Today is Republic Day in Turkey. Although no political movement of any significance, even those enamored of an imaginary Ottomanism, questions the Republican character of the Turkish state, the day’s symbolism serves to divide rather than unify the country nowadays. This divisiveness stems from a long simmering conflict over the character of the Republic particularly over the role of religion in the Republic’s core identity. On this issue the public is split. Under the long rule of a political party that has its pedigree in Turkey’s Islamist movement this split has grown deeper. Furthermore, the split has to do with the deinstitutionalization of Republican order and the personalization of decision-making.
The current contestation is different from previous incarnations of this split though in that the upholding of the principle of secularism is no longer in the custody of the self-appointed guardians of the Republic. The rigid understanding of laicité held by the military and the bureaucratic elite that has also served to protect a well-entrenched power structure that was not democracy friendly has faded as the relevant issue. Today’s contestation stems from the desires of a secularizing and individualizing society, an overwhelming majority of whom live in metropolitan centers and demand to be recognized as citizens and not just as voting subjects.
This dynamic invests Republic Day with a deeper meaning. In fact, it also reconfigures the image and political personality of the Republic ‘s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is the only political figure who can still withstand the power and appeal of Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan who has prevailed over all his political opponents so far, from his resting place. The enthusiasm with which massive numbers of ordinary citizens visit his Mausoleum particularly on Republic Day and on the anniversary of his death re-shape Atatürk’s memory and image with the aspirations of a young population that seeks to remain open to the world.
The founders of the Republic, most notably its driving force and first President Mustafa Kemal were committed Westernizers. Arguably they had no illusions as to how hard it would be to succeed in this project in an exhausted country. The radicalism of the Republican project, beyond the measures that were taken for modernizing it such as the subjugation of religion under political authority to help promote the project, the abolition of the Caliphate, the political equality of women, the changing of the alphabet, was this audacity to seek the realization of the project.
As in all such nation and state building projects the high ideals of the project and practices did not always match. On freedom - individual and political - the record remained at best patchy. Once the founding period was over, the rigidities of national identity, restrictions on citizenship were not repaired. The quest for constitutional equality and protection of all under the rule of law was hampered time and again despite valiant struggles by generations of idealists and political activists. There were always too many internal challengers or enemies for democratization to be given full force.
Yet the ideals remained. In the process the Republic managed to mobilize the energies of a young generation, built institutions and established principles for public service as well as shaping a public education system that served as a ladder for bright kids from poorer families in more remote parts of the country.
In foreign policy the Republic wanted to be part of “contemporary civilization” which meant being part of the European and later Transatlantic order as a sovereign and equal participant. The post-World War II period provided the opportunity and Turkey became a member of all European institutions and NATO both for security and “civilizational” reasons. The icing on the cake for the project, particularly as the Cold War came to an end and security concerns could no longer block the desire for liberalization and democratization was going to be membership in the European Union. It was not to be. For many Turks who worked hard to make the project a reality, the disappointment was real.
The disappointment, in fact the disillusionment, had plenty of sources: the Europeans dropped the ball in the first minutes of the game looking for ways to renege on the promise they made. The Turkish government took advantage of the process to consolidate its rule and dropped its ball when it was no longer expedient to continue. These are both true although the European side is not ready to recognize its lack of consistency, for lack of a kinder word, in its dealings with Turkey. Whereas the Turkish counterparts in society recognize readily their shortcomings on their part of the bargain. The lack of a show of solidarity with the Turkish public on the part of European leaders, during and immediately after the bloody coup attempt of July 15, 2016 whatever their doubts and reservations about the nature of the event, was a big letdown.
But the most important conclusion many Western oriented and committed Europeans within Turkey drew was that the European side would not deal with them as equals. On the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall this is also the lament of many Central and Eastern European countries as well as East Germans for whom, as they say, the “integration process was more like a process of colonization”.
So, on this Republic Day, most Turks recognize that they are mostly on their own. The urban electorate, the public that owns the founding principles of the Republic proved their mettle during the municipal elections of 2019, when against serious odds in an unfair and uneven electoral environment they prevailed. Today for the first time in a quarter of a Century the capital Ankara and the economic, cultural, artistic and social capital of the country, Istanbul will celebrate Republic Day under mayors who adhere to the Republican project. And the difference will show.
When leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked by those outside what kind of system the delegates had agreed upon. His response was a classic, and very relevant for today’s America as well: “A Republic if you can keep it”. We will.