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Erdogan’s dreams of eclipsing Ataturk unfulfilled as Turkish republic turns 100

On the centennial of the Turkish Republic, its citizens are debating the country's evolution and how it measures up to the vision of modern Turkey's deeply secular founder.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is welcomed by an honor guard ahead of the opening of the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Oct. 1, 2023.

This is an excerpt from Turkey Briefing, Al-Monitor's weekly newsletter covering the big stories of the week in Turkey. To get Turkey Briefing in your inbox, sign up here.

Turkey will mark its 100th year as a republic on Oct. 29 with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist leader seen as the antithesis of the country’s militantly secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, at its helm. The question of just how much the country has changed is a matter of intense debate, with opinion on both sides of Turkey’s perennial Islamic-secular divide assessing progress through the lens of religion and its impact on political and social life.

During two decades in power, Erdogan, a professionally trained imam, has been steadily unraveling Ataturk’s secular legacy. Islamists and their erstwhile liberal allies say the soldier-turned-statesman carried modernism to excess through his determined erasure of piety from the public sphere. Erdogan restored society to its natural equilibrium, with covered women no longer banned from parliament and public office and with the number of mosques and religious courses increasing by the day. Critics riposte that secularism and women in particular are under threat like never before. Even as the number of femicides continued to swell, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention that aims to combat violence against women five years after it was ratified by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2012.

“Ataturk would have been very saddened,” asserted Ali Yaycioglu, a historian of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey at Stanford University. Erdogan and the AKP are “after a new supremacist ideal in which adherents of the Hanefi branch of Sunnism are seen as the ‘true owners’ of Turkey,” Yaycioglu told Al-Monitor. At the same time, Erdogan is seeking to create “a new aristocracy around a new dynastic structure, namely his family,” through the creation of a new class of wealthy Turks in hock to his regime, Yaycioglu added.

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