Between Ataturk’s secularism and Erdogan’s Ottomanism

Between Ataturk’s secularism and Erdogan’s Ottomanism

Representation image (Photo:SNS)

One of my acquaintances, a Turkish woman who lives in Turkey and is married to a Bengali man, was visiting her mother-in-law in Kolkata in May. She was quite excited about the Turkish election during the conversation. She actually cut her trip to Kolkata short so that she could return home and “vote” in the crucial presidential election. Her 19-year-old daughter, a firsttime voter, studies in Germany and travelled back to Turkey to cast her ballot.

Yes, to cast a ballot against Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Perhaps their portrayal of Erdogan was a little too severe. However, religious conservatives and Turkish nationalists undoubtedly favour Erdogan, and his politics are frequently referred to as “authoritarian.” Many Turkish women may as well be afraid of the possibility of a Taliban-like rule in Turkey.

In 2021, Erdogan unilaterally pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty to fight genderbased discrimination and violence. Incidentally, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led the creation of the modern state of Turkey in July 1923, marking the conclusion of the Turkish War of Independence. Exactly one hundred years later, Turkey is at an inflexion point in its society.


The nation just held a crucial election that could not only determine whether Turkey would follow the secular route established by Atatürk or diligently adopt “NeoOttomanism,” a term which is becoming more and more common to describe the ideologies of Erdogan’s AKP party.

According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Erdogan won in free but unfair elections. He controls the vast majority of Turkish media, and political rivals have been harassed and, in some cases, imprisoned. For instance, Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, was recently sentenced to more than two years in prison and banned from holding public office for insulting members of the supreme election council.

This prevented the opposition from choosing perhaps its most promising candidate. Mehmet Karli, adviser to Kemal Kiliçdaroglu – Erdogan’s contender in the runoff election, described Erdogan’s triumph as a “pyrrhic victory” and accused him of inflaming tensions prior to the vote.

As he embarks on a third decade in power, Erdogan is continuing to use sweeping powers to divide and rule. Particularly LGBTQ+ and women’s rights organisations will find themselves in the direct line of fire. The Syrian refugees are also there; Erdogan promised to deport one million of them to a deeply uncertain future across the border.

During the previous twenty years of Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has undergone significant change. In 2020, the transformation of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque dealt a serious blow to the secularism Atatürk implanted in Turkish society.

Hagia Sophia was a symbol of secularism in contemporary Turkey, and it now represents Turkey’s changing national character. Has Erdogan ascended to the position of Turkey’s Sultan in the third decade of his rule? Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish-American political scientist and expert on Turkish politics and nationalism, firmly believes this to be the case. In his 2017 book “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey,” Cagaptay perceived that the evil and unsuccessful 2016 coup has really given Erdogan the green light to fulfil his repeated pledge to establish order and stability under a “strongman.” Cagaptay described how Erdogan, the right-wing populist president of Turkey, has tightened his grip on internal politics while utilising military and diplomatic measures to establish Turkey as a regional power since 2002. Cagaptay provided examples of Erdogan’s ruthless and persistent crackdown, which resulted in the detention of numerous journalists, the formal expulsion of academics, the dismissal of university deans, and the detention of many of the highestranking military personnel.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Syrian civil crisis undoubtedly contributed to the tanking of the Turkish economy. Erdogan’s policies are also partly to blame for the nation’s financial woes. Critics said that the president allowed inflation to run wild by suppressing interest rates.

Recent criticism of the state’s tardy response to the devastating earthquakes in February was widespread. Still, these might have presented Erdogan with chances to profit from “Disaster Capitalism.”

Yes, national crises and disasters can sometimes be used as an excuse to enact contentious and debatable policies while citizens are excessively distracted.

Erdogan’s electoral victory might have made the West uneasy. In addition to congratulating Erdogan, US President Joe Biden said he was looking forward to working with him “as NATO allies” on “bilateral issues and shared global challenges.” Yes, Turkey has been an unpredictable NATO member that refuses to fully align itself with the West.

Despite criticism that he was impeding a coordinated response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Erdogan hailed his relationship with Putin as “special” and vowed to keep blocking Sweden’s entry into NATO. In fact, given NATO’s unease with an ally like Turkey, Brussels may be a little happy that Turkey, despite its best efforts, was unable to join the European Union (EU).

In actuality, the Erdogan regime’s nature and activities contributed to Turkey’s lack of EU membership maturation. However, I firmly believe that granting Turkey EU membership would have allowed the country’s citizens to experience a different turn in their fortunes. In that case, the Turkish president couldn’t just have done anything under the cover of Turkey’s “sovereignty.”

In an interview with the French daily Le Monde just before the elections, the 2006 Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Ferit Orhan Pamuk discussed the achievements and failures of Erdogan over his 20 years in office. In the words of Pamuk, Erdogan “has ruined everything in the last four or five years” in Turkey. Pamuk also thinks that the unsuccessful 2016 coup was instrumental in the making of present-day Erdogan.

How will the current Sultan proceed? Cagaptay provided insights on the next stage of Erdogan’s rule in his follow-up book from 2021, “A Sultan in Autumn: Erdogan Faces Turkey’s Uncontainable Forces,” as he has ruled Turkey for nearly 20 years and faced challenges to his hold on power from the Covid-19 pandemic, rising opposition, and Turkey’s ailing economy.

Cagaptay depicted Erdogan as the forerunner of nativist populist politics in the twenty-first century, one who is skilled at polarising the electorate to strengthen his base and at using coercive techniques when polarisation is insufficient to win elections.

According to Cagaptay, Erdogan will maintain his hold on power at the expense of Turkey’s people, institutions, and allies. With more than 27 million votes, Erdogan undoubtedly won Turkey’s presidential runoff election. However, not to forget that more than 25 million people voted against him.

Many of them, including the Turkish woman I briefly described, were more than eager to topple Erdogan through the ballot. Thus, it is evident that Turkey is currently a profoundly divided nation.

Tagore stated at the conclusion of his essay entitled “Kemal Atatürk” that “the vitality he [Atatürk] has induced to Turkey may not come to an end.” Well, the secularism engendered by the Atatürk legacy is still very much present in society. And Neo-Ottomanism also.

As a result, the two factions in today’s Turkish society have quite different goals for the nation. Additionally, given Turkey’s unique geopolitical location, the results of the justconcluded elections and how the West maintains its balance with the Erdogan regime may have a significant impact on world history for a decade, at least.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.)