The legacy of Kemalism/Republicanism

The legacy of Kemalism/Republicanism

The commemoration of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s death on Nov. 10 has been very spectacular this year. Anything related to the founder of the republic had become the symbol of secularist “resistance” for some time, against the perceived Islamization under the conservative/Islamist governing party. But more than that, it proved that the power of the republican legacy cannot to be easily challenged even among the ordinary folks who have nothing to do with militant Kemalism.

Kemalism, which was once enforced by the state as the official ideology, is being embellished by the civil society nowadays.. Lately, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party started to endorse Atatürk and his historical legacy, with the president cherishing him by referring to him by his last name “Atatürk,” a name adopted after the foundation of the Republic. Before, Erdoğan and his party preferred to refer to him by his first name and title, “Gazi,” meaning war veteran in Turkish, and Mustafa Kemal, as a show of dissent. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said this change was an election tactic rather than a sincere move, as Erdoğan needs a 51-percent majority in the 2019 presidential elections. Nevertheless, it seems that the rising popularity of Atatürk reflects the unbeatable legacy of the republic’s history and its leader.

Islamists and even most of the moderate conservatives have long perceived the secularist, Western modernization of the republic as a Western plot. They offered a revisionist version that proclaimed Atatürk and his Republican friends sacrificed the gains of the War of Independence by compromising with the British and won the political struggle for power at the expense of denouncing the Muslim entity of Turkey and by abolishing the caliphate. In this view, the founding fathers of the republic deserved to be regarded as traitors rather than heroes.

Besides, since the 1980’s, Kemalism became a dirty word for liberal democrats who have been critical of the legacy left by the republican, authoritarian modernization project as the main obstacle stopping democratization in Turkey. Finally, the political vogue turned out to be a coalition of left liberal anti-Kemalism and Islamist/right-wing anti-Kemalism in search for Turkey’s democratization. Things have changed so much since then that now people from different walks of life came closer to appreciating republican values. More than anything else, it emerged that ordinary people do not very much embrace anti-republicanism as it was assumed the contrary by conservative/Islamist politicians and intellectuals.

All attempts to alter the narrative and symbols of the republic and replace them with alternatives have failed. For example, the portrayal of Sultan Abdülhamid II as a historical progenitor and nemesis of Atatürk by conservative/Islamist narratives have so far failed. The revisionist history in general could not achieve popularity despite all efforts. Most recently, although the majority embraced the narrative of popular resistance against the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, the effort of contest with the War of Independence proved futile. Finally, the project of the new Turkey could not engender a strong counter narrative and symbols to compete with the republican, Kemalist ones.

I think it was not only the result of the weakness of the counter narratives, but also the power of the Republican-Kemalist legacy that determined the course of the war of narratives and symbols. In the end, it seems that a majority in Turkey have been intimidated by the militant form of anti-Kemalism/republicanism as much as the rigid understanding of secularist/modernist Kemalism created resentment in the past. But so far, there is hope for the future of secularism and liberal values.

Mustafa Kemal atatürk, Anıtkabir,