Turkey: Is Atatürk Dead? Erdogan Islamism Replaces Kemalism

Once eager to join Europe, Ankara is now turning its gaze eastward instead. George Georgiou / Panos

The photograph shows a pair of men in dusty work clothes, saluting proudly as they stand at attention inside a gutted reinforced-concrete building. The caption, in Turkish, tells us that the picture was taken Nov. 10. Every year on that date, the entire country—schools, government offices, hospitals, even traffic—comes to a halt at 9:05 a.m., the exact minute of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's death in 1938. The photo went viral on the Internet this year, desperately offered via Twitter and Facebook as proof that even though an Islamist government has ruled the country for the past decade, modern Turkey's fiercely rationalist founder remains a source of inspiration to the masses.

The question is how much longer Mustafa Kemal can remain on that pedestal. To the people of his country, Atatürk—the sobriquet means "father of the Turks"—has been both a national hero and an ideology, bolstered by decades of indoctrination in the schools and by his ubiquitous image in the form of busts, portraits, statues, figurines, T-shirts, currency, key chains, and even iPhone cases. A reformist Ottoman Army general, he led an independence struggle against the invading Greek, French, and Italian armies after the First World War, culminating in the establishment of a modern republic in 1923.

Under Mustafa Kemal's leadership, the young republic made a clean break from its Ottoman past nearly nine decades ago, ditching the caliphate for a secular regime and turning away from the empire's former Arab territories in favor of an anti-clerical, pro-Western vision that became known as Kemalism. He pushed for women's suffrage, decreed the alphabet's conversion from Arabic to Latin overnight, established parliamentary government, declared war on Islamic zealotry long before jihadism became a global concern, even banned the Ottoman fez in favor of European-style hats. Turkish schoolbooks today summarize the changes he imposed as "the Atatürk revolutions."

Nevertheless, Mustafa Kemal's staunchly secularist legacy is now being challenged by a new Turkish strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Free at last to espouse and promote his conservative Muslim faith publicly, the prime minister embodies the political aspirations of millions of Turks who have been alienated from the military-backed secular establishment for generations: the rural folk, the urban poor, conservative Muslim clerics, and the rising religiously conservative business classes. While studiously avoiding direct confrontation with Atatürk's Westernized ideals, Erdogan and other pro-Islamist leaders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have inaugurated an era of deep political transformation.

With the party's encouragement, many Turks have come to regard Kemalism as an outmoded ideology unsuited to the needs of present-day Turkey's dynamic society. "I don't know if Atatürk himself is dead," says liberal academic and commentator Mehmet Altan. "But Kemalism will eventually die, as Turkey democratizes." Altan has argued for years against the Kemalist doctrine, calling instead for the creation of a "second republic" that would be less centralized, more inclusive of Kurds and Islamists, and less rigid in its secular and nationalist policies.

That's what's already happening as the Erdogan government dismantles the Kemalist establishment. The military, once the country's most powerful political force and the self-proclaimed guardian of secularism, has been relegated to the barracks and publicly reprimanded for the series of coups that have stunted democracy's growth since Atatürk's death. Religious conservatism is on the rise, and Ankara has turned its attention away from the country's longstanding bid for European Union membership, seeking instead a more prominent role in the Middle East and the former Ottoman lands. Vestiges of the old Kemalist order—the headscarf ban on university campuses, restrictions on use of the Kurdish language, Soviet-style commemorations held in stadiums on national days—have nearly disappeared.

And yet liberal democrats like Altan are not happy. Many feel that Erdogan's government has lost its reformist drive, becoming authoritarian and single-mindedly Islamic instead. Intellectuals who once supported Erdogan against the military now complain about his efforts to control the media, his intolerance for dissent, and his halfhearted concessions to Kurdish demands. "Politics in Turkey has always been a struggle between the barracks and the mosque," says Altan. "Because we never had a proper capitalist class, the Army represented the bourgeoisie, and the mosque represented the underprivileged. With AKP, we thought a democracy would emerge out of the mosque. But instead what we got was simply the revenge of the mosque."

A year ago Altan finally became one of the many journalists who have lost their jobs for criticizing Erdogan. It's the same penalty commentators used to incur for finding fault with Atatürk. Altan grieves for the fading of Turkey's European dreams. Bringing European standards to Turkey's democracy was the only possible solution for the conflict between the secularists and the Islamists, he says. "But the EU reforms have stopped, and the government's Islamic reflexes are more obvious now, making the division even sharper."

The Kemalists appear to have lost their 90-year political battle. Hundreds of military personnel and hard-core secularists are currently in jail for alleged roles in various coup investigations. In last year's general elections, the country's top secular opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP)—founded by Atatürk himself—drew only 26 percent of the vote, versus 50 percent for the AKP. And although "insulting Atatürk" remains a crime under the Turkish penal code, prosecutors seldom if ever bother to file such charges these days.

Social liberals are fearful of the rising influence of religious conservatives. George Georgiou / Panos

And yet somehow the old man himself is still going strong. "How many leaders are there around the world whose name, 74 years after his death, is still being tattooed on people's bodies?" demanded Yilmaz Özdil when I asked him if Atatürk is dead. A diehard Kemalist, Özdil writes for Turkey's top newspaper, Hürriyet, and is by all accounts the country's most popular columnist. Just look around, he says. He's not speaking only of the skin-art parlors that honor Nov. 10 by offering free renditions of Atatürk's signature. People decorate their baby strollers and cars with stickers bearing the founder's picture, and audiences seem insatiable for books and films about his life.

The wave of Atatürk mania has a distinct undertone of defiance—a response to the frustrations of secular urbanites these days. "Saying you love Atatürk is code for saying you are afraid of a religious state," says Altan. Tens of thousands of middle-class Turks joined a demonstration against the AKP government this past Oct. 29, the country's Republic Day. Elderly women and students carried pictures of Atatürk and chanted in unison: "We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal!" While Erdogan watched a military parade at a stadium in Ankara, the protesters were being tear-gassed not far away. Finally breaking through police barricades, they marched to Atatürk's mausoleum.

Less than two weeks later, an estimated 400,000 Turks made pilgrimages to the secularist shrine. But Erdogan was far away, on a visit to Brunei. When critics in Parliament and the media accused him of avoiding the ceremonies, the prime minister brandished photos of the Turkish government–sponsored renovation of Kemal's father's old home in the Balkans and declared that the AKP's economic-development policies have done more to ensure Atatürk's legacy than the independence hero's own party ever achieved.

Regardless of the dwindling ranks who call themselves secular or Kemalist, surveys say Atatürk himself remains popular across the political spectrum. In one recent poll, 82.3 percent of respondents said they want "Atatürk principles and revolutions" included in the new constitution that is currently being drafted. "Whatever they say, his revolution has succeeded," says Özdil. "Efforts to reverse it are creating a healthier interest in Atatürk."

In fact, it's hard for Turks of any political affiliation to truly despise the republic's founder. He was known as a lady's man who loved to dance and drink, and yet his life had a melancholic quality. The 2008 film Mustafa upset many Kemalists with its rare but candid glimpse of the great leader's private loneliness. The film portrayed him as subsisting on a daily diet of 3 packs of cigarettes, 15 cups of Turkish coffee, and 1 bottle of raki. A leading brand of the powerful Turkish liquor features an Atatürk look-alike on the label wearing a tux and visibly enjoying a glass. Secularists take pride in the image; in an age of religious conservatism and prohibitive taxation on alcohol, even drinking has become an act of political defiance.

Turkey has an Atatürk for everyone. In contrast to the secularists' idea of him, Islamists prefer to ignore his drinking and anti-religiosity, emphasizing instead his leadership on the battlefield against invading Western armies. Leftists picture him as an anti-imperialist with an anti-capitalist streak, while the country's religious-minority Alevis consider him their defender against domination by hard-line Sunnis. Even the often-oppressed Kurds find good things to say about him. Over the past decade, imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan is said to have spent many hours musing to his lawyers about Kemalism, often concluding that much like Öcalan himself, Atatürk was misunderstood and isolated.

And yet for all Atatürk's enduring popularity, his vision is unlikely to survive the political climate change that is sweeping Turkey and the entire Middle East. The country has too many old internecine scores to settle—mass killings of Kurds in 1938, oppression of religious conservatives through most of modern Turkish history, massive human-rights violations following each of Turkey's four military coups—all committed in the name of preserving Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's republic.

A decade ahead of the republic's centennial, Erdogan is floating what he calls the "2023 vision." He envisions a complete overhaul of the state, scrapping the country's parliamentary system and replacing it with an American-style tripartite government. And by all accounts, he intends to oversee the transformation personally. If he gets that wish, he will have remained in power for 20 years—five years longer than the father of the Turks himself. Turks can only ask themselves: what would Atatürk say?