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Türkish Spring or Erdoğan's Winter?

By Hatice Sitki - posted Friday, 28 June 2013

Where have all the Atatürk badges gone? You know the ones…with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's bust on them, smiling at you and urging you to follow him in his foot-steps? Once you could buy one for your jacket lapel at every street corner while rummaging among the lighters, pens, and those pesky little packets of tissues. No one seems to be selling them anymore. I asked one old-timer sitting at Istiklal Caddesi, on my way to the Grand Bazaar, if he had any Atatürk badges. He shook his head without uttering a word. As I walked off disappointed, he called after me. He pulled out a bag full of Atatürk badges hidden beneath all his personal belongings. Like the badges, Atatürk's image has somehow disappeared from shop-walls or any commercial places you go into. Once upon a time Atatürk's image was ubiquitous. Now verses from the Koran in Arabic adorn those walls instead. Only the antique dealers are selling those Atatürk badges now.

What has happened to Atatürk and his image that is it forced into second place after Islam in Türks' hearts? The recent uprising at Taksim Square – the so-called, Türkish Spring – has a lot do to with Türkey's changing national identity. After nearly three weeks of sustained protesting, the Taksim Movement is not really about green spaces or environment issues in Istanbul, given that it has spread to 48 other cities as well. These uprisings on the surface are about the AK Party and about Erdoğan in particular. But it goes a lot deeper than both factors. Taksim protests have put Türkey on the 'Spring' list like Egypt's Arab Spring in rejecting an Islamist government.

After eleven years of AK Party, something had to give. These protestations have made it very clear what choices are on offer: you are a Moslem first, and Türk second. Republicanism versus Islamism…Erdoğan versus Atatürk…and all in one breath! The Republic is being changed from the inside – and has been changing for the last eleven years because of Erdoğan. The Taksim construction is Erdoğan resurrecting the old Osman Empire military barracks that Atatürk's successors raised in 1940. Perhaps Atatürk had a premonition of this kind of internal attack when he urged his Tribe to 'defend your independence and the Republic' from internal and external foes.


Erdoğan would like us to believe that these attacks on him personally and on his government are by Kemalist; middle-class elites; Alevis; alcoholics; and anti-Islamists; looters who are marginal and differ ideologically form his government's Islamist perspective. But are these protestors really made up these one-dimensional stereo-typed characters hell-bent on destroying the government or Erdoğan personally?

Bilge University's recent poll of the protestors found that the majority of protestors did not belong to any political party, organisation, or have any affiliation with any political ideology. Out of the 3,000 surveyed, 92.4 percent replied that they were objecting to Erdoğan – the person and not his AK Party. They objected to his party five years ago but not this time. Taksim has confirmed a major shift in Türks' mentality – even if these protestors are only 50 percent of the population.

Their dissatisfaction has narrowed this time, to firmly and resolutely rest on Erdoğan. Has time come, after eleven years of power for Erdoğan to rival Atatürk in the popularity contest? The Taksim uprising seems to say resounding 'no'. Atatürk is being re-defined, to be sure, but not to step aside for Erdoğan's popularity, as these sustained protests are proving. This time, Atataürk is being re-defined to reflect Türkey's twin directions – in Middle East and Europe.

Erdoğan has already changed Türkey's internal identity in subtle ways that have thus far gone unnoticed and largely unquestioned. Take the New Türkish Lira for example. On 1 October 2005, two years after Erdoğan came into power, Atatürk's features were presented as more bloated, more rounded – well, more 'alcoholic'. He'd been retired from his military duties of defending his Tribe from inside and outside enemies. But something else was changed on the New Lira that went equally unnoticed: the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen's crescent and star logo that is on his newspaper (Bugün Gaztesi) and TV station (KanalTürk) were added behind Atatürk's image – for him to silently accept and endorse Islam as promoted by Gülen and Erdoğan.

The next change to the Türkish national identity came when Erdoğan re-aligned Türkey's foreign policy towards Middle East – and in particular to Islamic nations. Türkishness shifted form being 'one-ness' to being 'multi-ness'. Gone were the Republic's 'one' policy of one race, one leader and one nation…to be replaced by 'multi-ness' of the Osman Empire. Türks were asked to define themselves by their faith first and their race second. They were no longer part of the Türkic ethnic group, but became 'one' in multitudes of Islamic nation-states. Erdoğan, showed the way, when he declared that he is a 'Moslem first, and a Türk second'.

An alarming thought about Erdoğan's re-alignment of Türkey's foreign policy away from Europe is he thinking of using Türkish army for intervention purposes in the Middle East? His recent rebuke to Syria 'If you want peace, prepare for war' is an example of his intention to use military might in Middle East. Unsurprisingly, Metropol found that 76 per cent of Türks are opposed to any military intervention on Arab soil.


Like the Osman Empire and the Republic afterwards, Erdoğan has been looking for ways to give longevity to his eleven year rule. One way for Erdoğan to achieve this was to leap-frog over the Republic's identity and promote Osman Empire's internal identity instead. The message is clear: after a brief Republic hiccup, the Osman Empire is alive and well with us.

As a confirmation, you now see promotion of all things Osmanli at the expense of the Republic's identity. Alarming; simply alarming. There are Osman cuisine menus – with no tomatoes; Osman restaurants; or the recent plan to rebuild the Osman barracks that caused the Taksim backlash; or naming a hospital 29th May, after Sultan Mehmet's conquest of Istanbul on that date. Then there are lots of statues either of Islamic scholars, or of Osman Sultans in prominently in public places…that slowly push Atatürk's lonely bust out of sight, and hopefully, out of Türks' minds.

There is something very wrong with this master-plan. Erdoğan's so-called military are staunchly pro-Republic and largely unsupportive of him and his party. Irrespective of which military general Erdoğan has replaced to be sympathetic to him or to his government, the majority of the military remain true to their role as guardians of the Republic, as per Atatürk's edict.

So far the military has managed to stay in the background in this drama – nonetheless they remain at the heart of it. Erdoğan has threatened to call the army to quell these protestors. He believes that the army will cast aside its 'traditionally accepted' role as the guardians of the Republic/Atatürk's legacy and support him and his government. The police, or as they are called, the security force, continue to act violently against all the protestors. They are inadvertently making the military an attractive and a 'democratic' option. Their almost neutral stance is in sharp contrast to Erdoğan's dictates to the populace about how they must behave, eat, drink and how many children they must have. There are several factors that are driving Erdoğan to tighten his grip on his power, while those around him are urging conciliatory behaviour towards the protestors. He has much to gain financially if the Taksim construction project goes ahead; then there is his party's rule that limits prime minister candidacy to three terms. So he must either change the constitution or swap the roles with President Abdullah Gül (something he would be loathe to do) again for 2015; and if his cancer remains under control, to be in power either as a president or prime minister for the Republic's centenary in 2023. His recent decision to organise a major rally of his AK Party supporters from Sincan in Ankara, to mark the last military intervention on 28th February 1997, is no coincidence but is seen as a deliberate act of belligerence.

It makes no difference how these protests end now. The damage is done: to the AK Party and to Erdoğan's unblemished reputation. He is now openly seen as fallible and his leadership is acknowledged as authoritative, dictatorial and undemocratic. Even Erdoğan's staunchest supporter Gülen has voiced his criticism of his handling of the uprising.

As for his party, the whole Taksim episode has made many Türks question the government's role in their lives – whether they had voted for the AK Party or not. Economic prosperity, they believe, is not enough without the 'democratic rights' they enjoyed under the Republic. Like the internal attacks on the Republic, the attack on Erdoğan's leadership may come internally, from one of his party comrades who will depose him to save the party and prevent the country from plunging into full civil war. If the army is called to rescue Erdoğan and his government will they do it over their oath to Atatürk and the Republic – or use the opportunity to intervene and restore 'democracy'. This will indeed be Erdoğan's Winter…but it will bring back those Atatürk badges for sale at every street corner again.

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About the Author

Dr Hatice Sitki is the Founder and Director of SERSA Myths and Symbols Consulting. Dr Sitki has come up with Branding National Myths and Symbols BNMS, as a way to Reach and achieve greater audience involvement and participation in such areas as national and local tourism, indigenous affairs, legislative rights, marketing, promotion of national cultures and arts, multiculturalism, to name a few areas that BNMS can be applied to.

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