Will Erdogan Airbrush Atatürk From Turkish Life?

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A boy and his mother stand next to a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in Manisa on May 5, 2007. Michael Rubin writes that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s dictatorial president, has dropped any pretense of orienting Turkey toward the West or respecting the separation of mosque and state. Fatih Saribas/reuters

This article was first published on the American Enterprise Institute site.

The Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is a monumental structure that sits amidst parkland on a hill overlooking central Ankara, Turkey's capital.

School children, conscripts, professional societies and groups of tourists pay homage to Turkey's secularist leader, watch the changing of the guard and tour its grounds, parks and exhibits.

Along with the room where Atatürk passed away in Istanbul's Dolmabahçe Palace, it is the most prominent memorial to Atatürk in modern Turkey. This is something that likely chafes at Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's dictatorial president, every single day.

Erdoğan would like nothing more than to erase Atatürk's memory from Turkey's consciousness. In 1994, as mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan derided those who stood with respect in memory of Turkey's founding father. "One ought not to stand [in respect, stiff] like a straw on Atatürk's commemoration events," he declared.

In June 2005, Erdogan surprised Turks when he changed the background for his monthly television address. Out was the traditional backdrop of the Turkish flag and a portrait of Atatürk and in its place the Anıtkabir and a mosque. The symbolism was clear: Atatürk was dead, but Islam lives on.

As Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have won pluralities in successive elections, Erdogan has dropped any pretense both of orienting Turkey toward the West or respecting the separation of mosque and state. "We will raise a religious generation," he thundered back in 2012.

Now, with the July 15 coup attempt crushed and despite Nuremberg-like rallies ironically profaning the very concept of democracy and waving banners reading, "You are a gift from God, Erdogan" or "Order us to die and we will do it," he has accelerated his efforts to transform Turkey and crush and humiliate opponents.

He has, for example, announced plans to convert exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen's house near Erzurum into a public toilet. Could closing the Anıtkabir or repurposing it, perhaps as a monument to those killed in the name of Atatürk or victimized by the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980, or 1997 be on the horizon?

The centenary of Atatürk's declaration of the dissolution of the caliphate and the foundation of modern Turkey are less than a decade away. Rather than celebrate a strong, modern, liberal, secular and democratic Turkey, expect Erdogan to use the anniversary to put the final nail in the coffin of Atatürk's legacy.

As for the actual coffin of Turkey's founding father, don't be surprised if it marks the centenary of Turkey's founding far away from its resting place today, perhaps near a public toilet.

Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. He instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics and teaches classes on Iran, terrorism and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. He has lived in post-revolutionary Iran, Yemen and both pre- and postwar Iraq and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His book Dancing With the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes examines a half-century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.