He did not stop smiling for the longest time as he looked out at the crowd in front of him, who couldn’t stop shouting their joy. The man who won the Turkish presidential election for the third time on Sunday, May 28, has demonstrated a keen sense of politics throughout his life. cv At 69, he has been able to impose his words, feel the zeitgeist better than anyone else and stick to his convictions of the moment.
By once again donning the mantle of head of state, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2003, knows he has reached a milestone, a singular marker in Turkey’s turbulent young history.
The passage of the centenary of the Turkish Republic is his, this son of the people, as he likes to describe himself, as are the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of this Turkey founded, on October 29, 1923, by Mustafa Kemal, later called Atatürk, the “father of the Turks,” the “one and only” too. “We have opened the door of the century,” he said to applause as he celebrated, attributing his election success to the battles waged “all together” against the opposition, the traitors, the foreign media, the LGBT community and all those, from here and elsewhere, who have set traps and pitfalls.
He repeated: “Thanks be to God that I was born to lead this people.” And above all: “As I’ve always said, this march of bliss will never stop, we’ll go all the way to the grave together.”
The year 2023 has long been on the president’s horizon. He also occasionally mentions 2053, the 600th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople, and 2071, which will mark the millennium of the arrival of the Seljuks in Anatolia. But this centenary date had become his mantra, a sacred formula scarcely dented by a dizzying economic crisis, a devastating earthquake, increasingly sharp criticism of his authoritarian drift and a re-election that ultimately came down to a run-off for the first time.
This was the date that linked with the Ottoman heritage, all too quickly swept aside by the Kemalist government and its thurifers. It was the date that allowed for a vast reinterpretation of history, and nourished the new national narrative so dear to Erdogan, according to which Turkey has a leading role to play in the concert of nations.
On the president’s website, just a few hours after the newly re-elected leader’s walkabout, it was stated: “Turkey’s century is a roadmap that will take our country above the level of contemporary civilizations.”
This says it all. Since his accession, the Turkish president has gradually added to his early pragmatism an ideological anchoring, a form of mystical metaphysics as deeply desired as it is intensely expressed.
Exalting the Turkish and Muslim genius, reviving the sultans and certain figures of the Republic, rediscovering the memory of the imperial past and condemning the colonialist West: Over the years, Erdogan has put in place a formidable soft power, a mobilizing narrative based on a manifest dramatization of the national narrative and a neo-Ottoman-inspired desire for rebirth. It’s an almost organic fusion of politics, ideology and history, obviously to the detriment of the latter.
As recently as October 9, two days after the Hamas attacks on Israel, the president publicly claimed that Palestine had become a place of tension, tears, occupation and pain since the Ottoman Empire withdrew from the region during the First World War.
This obsession with 2023, in the words of Jean-François Pérouse, co-author, with Nicolas Cheviron, of Erdogan. Nouveau Père de la Turquie? (“Erdogan. The new Father of Turkey?”), “reflects his desire to take his place in the great republican story in the same way, if not slightly more, than the founding father. Erdogan sees himself as the refounding father of the Turkish Republic, as the fashionable expression ‘New Turkey’ seems to suggest. A new ‘father of the Turks’ in short.”
His version of new is not in terms of erasing Atatürk, but of surpassing him. “If, at the start of his career,” said the two specialists, “the young Erdogan allowed himself to be publicly critical of the founding father, once he himself had become part of the system and installed in the state apparatus, he showed deference to the man who founded the republic.” With restraint, of course – the president has always refused to mention Atatürk’s name, preferring to use the qualifier gazi, the “war veteran” – but all the same:
Erdogan, champion of political Islam who became pro-European for a time before donning the tribune-like garb of a nationalist allied with the far right, is a master of the art of reversal and to-and-fro.
Each period has its own references and figures of speech, not only to establish his own stature as a leader, but also to give a veneer and depth to his national “heritage,” nourished by a variable mix of Turkish and Islamic identities.
Essayist Mehmet Altan repeated, not without humor, that although “the country is obsessed with history, Turkish memory lasts barely 23 days.”
It’s a figure he says he found in an old study that purports to be scientific, but whose interest lies less in the method of calculation than in the very nature of the result.
In a Turkey where contemporary history is not, strictly speaking, taught – in the final year of secondary school, history is replaced by a course on the principles and reforms of Atatürk – “it’s easy to understand this overflowing desire on the part of leaders, whatever the era, to constantly reinvent history by filling in its gaps and flaws with their own narratives, an exercise in which the current president particularly excels.”
In the words of Ottoman historian Olivier Bouquet, Erdogan is “Turkey’s enchanter-in-chief.”
It’s at this point that you can realize just how well Erdogan has been able to play, right up to the present day, with this Turkish disease, admirably defined by Edhem Eldem, professor at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University and holder of the Chair of Turkish and Ottoman History at the Collège de France: “Turkey is a ‘clioman’ and a ‘cliopath’ [Clio, in Greek mythology, was one of the nine Muses, the patron of history], both mad about history and sick of it,” he said, at his inaugural lecture, December 21, 2017.
“It is insane in its insistence on attributing a political and ideological mission to history, sickened by “its myths and inventions,” Eldem said, “but above all by its fears, complexes, silences, taboos, denials and negationism, revealing an extremely unhealthy, sometimes aggressive, often childish relationship to any narrative that dared to question the slightest aspect of the doxa then in force.”
The real surprise of the May elections was not the defeat of the Kemalist opposition candidate, but the fact that Erdogan won, despite his obvious responsibility for the mismanagement of the economy. How does one transcend such a blunder? Well, with ideology and sentiment, synonymous in Turkey with nationalism, religion and all things identity-related.”
Eldem said: “More broadly, since the European rejection of Turkey’s candidacy (2007), the [anti-Erdogan] Gezi revolt (2013), the failed coup d’état (2016), there is, in fact, a desire to construct a vision of the past that is politically useful, that meets the expectations of a certain silent majority, making it possible to counter the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main political rival. As this party is and always has been bogged down in ideology, doctrine and history, there’s nothing more natural than to see the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) embark on a parallel, virtually mirror-image construction.”
To understand the intellectual dynamics used by Erdogan and the consequences of these successive mutations, it’s necessary to take a boat from Istanbul, a twice-weekly shuttle (Saturdays and Sundays only), and go to the former islet of Yassiada, one of the nine islands of the Adalar archipelago (Princes’ Islands), located in the Sea of Marmara.
Renamed by the president himself on May 27, 2020, the “Island of Democracy and Freedom” is a precipice of official history, with its own museum, memorial sites, narratives and dramatizations. A closed space, all stone and concrete, where Erdogan insisted on personally inspecting all the panels of this memorial route, conceived as Turkey’s long and arduous march towards democracy.
In Byzantine times, the small island served as a place of confinement for political prisoners. In 1960, after the military coup d’état, the island was the venue for the trials of the leaders of the Democrat Party, the first group to win back power in a landslide from the Kemalist CHP. Prime minister Adnan Menderes was tried here and sentenced to death the following year. Today, the island is dedicated to this man, who is one of the main figures in Erdogan’s pantheon.
On various occasions, Erdogan has recounted the moment when, as a child, he discovered photos in Hayat magazine of Menderes hanging from the gallows, executed by the junta on September 17, 1961. The images showed the prime minister dressed in a white shroud, his hands tied behind his back.
“I didn’t understand much at the time,” he said. “But I saw that my father and mother were very upset to see the man who had served so well led to his death.” The future president was 7 years old and wept at the sight of his father in tears. Looking back, he would say that they had cried together because of the scandalous injustice of the trial. It was a seminal moment for the young Erdogan, which would not prevent him from advocating, many years later, the reinstatement of capital punishment, even though it had been abolished when he came to power.
As soon as they step onto the pontoon, visitors are greeted by the first quotation, in large black letters, from President Erdogan: “The torch of democracy that Menderes and his companions lit, passed from one hand to another, carried higher every day, has eventually reached us today.”
The parallel drawn between the two men is clear from the outset.
The “Menderes years,” between 1950 and 1960, represented a time when Kemalist ideology was challenged by an apostle of the market economy and religious freedom, in a country emerging from three decades of forced secularism and statism. Menderes was the first democratically elected head of government to be executed by the military. He was also the first to push for a liberalization of the faith. In 1954, in the middle of an election year, he told his party’s representatives that “if they wanted, we could re-establish the caliphate.”
One of his first actions was also to push 275 of the 300 generals into retirement.
In the rewriting of national history proposed by the various memorial sites reconstituted on the island, “the former prime minister is set up as a martyr of freedom and democracy in the face of Kemalist circles, even though he came from a conservative current within the CHP,” said researcher Jeanne Léna, in an article published by the Observatoire de la Vie Politique Turque.
“This memory carries nationalist and religious values, and is part of a broader symbolic politics. The dramatization here insists on the heroism of the character: his popularity as prime minister, his moral, religious and patriotic exemplarity and his resilience during his imprisonment.”
Referring to the snapshot of Menderes in the dock during his trial, Erdogan once said, “from the Gezi events to the judicial-security coup attempt of December 17-25 [2013, referring to the corruption scandal in which four ministers were implicated], we have time and again been subjected to intimidation attempts similar to this photo.”
He equates various forms of questioning of his government with anti-democratic attacks, the better to discredit them,” said the researcher. “Menderes fits into the repertoire of figures with whom Erdogan identifies politically, tracing a lineage from the mythical Ottoman sultans Abdul Hamid II or Mehmed II, to Turgut Ozal,” the man who opened Turkey to the liberal economy in the 1980s.
For Danish historian Mogens Pelt, quoted in German journalist Çigdem Akyol’s recent book Die Gespaltene Republik (“The Divided Republic”), Erdogan was convinced that Menderes was killed by people who also wanted to suppress him – the deep state, the military, secular Kemalists and judges.
“For conservative politicians like Erdogan, Menderes was executed for his convictions. His hanging has led to a kind of idealization of his politics. His confused economic orientations and his crackdown on critical voices have been erased.”
To take just one example: 867 journalists were sentenced by the courts during Menderes’ time. This piece of information is absent from the island.
This is followed by the trial room of the prime minister and his collaborators, a space entirely recreated in the gymnasium of the time, with a courtroom and life-size mannequins. The heavy charges brought against him at the time are displayed, one by one, on the walls: Menderes was accused of violating the Constitution and of being behind the 1955 Istanbul pogrom against the Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities.
And then, at the back, almost underground, the labyrinthine Museum of Democracy, with its short texts, overflowing iconography and that impression of having wanted to embrace everything definitively, with, as a finale, photos of President Erdogan surrounded by smiling children.
The museum begins with the advent of democracy in the 19th century. While the museum devotes considerable space to Kemal, presenting the AKP’s rise to power in 2002 as a decisive step forward, Abdul Hamid II is given a special place in the museum’s display. With reconstructed scenes, paintings and stories, everything is done to give a very personal importance to this other inspiration for the current head of state.
Abdul Hamid II is also considered a reformer. The first Constitution was adopted at the beginning of his reign. However, this was suspended after the 1878 debacle against Russia. The Sultan dissolved Parliament and dismantled the institutions of the rule of law. Basing his policies on Islam, he tried to win over Muslim populations and strengthen his power in the Arab provinces. In Europe, he earned the nickname “Red Sultan” or “grand saigneur,” (a play on the words “lord” and “blood” in French) as Anatole France called him, for his autocratic rule and the massacres of Armenians in the 1890s.
“Already after the war, in the 1950s, with Menderes and his party drawing on Islam as the ferment of their opposition to the Kemalists, something clicked, feeding the discourse of Kemalism’s critics with a slightly more Islamizing history, as well as publications glorifying the Ottoman past, in particular the reign of Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), who became a kind of anti-Kemal,” said Professor Eldem. “Today, the infatuation with the character has become such that we deny his colossal territorial losses!”
It was under Hamid’s reign that the empire had to separate itself from Tunisia, Egypt, Cyprus and Thessaly.
“Moreover, what seems to be particularly pleasing is not so much the fact of uniting all Muslims, as is heard just about everywhere, but that of having stood up to the West,” said the historian.
“Didn’t Abdul Hamid II slap the British ambassador?” It was a gesture fraught with meaning, and with crystal-clear symbolism. “With him, a Turkish conception of the modern state was born: a state ruled with an iron fist, by an individual or, at most, by two or three people, who have an almost sacred right over the state and all the machinery of power that goes with it. As such, he is the true founding father of Turkey.”
It is the ideal legacy, in a way, in line with the current government. This is all the more reason to understand the gradual disappearance of the notion of Kemalist “revolution” from official discourse, in favor of Kemal’s “reforms,” a term less blunt and more conciliatory with this rediscovered past.
Translation of the original article, published in French on Le Monde.
This is a shortened version of the original translation.
The views and opinions expressed above are those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.