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A Tale of Two Turkeys: Erdoğan vs. Atatürk

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised a shared democratic heritage between the U.S. and Turkey during a visit to the White House Tuesday.

“The relations between Turkey and the United States have been erected upon common democratic values and common interests,” Erdoğan said Tuesday in a joint-press conference with President Donald Trump.

But Erdoğan’s pursuit of increased, centralized power and support for Islam in public life begs the question how deeply he reveres those democratic values that are the legacy of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Modern Turkey as we know it was forged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War under the determined leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. After the Empire’s defeat in the Great War, Atatürk defended present-day Turkey from partition amongst the Allied powers, successfully defeating them in the Turkish War of Independence.

Independence secured, Atatürk proceeded to abolish the Ottoman Empire and institute the Republic of Turkey. As president, he instituted a number of liberalizing religious and social reforms in an effort to create a modern nation-state.

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In April Erdoğan won a nationwide referendum dramatically increasing his power as president. It granted the president new powers over policy, the bureaucracy, and the court system — each an institution left with a degree of independence under the republicans system established by Atatürk.

One of Atatürk’s most important actions was the abolition of the Caliphate. Prior to its destruction, the physical Ottoman Empire effectively doubled as the spiritual Caliphate, with the Ottoman sultan serving also as the Caliph.

“The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past,” said Atatürk in 1924 two days before the Caliphate’s official abolition and roughly a month before Sharia courts in the country were abolished, too.

Atatürk made the secularism of the new Turkish republic a defining facet of the nation’s governing ideology.

Now, just over 90 years later, Erdoğan is bringing Islam back into Turkish public life.

Erdoğan is a founding member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a self-styled moderate Islamist political party. In 2013, Erdoğan ended a controversial ban on public servants’ wearing headscarves. In 2014, Erdoğan reintroduced religious public education programs to the country, turning some secular public schools into Islamic academies.

In October 2016, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs launched a year-long campaign called “Mosque Week.” The campaign’s slogans include “We are going to the mosques, we are reading [the Quran]” and “Let the voice that echoes in your heart be found in the mosque.”

Indeed, the country has seen an explosion in mosque building since Erdoğan took power, and in February the controversial construction of a mosque next to Taksim Square in Istanbul, the location of the famed “Republic Monument.”

Despite his support for returning Islam to the public sphere, it would be a mistake to think of Erdoğan as a Sharia-crazed theocrat: ISIS, al-Qaida, and the Muslim Brotherhood may all wish to see new Caliphates, but Erdoğan appears to simply want the old Ottoman Empire back — secular or not.

Erdoğan and the AKP’s support for soft Islamism has come hand in hand with Turkey’s increasing involvement in the internal affairs of countries that are former members of the Ottoman Empire.

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Together they are the ideology known as neo-Ottomanism (“Yeni Osmanlıcılık” in Turkish). The AKP has used the phrase Osmanlı torunu (Ottoman descendants) to describe both Erdogan himself and the party’s supporters. In 2015, former AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu declared that Turkey “will re-found the Ottoman state.”

Erdoğan’s support for Islamism can only be fully understood in this light. It is likely Erdoğan’s main goal is not to turn Turkey into an Islamic theocracy, but to make other Islamic countries once again look to Istanbul for political leadership.

This was perhaps best on display following the Islamist revolution in Egypt, which overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Erdoğan praised the revolution and compared Mubarak’s overthrow to the Turk’s destruction of the Byzantine Empire, which he called a “dark civilization.”