How Erdoğan continues to struggle with Atatürk’s legacy

There is still plenty of rancour about the decisions Turkey’s first president put into motion when he opened parliament a century ago
Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and its twelfth, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Put your patriotic feelings to one side for a moment and think of the sheep.

It could not have been a pretty sight in Ankara when the animals were sacrificed on the doorstep of Turkey’s first national parliament— one of many religious rituals to mark the grand opening of the Grand National Assembly a full century ago this week.

It was all meant to happen on Wednesday 21 April but, with mere hours’ notice, Mustafa Kemal shifted the date to Friday, the holiest day of the Muslim week.

The man who would go on to build one of the world’s most recognisable secular regimes decreed that the extra two days should be used for a full reading of the Koran from cover to cover, with the holiest passages left for last.

When the new day arrived, the crowds crammed into Ankara’s centuries-old Hacı Bayram Veli mosque for Friday prayers. Then there was a procession led by Mustafa Kemal to the makeshift parliament building in today’s Ulus neighbourhood. Cries of Allahu Akbar (God is great) rippled through the crowds that gathered.

The cortege carried one or two Turkish red crescent-and-star banners, but the majority were Islamic flags of green. Someone held up a vial of what he claimed was a hair from the prophet’s beard —likely a forgery, seeing as it closely resembled an icon usually kept at the Topkapı Palace in Allied-occupied Istanbul.

The crowds gather outside the first parliament building in the Turkish capital — date unclear (

And in case all this leads you to believe no one was bewildered by all this, the official transcript of the first sitting of Turkey’s parliament should put your mind at ease.

“What are they doing, let us understand?” one confused MP is recorded exclaiming. Another replies: “They are drawing lots, taking one each. But Mr Speaker, perhaps if two clerks at once were to help you…”

This Thursday, there will be no sheep — unless you want to be rude about Turkey’s current crop of MPs — when parliament marks the centenary of its first session. In fact, very few people will be there at all. The coronavirus pandemic has put paid to that.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will not attend and other party leaders have been encouraged to keep away from a downbeat ceremony planned in the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s now- sprawling complex, 3.5 kilometres south of the original building. The crowds of a hundred years ago won’t be repeated either: the authorities have called a four-day curfew to help contain the virus.

It is still a public holiday, though, and many Turks will be celebrating a key moment in their national story from their homes and balconies. The reason for their pride is obvious: Turkey is only country to be defeated in the First World War and yet dictate its own peace terms. The course of history was flowing in one direction; a poorly resourced, largely illiterate country forced it into another. Many will be devastated not to express their feelings on the streets.

One man who does not feel that way is Mr Erdoğan himself. A man who wears his pious heart on his sleeve, he has long been a rallying point for Mustafa Kemal’s critics.

“What’s going on?” Confused MPs on day one of the Turkish Grand National Assembly

It is an exaggeration to say the current Turkish president detests his predecessor, but part of what he feels must be a heartfelt belief that the man who would come to call himself Atatürk, Father of the Turks, got his social reforms wrong. It was sacrilege, the argument goes, to order mosques should call worshippers to prayer in Turkish only. Teaching Anatolia’s illiterate masses a Latin alphabet and not the existing Arabic script severed Turks’ links to their own history. And it was cultural vandalism to outlaw certain types of headwear or restrictive clothing for women.

But this is more than just an ideological disagreement. Sections of the same Islamic political movements that shaped Mr Erdoğan in his younger years feel more than mere disagreements with Mustafa Kemal’s policies. There is visceral hatred for the man himself, slated as a womaniser and a drunk who eschewed family values, exploited God’s teachings and eliminated the caliphate, the closest thing Sunni Islam ever had to a papacy.

Mustafa Kemal, there is no doubt, was being far from sincere on 23 April 1920 when he smothered parliament’s inauguration with all the ceremony and ritual that he could muster. Islam was a clear tool to unite Turks, Kurds and Circassians against the Armenians, British, French and Greeks, all of whom were on that day occupying different parts of Anatolia. After he won, Islam was an obstacle to his plans to westernise Turkey.

No one can say for sure what Mr Erdoğan personally thinks, but Kemalists say he made his true feelings plain by proxy, rather than attacking the nation’s founder by name. The president caused a stir in 2016 when he called Mustafa Kemal’s comrade-in-arms and successor İsmet İnönü a “drunkard”. Last November, Mr Erdoğan said the Latin alphabet switchover showed the republic’s founders were “ashamed of their history”.

Looming large: President Erdoğan at Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s tomb, in 2017

And only this week, announcing plans for a field hospital for coronavirus patients in Istanbul’s mothballed Atatürk Airport, Mr Erdoğan referred to the facility as Yeşilköy Airport. It has not been called that for 40 years.

But whatever his true feelings, Mr Erdoğan is wise enough not to openly undermine Turkey’s founding father. Atatürk is the rare example of someone who can inspire the adoration of millions, even years after he first became leader.

The trouble for Kemalists is that the same can be said of Mr Erdoğan.

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