Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created a secular republic out of Ottoman Turkey as the Sultanate died in 1921. He was president of Turkey for fifteen years. Now, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won the nation’s first direct presidential election. Erdogan has been prime minister of Turkey since 2003, and he has promised to fashion the role of president — after Atatürk one of little actual authority — into a position of power. To what degree the term “secular” will accurately describe this “new Turkey” Erdogan hopes to create has yet to be seen. But one suspects the father of the Turks would find much about it left to be desired.
The BBC, describing Atatürk’s creation of the modern Turkish state, writes:
He launched a programme of revolutionary social and political reform to modernise Turkey. These reforms included the emancipation of women, the abolition of all Islamic institutions and the introduction of Western legal codes, dress, calendar and alphabet, replacing the Arabic script with a Latin one. Abroad he pursued a policy of neutrality, establishing friendly relations with Turkey’s neighbours.
Erdogan, on the other hand, has demonstrated an increasingly Islamic and authoritarian rule. He recently referred to Amberin Zaman, a respected Turkish correspondent for the Economist as “a shameless woman” who needs “to know her place” after she questioned the freedom of Turks in what is a Muslim society. The incident prompted a statement from the Economist, which included, “Under Mr Erdogan, Turkey has become an increasingly difficult place for independent journalism: Freedom House, a New York based media watchdog, recently downgraded the country from ‘partially free’ to ‘not free.’”
Turks took to the streets and Taksim Square last year to protest Erdogan’s rule. The events were sparked by a dispute over a public park, but fanned by fear of growing authoritarianism and Islamification. In the violence that followed, eleven protestors died and thousands were injured. The protests are not over; to some, “Turkey has become a police state.”
Turkey is a NATO member, and has been since 1952. As such, it is an American ally. Under Erdogan’s rule, however, it has not been a friend of Israel, prompting Hamas to hail his presidential election as a victory for Palestinians and a defeat for America.
Erdogan seems hell-bent on surpassing Atatürk in reign and significance, as he attempts to remake Turkey in his own image. And while that image, winning 52 percent of the vote, is apparently a popular one in Turkey, it nonetheless undercuts what once was one a strong pillar of secularism in the Middle East. Erdogan’s election has prompted some to wonder if perhaps the Ottoman Sultanate didn’t die so thoroughly in 1921.