President Recep Tayyip Erdogan overcame decades-old domination of secularists, who saw themselves as the guardians of the secular Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded and shaped through sweeping top-down Westernization and suppression of religious citizens
In May 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inaugurated a mosque combining Ottoman and modern designs in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. With a capacity for around 4,000 worshippers, Taksim Mosque is not just a place of worship. It is symbolic of Erdogan’s vision for Turkey, dwarfing the monument depicting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s leadership in establishing the secular Turkish Republic in October 1923 after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.
Istanbul’s opera house, a symbol of Ataturk’s era, was demolished when the mosque was going up. The mosque dominates the monuments of Ataturk’s Turkey in what used to be a symbol of the secular republic. It has changed the square’s topography and design to proclaim the country’s Islamic faith and its Ottoman past.
Erdogan inaugurated the mosque eight years after violent protests forced him to shelve the plan to build a shopping mall designed like the Ottoman-era barracks as part of the development of the square. Ataturk Cultural Center, closed in 2008 for refurbishment, was raised in May 2018 as the mosque took shape.
Erdogan has come a long way to shape Turkey in his own image. In 1999, he was jailed for four months and forced to resign as Istanbul’s mayor after a court sentenced him to prison for reciting a poem with Islamic references. Erdogan would form the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; AKP) after his Virtue Party was banned in 2001 on the grounds of engaging in antisecular activities.
Erdogan was up against Turkey’s secularist elite, which dominated institutions such as the military and repressed the religious Turks for decades. The elite saw itself as the guardian of Atatürk’s sweeping top-down Westernization. Atatürk placed religious institutions under state control to limit their role in public life. He banned the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic and promoted nationalism to neutralize the idea of a global Muslim community.
Ataturk, who presided over a single-party autocratic regime of his People’s Republican Party, forbade dissent and sought to transform society through nationalism and secularism. He outlawed men from wearing the traditional fez hat. The headscarf was banned in government offices, hospitals, universities, and schools until Erdogan’s rise to power allowed practicing Muslims the same rights as other citizens.
Atatürk even banned Sufi orders and put mosques under government control. Government officials were mandated to wear European-style brimmed hats. Arabic was banned as part of sweeping measures to end the influence of Islam in education, law, and public administration.
The military would topple elected governments thrice citing its responsibility as the ultimate guarantor of secularism. In 1997, it forced Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out of power for veering away from the secular path. The Turkish Constitutional Court in 1989 annulled a law passed allowing the covering of hair and neck with a headscarf or turban at universities in deference to religious beliefs. It said the law violated constitutional secularism.
Turkey’s secularism was more extreme than the French until Erdogan came to power in November 2002 following an economic crisis a year earlier that wiped out almost all of the established parties of the secularist elite. He expanded religious education and eased rules restricting religious dress. Erdogan widened his support base by promising expanded religious freedoms as part of a democratic reform agenda.
Erdogan’s model was initially viewed favorably in the West as a possible system for the wider Middle Eastern region to emulate. His party was modeled on the conservative Christian democratic parties. It showed pragmatism in religion while insisting Turkey would remain secular. In 2016, AKP leader Ismail Kahraman’s suggestion to remove ‘irrevocable principles’ enshrining secularism from Turkey’s constitution forced Erdogan to distance himself from the idea.
Erdogan’s supporters claim they have their own brand of secularism that challenged Turkey’s foundational militant secularism. Erdogan has maintained his commitment to secularism but not at the cost of those seeking to express their religiosity. He alluded in his 2023 election speeches to ‘the dark period’ when the secular elite marginalized ‘pious’ citizens between the 1920s and early 2000s. His attempt to undercut anger over the cost-of-living crisis and inflation through this seemed to have worked.
Erdogan performed better than what pre-election opinion polls projected. The polls suggested a tight race. But he managed to overcome the anger over the slow response of his government to the earthquake that left 50,000 people dead months before the polls. He maintained popularity among the rural, working-class, and religious voters over developing Turkey, enhancing its global standing, and expanding the rights of devout Muslims wary of a return of suppression at the hands of hardline secularists.
Erdogan is now Turkey’s longest-serving leader who survived a coup attempt. He has been credited with turning the country of 85 million into a global player and a military power. Erdogan has since 2003 transformed Turkish cities and pulled millions of Turks out of poverty. But much of Erdogan’s appeal stems from the democratic reforms that ended restrictions on the public expression of Islam in an overwhelming Muslim majority nation.
Ataturk, however, remains Turkey’s most popular politician over 80 years after he died for saving what was left of the Ottoman Empire from the invading Greeks, the British, the French, and the Italians. His decade-long reign was ruthless as he rebuilt Turkey through sweeping changes. A survey published in August 2023 found 60% of people including supporters of Erdogan’s party considered him Turkey’s most loved historical figure.
Erdogan has been pragmatic enough to co-opt and reframe Ataturk’s legacy while chipping away at parts of it. He has celebrated Ataturk as the Gazi, the war hero who saved Turkey from getting partitioned after the First World War. He envisions a new Turkish century with strategic autonomy, economic expansion, infrastructure development, and nationalism transcending divisions between religious and secular.