This week is the first anniversary of the failed coup against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a coup he has used since to further alienate his opponents. Most recently, on 16 April, he won a referendum to become head of state and head of government simultaneously, emerging as the most unassailable Turkish politician since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the secular republic in 1923.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Atatürk shaped Turkey in his own image as a western society. In his Turkey, the state banished religion to the private sphere and discriminated against pious citizens. But since 2003, Erdoğan has dismantled Atatürk’s societal model, flooding political and education systems with rigidly conservative Islam, as well as pivoting Turkey away from Europe and the west.
This is, paradoxically, Erdoğan’s Atatürk side. Of course, Erdoğan does not share his values, just his methods. Just as Atatürk reshaped Turkey, so Erdoğan is building a new country, but one that sees itself as profoundly Islamist in politics and foreign policy – to make it a great power once again.
Erdoğan is an anti-Atatürk Atatürk. As I explain in my book The New Sultan, having grown up in secularist Turkey and faced social exclusion at a young age because of his piety, Erdoğan is motivated by animosity towards Atatürk’s ways. Yet he has dismantled Atatürk’s system by using the very tools that the country’s founding elites provided: state institutions and top-down social engineering.