Which Way Is Turkey Going?

The July 12th edition of the New York Times International featured a “Memo From Istanbul” in which the author interviewed Turkish citizens to determine the attitudes of the public regarding severe changes made by the present Turkish administration, in direct opposition to the laws established by the Father of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk, in 1923.

A book-shop owner complained that there is no business. “We feel lost. There’s no energy now. Where it will go from here, we do not know. We are waiting for something, but we don’t know what it is”.

The biggest changes are in the shape of Turkish society and the blame falls upon the autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is destroying the strict secular system established by Ataturk when he became the first President of the modern Turkish Republic in 1923.

Turks are concerned about Erdogan’s establishment of an Islamist regime in place of the Kemalist founding fathers. It is widely believed that Erdogan, a staunch admirer of the old Ottoman Empire regime under a Sultan, wants to return to Ottoman traditions and policies and dreams of re-establishing the caliphate with himself as the new caliph.

One Turkish intellectual, Cengiz Candar, remarked “We used to be the secular republic. Now we don’t know what we are. What project brings us together? What social contract?”

Kemalism was the rule in Turkey from 1923 until Erdogan’s election first as Prime Minister, later as President.

It all began with one man, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, born Ali Reza oglu Mustafa in 1881. In 1908 he was active in the Young Turk Revolution which overthrew the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II and restored a constitutional monarchy. He had been a military officer during the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912), the Balkan wars (1912-1913) and the First World War (1914-1918).

He led the revolutionary movement to end Ottoman rule and on October 29, 1923 he proclaimed the first Republic of Turkey. He began the modernization of Turkey, trying to resemble most European countries. He abolished the Arabic alphabet and created modern Turkish written in Latin letters.

Then he continued to declare Turkey a secular state with a constitution. He abolished the Sultanate, Sharia courts, and Islamic rules and laws. Islamic law was restricted only to religious matters and was 100 % separated from the new secular law codes.

In 1925 Ataturk encouraged the European-style of clothing, instead of Moslem dress. The Turkish red fez was abolished and replaced with Western-style hats. Women were no longer required to cover themselves in Muslim dress and the new civil code gave full freedom to Turkish women for the first time.

He instituted compulsory primary education in public schools for boys and girls and succeeded in turning Turkey into a modern European nation.

He was elected First President of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and ruled until 1938. He is widely beloved and esteemed by the entire Turkish nation and is nationally regarded as the Father of modern Turkey.

He died in November 1938 at the age of 57. Since his death in that year, every Turkish government has ruled by his policies and decisions for political independence. The leaders who succeeded Ataturk are known as Kemalists.

Change came for the first time with the election of Erdogan who wants to change Kemalism to Islamism.

Prior to Ataturk’s death he declared that the Turkish military was to forever be the guardians of the Turkish Republic, a policy which is anathema to Erdogan’s concept of rule and his distaste for the military who he believes wants to undermine him.

An architect, Emine Akarsu told the interviewer that she no longer believed anything the government of Erdogan was telling the people. So the question was asked “Where is Turkey headed”?

Intellectuals and prominent businessmen are leaving Turkey in search of homes in other countries. The favorite choice is Portugal.

Journalists who criticize the regime are often locked up in prisons. Freedom of speech has diminished. Criticism of the president is a crime.

As Erdogan continues to pursue his dream of a revived Ottoman government with himself as caliph in his multi-million dollar palace in Ankara, large numbers of the Turkish population are uncomfortable.

It is, as one Turk described, a storm which would bring damage in its wake. “We have to wait for it to finish, for the air to clear no matter how long it will take. Things can’t go on like this”.

With frequent bomb attacks and a failed attempted coup, Turkey reverts to the name it was once called… the Sick Man of Europe. Sick men often are restored to good health.

Will it be so for Erdogan’s Islamic Turkey?

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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