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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Politics

In Turkey, the cult of Ataturk gives way to the cult of Erdogan

After the attempted coup d’état of 15 July 2016, discussion inside expert circles about the construction of a “new” Turkey took on a new urgency. The result of the 2017 constitutional referendum remade Turkey’s political institutions, but the events of the 2016 coup attempt also catalyzed changes to the symbolism of the state. The ruling Justice and Development Party, whose slogans had long promised “a new Turkey,” was at the forefront of the surge in hardened messaging. The cornerstone of this “new Turkey” is а classical concentration of political power in the hands of one person, specifically President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kemalism, Turkey’s founding ideology, is in the process of being replaced by the new ideology of the new president. Although it is still early to characterise this new ideology in Turkey as “Erdoğanism”, the similarities and contradictions of Kemalism and Erdoğanism lend insight on the structure of Turkish politics. The era of Erdoğan has been unleashed in Turkey, and moreover, its eponym is eager to not only replace the personality cult of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, but also to surpass the historic founder’s titanic image.


Solidifying authoritarian rule

The most important and striking indicator of this process is the reduction of the Turkish army. The Turkish military has hitherto enjoyed a crucial role in politics. Formerly a completely independent structure, subservient to no other state institution, the Turkish military articulated its role as the guardian of Kemalism and secularism. But the image of the Turkish soldier as the principal symbol of secularism is no longer, in part thanks to reforms motivated by European Union demands for more civilian control as a prerequisite to Turkey’s membership bid.

Reducing the role of the military in politics supports Erdoğan’s broader strategy of eliminating competitors for power from the political arena. That tactic is one of a few commonalities between Mr. Erdoğan and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 1925, during the establishment of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk’s People’s Republican Party created a one-party system, employing authoritarianism for the unification of state and party and the fostering a cult of personality. Erdogan’s vision had little room for other individuals of stature, a fact that once again became evident with the abrupt end to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s career, himself a longtime AKP figure and the architect of the party’s foreign policy.

Demographic changes within the country play a crucial role in the ongoing process of political transformation. Until the 1960s, educated citizens with progressive and secular ideas were living in the urban centers of Turkey. Since then, a considerable number of poorly-educated and conservative villagers with little love for Kemalist secularism has moved to the cities, changing the face of the political arena of Turkey. The rural migrant population is a crucial component of President Erdoğan’s base, and it is these people who took to the streets on July 15, 2016, as Mr. Erdoğan called on them to do. It should be noted that the AKP’s program represents not only those with traditional conservative views, but also those who combine their belief in Islam with the discourse of democracy. In modern Turkey, officials of all political orientations refer to democracy in their statements and beliefs, and Islamists are no exception. Even the detention of 110,000 people in the post-coup crackdown, only 50,000 of whom were arrested on specific charges, was justified by Ankara as a necessary measure to defend democracy in Turkey.

Erdoğan initiated his presidential election campaign in July 2014 from the Black Sea coastal city of Samsun and the north-eastern city of Erzurum. The choice was no accident, as the two cities were also Mustafa Kemal’s first stops when he launched his National Struggle in 1919. In beginning his presidential campaign from the same spot, Erdoğan sought to explicitly link himself to the illustrious legacy of Turkey’s founder, prompting comparisons both positive and derogatory.

Condemnation of opponents as internal enemies and agents of foreign powers have also become favorite tactics for Erdoğan to silence dissent, in another echo of the days of Kemalist one-party rule. Erdoğan, who once opposed conspiratorial narratives targeting him and his followers, quickly adopted this method of delegitimizing opponents. After the Gezi Park protests, Erdoğan notably employed this tactic in his confrontation with the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, once a key ally of Erdoğan. In Erdoğan’s eyes, opponents became enemies to be crushed, and that attitude has only become more entrenched as his position has become more embattled. Those who tried to stay loyal to the AKP’s more liberal founding principles, including its co-founder Abdullah Gül, were pushed aside.

Supporters of the President have fostered the cult of Erdoğan, and they often do so by adopting Kemalist slogans by changing key words: “Atam izindeyiz” (We follow the footsteps of the Father) has become “Adam izindeyiz” (We follow the footsteps of the Man). In the new Turkey, such words emphasize the individual over the institution, supplanting respect for democracy and law with glorification of the leader. Belittling Atatürk, Erdoğan considers himself above him.


Distancing from Atatürk’s legacy

Erdoğan and his AKP criticize the early policies of Republican Turkey for their secularism, attacks against individual freedom, and devotion to the cult of Atatürk, while simultaneously constructing a parallel bloc around Erdoğan’s figure. Constructing Atatürk’s personality cult required all instruments of public messaging, including religion, mass media, and education. In the 1930s, there were so many monuments of Atatürk throughout Turkey that “Atatürk” and “statue” became nearly synonymous in the public consciousness. Although statues have fallen out of fashion, Erdoğan’s administration skilfully implements other art forms to influence public opinion. “Rize University” was renamed “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University” in a highly publicized 2012 ceremony, and the film “Reis,” depicting the story of Erdoğan’s life alongside the story of the Turkish Republic, was released in 2017 on the President’s birthday.

In a significant departure from tradition, Erdoğan avoids using the name “Atatürk” (which literally translates to “father of Turks”) and instead refers to the first President of Turkey as simply ‘Mustafa Kemal’ or ‘Gazi Mustafa Kemal.’  Erdoğan refrains from uttering the name Atatürk because it signifies the founder’s burial of Ottoman history. For Erdoğan, referring to Mustafa Kemal by the name Gazi (generally translated as the Victorious, and used as a title for notable Ottoman military officers) recalls Atatürk’s martial legacy and his achievements in the Gallipoli campaign, but in the context of his Ottoman imperial heritage rather than his later significance as the modernizing figure who established the Republic.

In the Neo-Ottoman mentality with which Erdoğan is often associated, Atatürk is considered as an öteki (inverted) Mustafa Kemal. This is the view of Shaykh Muhammad Nazim Adil al-Qubrusi, a Turkish Cypriot and spiritual leader of the Naqshbandi tariqa who campaigned against the ban on the ezan (call to prayer) in the 1950s and 1960s. According to Shaykh Nazim and like-minded activists, Mustafa Kemal remained a war hero who achieved a great victory against overwhelming odds in the name of the Sultan, the political and spiritual leader of the Ottoman Empire; Atatürk, by contrast, represented the “inverted” figure who repressed religious practice, banned traditional modes of dress, and forbade the use of Arabic letters. Erdoğan himself belonged to a religious brotherhood in his youth, and was inspired by Shaykh Nazim’s political and religious thought throughout his career.  


The cult of Erdogan?

As President, Erdoğan has already started to apply another hallmark of Atatürk’s political machine in his unification of powers, in clear contradiction of the “separation of powers” principle that Montesquieu defined as the foundation of democracy in the 18th century and which democratic societies continue to prioritize. Both Erdoğan and his supporters deny the existence of any plan to transform society or to engage in social engineering, terms traditionally used to describe the cultural revolution of Atatürk and his followers. Turkish society in the early 21st century is indeed far more complex than that of the early 20th century due to the diversity of its civil society, media, and educated public with easy global connectivity. It is difficult to say that the movement of Erdoğan and his followers is enacting social transformation on the scale of Atatürk’s program. Nevertheless, the AKP has declared its intention to foster religious education, and the impact of more religious courses in Turkish schools will have lasting consequences. Were Erdoğan to remain in power for another ten years, as he appears to intend, he stands to replace the secular identity which Turkey has long enjoyed as a result of Atatürk’s reforms. Should he succeed, he will only replicate the heavy-handed Kemalist policies that stifled the conservative Turks Erdoğan claims to represent – only this time, it will be Turkey’s less religious citizens and religious minorities who will lose out.

Only time will show whether Erdoğan will manage to surpass Atatürk’s personality cult, but his policies are undoubtedly creating a new Turkey with new rules and principles in foreign and internal affairs alike. Erdoğan views Atatürk as his main political and historical rival, and his messaging relies on subtly diminishing Atatürk´s legacy through word and deed. Yet even as Erdoğan emphasizes the shortcomings of Turkey’s first premiere, his actions recreate the very policies he decries in his predecessor.