Erdoğan’s neo-Kemalism: An old Gaullism?
n my article on Nov. 13, I wrote the following: “Neo-Kemalism is a blend of the founding will and modern necessities for national sovereignty, prosperity and peace.”
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has endorsed this new modeling. References to Atatürk are blooming. Nationalistic political discourse is gradually taking root. This is part of a state-level initiative and it is largely about reshaping Turkey’s raison-d’état in order to tackle new national and regional challenges.
Nonetheless, Turkey is also experiencing a conservative shift in societal domains. Issues related to the education system and the military still raise concerns in traditional republican circles. The new national curriculum, for example, includes several Islamic features such as “jihad” while excluding evolution. Soldiers’ meal prayer in military barracks has also changed, with the word “God” (“Tanrı” in Turkish) being replaced by the word “Allah.”
Social conservatism is the main reason why I tend to label the new paradigm “neo-Kemalism” and not just “Kemalism.” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not converted to Kemalism. But the international agenda has imposed the necessity of rediscovering certain aspects of the old Kemalist practice. What’s more, the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt activated significant segments in the state apparatus and enabled them to put pressure on Erdoğan to revivify Atatürk’s memory. In this sense, the neo-Kemalist paradigm symbolizes a common effort between the long-standing bureaucracy and the ruling party to find a third way, moving away from old antagonisms.
Pandora’s box has been opened in Turkey. Kurds, Alevis and conservatives no longer accept living under the old Kemalism’s harsh dominion. Radical republicans also know that they would not survive in such conditions. Politics cannot tolerate an anachronism. Cohabitation is possible as long as these different groups agree on minimal settings.
For a long time in Turkey, Atatürk’s name was almost sanctified and divinized. In the last several years, however, it has been mostly underestimated. Whereas the first provoked collective boredom, the second cultivated nostalgia and yearning. It is now time to place the “Atatürk brand” in its right frame.
Just as French Gaullism (derived from the principles and policies of Charles de Gaulle), neo-Kemalism would no longer reflect a rigid ideology, but rather a state of mind. Sensitive on issues such as national independence and sovereignty, Gaullism was very pragmatic in essence; it adapted itself to different circumstances and gained popular esteem. Gaullism also advocated a somewhat authoritarian democracy, centralizing state power, republican pluralism, social liberalism and conservative values. De Gaulle is mainly admired for his “idea of the state,” an aggregate of political manners, traditions and attitudes rather than inflexible dogmata.
Today, de Gaulle is neither hallowed nor undervalued. But his name remains alive and his memory respected. If Turkey’s neo-Kemalism can voluntarily model its patterns on the Gaullist “idea of the state” then maybe it will have a chance to forge Turkey’s future in the 21st century. If not, history will handle the task on its own.