Today is Republic Day (Cumhuriyet Bayramı) in Turkey, which marks the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. While most Americans would probably assume that Republic Day is like July 4 here and that it is a controversy-free public holiday where people gather with friends and family to celebrate, Republic Day is not quite that simple. Because Turkey’s institutions were created concurrently with Kemalism, a set of challenges arose that continue to this day, and the various controversies playing out on this year’s Republic Day illustrate how unsettled Turkey still is when it comes to the basic issue of what the purpose of the state should be and what role ideology should play.
When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, he did so with clearly thought out ideas about how his new state should be organized and what goals it should seek to attain. Furthermore, unlike in other states where an ideology may be adopted after the institutions of the state are already in place, Atatürk built Turkey’s political and social institutions at the same time that he was installing Kemalism as the state’s official ideology. This enabled him to create structures and rules that were explicitly designed to strengthen and enable Kemalism, meaning that any challenge to the state would unmistakably be a challenge to Kemalism as well. Kemalism was so entrenched and well articulated that its tenets were explicitly written out and incorporated into the ruling CHP’s flag during Atatürk’s tenure so that there was no ambiguity about which theories and actions comported with Kemalism and which did not.
Since ideology was so wrapped up and intertwined with the state itself, it meant that Turkey was unable to convert first order battles over ideology into a lower grade conflict even after the initial transition to democracy after WWII. Any ideological wobble away from Kemalism precipitated a crisis, particularly given the fact that the most important and powerful state institution, the military, saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalism irrespective of which party was in power. Thus, ideological conflict ensured that once ideological fights erupted into the open post-transition, the system was unable to successfully manage them. Lingering ideological issues hampered Turkey’s political development for decades, leading to a cycle of military interventions and shaky returns to civilian government.
Turkey today under Erdoğan and the AKP seems to have broken the pattern of military coups, which is certainly something to be celebrated during this year’s Republic Day. The fights over Kemalism, however, and whether the state should still be pushing a specific ideology that is linked to both secularism and statism (among other things) are very much ongoing. On a positive note, this is the first Republic Day during Abdullah Gül’s time as president that the leaders of the Turkish military are attending the official reception at the presidential palace. The reason that they had not attended in the past was because Gül’s wife Hayrünissa – along with the wives of other top government officials – wears a head scarf, and Kemalism frowned upon head scarves to the point of banning them from government buildings and universities. That top officers are going to the presidential reception this year might partially be a function of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations intimidating the military into changing their behavior out of fear, which is not a good development, but I think that the stronger impulse at work here is an emerging realization that ideological battles need to be put aside and deemphasized in order to make Turkey the strongest and most successful state that it can be.
On the other side of the ledger on this Republic Day is the unfortunate tendency of the AKP government to view ideological challenges as existential threats that require clamping down on freedom of expression. The government banned any Republic Day gatherings at the old Grand National Assembly building, which is closely associated with Kemalism and the founders of the Republic, under the theory that they would devolve into anti-government rallies. As a result, politicians and journalists, including CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, have been sprayed with water hoses and pepper spray today while hundreds, if not thousands, of Turks have been prevented from entering Ankara. This too is a result of the lingering legacy of Kemalism, but unlike the standoff in previous years between Gül and the military, this episode is not being resolved peacefully or amicably, and instead is a reminder of the AKP’s darkening record on freedom of speech. While Republic Day rallies may very well be aimed at criticizing the current government, true democracies are able not only to absorb such criticism but to enable it. As Turks celebrate this Republic Day, they should at the same time hope that future Republic Days remind everyone what an amazing country Turkey is rather than get hung up on still-unresolved issues surrounding Turkey’s ideological legacy.