Updated: Nov 11
For the past month, the streets and skies of Istanbul have been coloured with a sea of red and white flags flapping alongside portraits of a dinner-jacketed man with hair slicked-back from a widow’s peak, who looks like a vampire from a silent movie.
The cause of these variegated festivities is the centennial of the establishment of the Republic of Türkiye on October 29, 1923. The Bela Lugosi lookalike is modern Türkiye’s founding father, the secular, westernising Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
I write this article having returned from the parades which promenaded along the Bosphorus Strait and its banks. As I try to ignore the festive, cacophonous honking of horns and concentrate on getting this filed before my deadline, fireworks begin to light up the domes and minarets of the Istanbul skyline.
However, current events cast a shadow over history. The Turkish government simultaneously organised a mass pro-Palestinian rally on Saturday, while rolling back the scale of the centenary celebrations on Sunday. According to the state broadcaster, the reasons for this scaling down – which involved the cancellation of the foreign delegates’ reception – is in sympathy with people suffering in the Israel-Hamas war.
Critics of the current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believe this is just an excuse. They claim he ordered the rolling back of the celebrations because of his embarrassment about comparisons to his illustrious predecessor. Ideologically, the two have grown poles apart. Where Atatürk was a Western-looking secular-minded liberal, Erdoğan has become an Eastern-facing religious conservative.
Universities have recently hosted conferences and symposia on the last 100 years in Türkiye, and its prospects for the future. Believing that the unexamined life is not worth living, many Turkish scholars presented the past century in a critical light. Many particularly lament the regression of liberalism in Türkiye. It is commented that, over the past two decades of Erdoğan’s tenure in power, liberalism has receded in ways not seen since the pre-1930s era. Further, they warn the ongoing democratic backslide is entering a new phase of what Prof. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu has termed Neo-Patrimonial Sultanism under Erdoğan’s regime.
Erdoğan’s supporters point to the fact that he has transformed Türkiye with various infrastructure projects and investments in defence, health and education. However, whatever gains he has brought to Türkiye on these metrics, his ideological critics are not satisfied. I encountered various groups in the parades shouting slogans for Türkiye to stay secular.
Türkiye’s perennial fate is not to know in which direction it ought to be facing. Culturally, as well as geographically, Türkiye straddles Europe, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and even Central Asia. This Janus nation seems to be perpetually ambivalent about how it views itself, and how it wishes to be perceived.
However, many members of the current generation of scholars claim there is a definite shift towards the establishment of a regional presence. This, it is argued, aligns with the rise of what scholars have termed Neo-Ottomanism – the idea that Türkiye ought to reassert its position in the Middle East, and reclaim its Ottoman legacy.
How many of Türkiye’s 85 million citizens align with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's vision of ‘the century of Türkiye’ is not clear. Despite his vocal critics, he consistently wins elections and plebiscites. What is certain is that no one talking about Türkiye’s future forgets its past.
Happy Centenary to the Republic of Türkiye!