he hailed by schoolchildren as “the creator” who will infinitely live on. In modern Turkey, Erdoğan is temporary; only Ataturk, it seems, is forever.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.