Ataturk vs Erdogan: Battle of the myths

The doctrine of Turco-Islamism, fiercely endorsed by Erdogan, is taking ever deeper root in society, which makes demythification of the founding father the natural course.
Sunday 18/11/2018
A story of envy. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leads a government meeting in Ankara with a painting of Ataturk in the background, on October 25.  (AP)
A story of envy. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leads a government meeting in Ankara with a painting of Ataturk in the background, on October 25. (AP)

There’s nothing to suggest when or even if the acrimonious power struggle in Turkey will end. Even a minimal sense of an end might dispel some of the mistrust among sections of society. This moment, however, is defined by the ruling Justice and Development Party’s divisive policies. They serve Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s interests well.

The present is also about the past. At one level, the differences between secularists, Islamists, Kurds and the leftists reflect a major cleavage that cuts across the country. Society is evenly split between those who respect, even revere Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. The other half respects Erdogan. For them, his misdeeds are off limits, as endorsed by his near total control of the Turkish media.

The more control Erdogan captures over the state’s key institutions, the more superiority he claims over Ataturk, whom he blames for “the repression of devout Sunnis.” Apparently, Erdogan envies Ataturk for the popularity he enjoyed decades after his death.

For it is all about myth-making in countries where a patrimonial culture is deeply rooted and power is transferred from one generation to the other. Ataturk is a myth to millions and what Erdogan aspires to do is to enforce a myth about himself, thereby eroding the other. At the very least he hopes to make the Ataturk myth secondary in the collective mindset.

Every year, November 10 marks one of Turkey’s best-kept rituals. Alarms are heard at 9.05am marking the time the “father” died in 1938. Individuals stop in their tracks in public spaces. Cars stop moving. Leaders condole with the nation. For a whole day, front pages and TV screens are emblazoned with Ataturk’s image.

For Turkey’s other half — the majority of whom are Erdogan’s loyal voters — Ataturk’s death anniversary is generally a matter of indifference except that the 70th anniversary of Ataturk’s death was marred by some incidents.

This November 10, more than any other, the attitude manifested itself in a highly symbolic way. Ali Ersoz, head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), visited a controversial, if marginal figure, known for what secularists regard as libellous language against the memory of Ataturk. This is a crime under Turkish law.

Diyanet has become, especially after the weakening of the Turkish military, the most powerful institution of tutelage in the country. Ersoz had pictures taken with the man he was visiting and, even though the visit took place the day before November 10, it was remarkable enough to trigger secularist outrage.

Other incidents were noted around the country. In a province bordering Syria, a refugee attacked a statue of Ataturk, as did a woman in western Anatolia.

It is no secret that in the eyes of deeply devout Sunnis, statues per se are unacceptable. Given the ultra-secular character of Ataturk, his statues are targets. The doctrine of Turco-Islamism, fiercely endorsed by Erdogan, is taking ever deeper root in society, which makes demythification of the founding father the natural course.

However, it is a long battle and it goes slowly. Out of the ashes of a 600-year-old empire, Ataturk built a state and a society in his image. With resolve and a will bordering on obstinacy, he built on shaky ground, for this was a society of groups glued to each other somewhat artificially on Turkishness. It was a society in which there was no space for a minority. The backbone of the Turkish republic was a harsh form of secular dogma, which caused long-term problems.

In its main features, Erdogan’s New Turkey will not be much different, it seems. He wants it badly in his own image — reflexive, divisive, opposed to Ataturk, its Sunni identity utterly visible.

Erdogan also knows that he can only achieve his objective with the help of extreme-right nationalists, whose sympathies for Ataturk are overwhelmed in many ways by their Pan-Turkist mythology that goes deep into Central Asia. Ataturk was opposed to that aspect. It can be argued that Erdogan is skilfully working to merge two ideologies — extreme Turkish nationalism and Turkish Islamism.

Erdogan wants to rise on the back of the merger and be more successful and for much longer than Ataturk. He may even hope to be the eternal leader of Turkey. Given the support of the conservative masses, he may succeed in this endeavour.

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