As it does every year, public discourse on Turkish social networking sites (SNS) during November revolved around the legacy of the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who died on November 10, 1938. Secular users, who call themselves Atatürkists, occasionally organize network campaigns to express their love for and loyalty to the Turkish leader, and further increase their activity in November. Their activity is exploited, among other things, to spread sarcastic messages against the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is known for his harsh statements against Atatürk’s legacy. Surprisingly, Erdoğan chose to adopt a different approach this year, and showed a sympathetic attitude toward Atatürk, in a way that stunned both his supporters and his opponents.
One of the most prominent expressions of Erdoğan’s attitude toward Atatürk came in a speech he made in the Turkish parliament in 2013, when he served as prime minister. In that speech, Erdoğan called for reducing the consumption of alcohol by referring to the Islamic ban on alcoholic beverages. His opponents accused him of wanting to enact the law to reduce alcohol consumption because he is an Islamist. In response, Erdoğan harshly criticized the secular camp, saying “they see no problem obeying the law enacted by ‘the two drunks,’ but refuse to obey the divine law.” According to the secularists, Erdoğan purposely used a term that disparages Atatürk and his right-hand man, İsmet İnönü, and would not explicitly call them by name. In a retort to the strident responses to his speech, Erdoğan denied, in a live broadcast, the charges that he had defamed Atatürk. In the same breath, he sent a clear message to his supporters when he refrained from using the family name of the founder of the Republic, Atatürk, which means “father of the Turks.” Instead, Erdoğan, who considers the Ottomans to be his forefathers, chose to call Atatürk by another of his names, “Gazi,” an honorary title awarded to war heroes who were wounded in the line of duty during a military campaign. This divided Mustafa Kemal, the soldier who saved the country from the Allied occupation, from Atatürk, who carried out the profound reforms that turned Turkey into a secular state.
Erdoğan’s cloaked verbal attacks peaked in 2014 when he became president of Turkey and declared the establishment of a “new Turkey.” His opponents criticized him and argued that unlike the “old Turkey,” the new one was not required to fight for its existence. A talented politician, Erdoğan inverted this criticism when he faced the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, which he called the “War of Independence” of the “new Turkey.” In other words, the new Turkey also gained its place and rights through heroic struggle.
The tense atmosphere between the secular camp and Erdoğan’s supporters, which continued into early November, changed its character following the exceptional, pro-Atatürkist speech he gave on November 6. In his speech, he announced his decision to rebuild the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) in Istanbul’s Taksim Square without changing the name of the center, using the family name “Atatürk,” and refrained from the nicknames he previously used when referring to the founder of the Republic. This move surprised the masses and soon became the most-discussed topic on Turkish SNS. His supporters, though stunned, backed Erdoğan, claiming that the president had always respected Atatürk. The president’s opponents, on the other hand, doubted the truth of his statements, but expressed joy at the decision to leave the name of AKM intact. The masses were surprised again on November 10 when Erdoğan repeated Atatürk’s name on the anniversary of his death, and eulogized him saying, “Alongside commemoration, the Turkish people are obliged to understand Atatürk’s legacy.” Erdoğan did not stop with these remarks, and eulogized him again in a tweet declaring his respect for the memory of the founder of the Republic and the supreme commander in the War of Independence, on the 79th anniversary of his death (pictured).
Many secular users reacted sarcastically to Erdoğan’s remarks and ridiculed him by claiming that he, too, had “finally internalized the right path.” On the other hand, there were quite a few others who sharply criticized the president and accused him of “taqiyya,” which means presenting a false agenda for the success of a covert agenda (the concept is mostly used in the context of Shi’i behavior in a hostile environment), which they suggest he will reveal after the elections in 2019. From their perspective, Erdoğan is using Atatürk as an electoral card in order not to lose votes from the nationalist camp on ideological grounds, and they declared that they do not believe “Erdoğan’s U-turn in Atatürk Avenue.”
Among Erdoğan’s supporters, there were those who quickly adopted the president’s position, as expressed in the Tweeted declaration of their loyalty to, and love for, the founder of the Republic. When this content reached the hands of secular users, they launched a campaign of mockery against “the new admirers of Atatürk,” who they called “two-faced.” Among those included in this category are a famous couple, journalists Nagehan Alçı and Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı, whose pictures were shared on SNS after they broadcast statements of respect for Atatürk, even though Alçı had previously dubbed him “the tyrant,” and Kütahyalı had once claimed that the founder of the Republic would receive only 30 percent of the votes if he were to run against Erdoğan. Users also uploaded parallel videos of journalist Turgay Güler, a well-known supporter of Erdoğan. One, taken last year, shows Güler mocking Atatürk Memorial Day ceremonies; in the other, taken after Erdoğan’s sympathetic statements about Atatürk, Güler was seen singing the famous Izmir Hymn, which includes the words “Long live Mustafa Kemal Pasha – Long live!” Severe criticism was also heard of media affiliated with the Erdoğan camp, particularly the newspaper Güneş, which dedicated its first page on November 10 to marking a national day of mourning. Users compared the way the day of mourning was presented there last year, when it received only marginal attention.
Erdoğan, who is known for shaping his election strategy according to public opinion polls, has refrained from attacking Atatürk’s image this year, apparently because he has internalized that it does not serve him politically. It seems that despite the bitter rivalry with the nationalist camp, his strategic ambition is not to dismantle it, but rather to pave the way for forging strong alliances with it, which will survive even after the elections in 2019. This proves once again that despite Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership and unquestioning rule, Atatürk’s image remains adored, notwithstanding the profound erosion of his status.