The state of Turkey, 100 years on

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 1, 2023
Erdogan, the Ottomans and why it all matters
TWTB collage: Top photo by Michael Jerrard, Unsplash

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The Big Story:

Turkey is marking its hundredth birthday as a secular republic, but rather quietly. Some say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to undermine the secular legacy of the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, because his Justice and Development (AK) party is of an Islamist bent. Such suspicions matter as the Turkish republic begins its second century with a bloody conflict raging in the Middle East and Erdogan trying to present himself as leader of the Muslim world.

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The Backstory:

  • Erdogan’s Turkey, ruled by his AK party for 20 years, is very different from the secular republic founded by Ataturk. Islam has a bigger place in public life than at any time since the Ottoman empire, which Ataturk abolished. Ottoman sultans had laid claim to the title of caliph, spiritual head of Islam, since the early 16th century, ruling a religiously and ethnically diverse empire that extended across today’s Middle East, southeastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa.
  • In Turkey today, official events often begin with prayers and the religious affairs directorate has a bigger budget than most other ministries, in line with Erdogan’s stated goal of creating a “pious generation”. Ataturk dismantled religious schools and replaced shariah law with the Swiss civil code and the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet. Turkish women won the right to vote in national elections in 1934, a decade before their sisters in France.
  • In 2020, Erdogan turned Istanbul’s Byzantine-era church Hagia Sophia into a functioning mosque, reversing Ataturk’s decision to make it a museum that noted both Christian and Muslim legacies.
  • Erdogan has spoken of Ataturk as gazi or war hero who saved Turkey from foreign powers, says Johns Hopkins’ academic Lisel Hintz, but played down his role as a secular reformer.

This Week, Those Books:

  • A funny and tragic novel about 21st century life in an ancient land.
  • An overview of the messy birth of the modern Turkish state.

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