Marking July 15, let’s not institutionalize polarization in Turkey

Marking July 15, let’s not institutionalize polarization in Turkey

Until the coming to office of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, one can fairly say that Turkey’s national days, putting aside Oct. 29 Republic Day, had basically turned into occasions for holidays, rather than special days when people celebrated Republican values.

Generally speaking, April 23, National Sovereignty and Children Day, marking the inauguration of the Turkish Parliament in 1920; May 19, Atatürk, Youth and Sport Day, marking the date in 1919 when Atatürk set foot in the city of Samsun to start the war of liberation; and Aug. 30 Victory Day, marking the success of the military assault in 1922 saving Turkey from foreign occupation, had until 2002 rather lost their meaning.  

Because Turkey’s former ruling elites often used these days to underline the secular nature of the Republic, these celebrations did not always appeal to the conservative masses. Resentful of certain practices like the headscarf ban, which some saw as an assault on their religious way of life, some felt like they were being forced to celebrate certain values that they did not totally endorse.

A “headscarf crisis” erupted in the first April 23 celebration organized by the AKP after it came to power. The wife of the host of the reception, then parliament speaker Bülent Arınç, wore a headscarf and was unable to attend. Arınç was only able to solve the crisis by saying his wife would not attend the reception.
The “military discipline” nature of the celebrations may also have played a role in their lack of popularity. This had also started to irritate secular masses, annoyed by the lack of creativity in the copy-paste style of repetitions each year. 

Of course, it did not have to be like that. Making April 23 an “international children’s day,” in which children from all over the world would be hosted by their Turkish friends, could have turned that day into a special occasion. Similarly, Youth and Sports Day could have been used as an occasion for youths to motivate their creativity via different projects.

Still, these dates gradually became more important for the secular segments of society in the 1990s.

Subsequently, following the AKP’s consolidation of power after it entered office in 2002, official celebrations of these national days started to be cancelled every year, citing various reasons including security concerns. This was perceived by secular segments as part of concerted efforts by the AKP to undermine republican values. As a result, celebrating these days became more important for many after the arrival of the AKP in government.

New national holiday

Now, we will soon mark the first anniversary of the failed July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. It is not difficult to foresee that the government, under the instruction of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will spare no effort in making the commemorations as sensational as possible. I have heard that municipalities and governors’ offices across Turkey have been instructed to organize festivities over the course of a whole week in public squares.

Turkey certainly passed a “democracy test” by preventing the coup. After more than 249 people were killed on the night of the coup attempt, it certainly needs to be commemorated.

What’s more, I am not one of those who believe the coup was staged by the government. The judicial case is still ongoing, but I think it is generally correct that the coup attempt was organized mainly by the vicious network of the supporters of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.

However, there are still many question marks lingering about what really happened on the night of the coup attempt, why it happened and whether it could have been prevented.

In addition, the massive purge that started in the aftermath of the coup attempt has created many problems in the conscience of many people. While the purging of Gülenists from the state structure was necessary, the fact that it has become so disproportionate overshadows the support given to the government in its fight against what it calls the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ). Secular and liberal segments of society now see that the purge is being used to silence all dissent, while the real people responsible, who opened the doors of the state to the Gülenists, remain unaccountable.

As long as the government remains silent to the many unanswered questions about the coup and does not make any effort to address the perception that the failed coup is being used to further oppress those with a secular way of live, a significant part of society will have a bitter taste during the July 15 commemoration. They will likely not feel a part of it.

But as long as the AKP remains in power, July 15 will officially overshadow all other national days as Turkey’s most important national day. That in turn carries the risk of institutionalizing polarization in the country.