Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

The legacy of Atatürk

Why Turkey is Authoritarian. From Atatürk to Erdogan
Forfatter: Halil Karaveli
Forlag: Pluto Press (England)
The man who founded Turkey as a modern state in 1923 did so on authoritarian grounds. Thus, Erdogan and Atatürk are just two cubits out of one piece, claims Halil Karaveli.


For a long time, it was a widespread attitude among observers and analysts that Recip Erdogan's goal was to strengthen Turkey's democracy. It was seen as an important prerequisite for Turkish membership of the EU, and in his efforts to create a more open society with a free and democratic debate, he also took cautious steps to recognize the Armenian genocide.

But then came the apparent turning point. In May, 2013 demonstrated environmentalists against the public building plans in Gezi, a large green breather in central Istanbul. Authorities responded with unprecedented brutality, but protests spread to large parts of the country. Quickly, it was all about freedom of speech, assembly, and everything else but a piece of local urban planning. A total of 14 protesters lost their lives, and it is striking that they all came from the country's Alevite minority.

Authoritarian tradition

The year before, President Barack Obama had mentioned Erdogan as one of the five global leaders he associated with friendship and trust, and suddenly the Turkish leader showed this authoritarian face. While Obama had thus lost a friend, the world began to speculate on what had caused Erdogan to embark on this radical course change, away from democracy.

Erdogan is authoritarian right down to his own political foundation, but this tradition goes right back to Kemal Atatürk.

For Halil Karaveli, however, the answer is obvious. He is an analyst at the Swedish-American think tank Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and describes in his new book Why Turkey is Authoritarian how Erdogan is not only authoritarian right down to his own political foundations, but that he also basically continues a tradition that goes right back to Kemal Atatürk. Karaveli convincingly argues that the man who founded Turkey as a modern state in 1923 did so on authoritarian grounds, and that he and Erdogan are therefore two pieces out of the same cubicle.


The explanation is that the Ottoman Empire was a multiethnic society. In a completely different way than in Europe, the minorities were taken into account, which is immediately a positive feature. Nor did the empire have any extensive proletariat, neither a landless commons nor serfs as we saw it in ourselves. The government had always protected the small farmers and their right as landowners, and had similarly prevented the emergence of a powerful landowner class.

However, this led to a problem. Where European landowners in many cases expanded to become enterprising merchants as well, because their crops had to be sold, this function was lacking in Ottoman society. This is where the multiethnic comes into the picture. For an early tradition arose for Christians and Jews to take care of the trade in goods, and in this way a well-established non-Muslim merchant bourgeoisie came into being. When industrialization took hold, it also led to about 80 percent of all large companies being in Christian or Jewish hands, simply because this was where they had the funds to invest.

Muslim middle class

The relationship gained central importance when we arrived at the Young Turkish Revolution and Kemal Atatürk. He secularized Turkey, introduced the Latin alphabet, and initiated a series of initiatives that apparently led Turkey toward Europe and modern democracy. But Karaveli argues that the revolution was primarily rooted in deep nationalism, and that the showdown was more than anything of an ethnic nature.

Many of the revolutionary sentiments were directed at the well-to-do non-Muslim bourgeoisie. It is therefore a mistake to describe the revolution as socio-economic. It was carried by a bourgeois radicalism, because an important goal was to create a prosperous middle class, which was to be ethnic Turks. And this was synonymous with Muslims, although secularization is usually perceived as a basic element of the revolution.

One can object that Kemal Atatürk was a cultural radical, which can hardly be said about Erdogan and his conservative worldview. But they are united in anchoring power in a solid middle class, and not least in cracking down hard on any kind of opposition. Atatürk deployed 50 troops – half of the Turkish defense – to crush the first Kurdish revolt in 000. This exposed the internal ethnic lines that still characterize Turkey, – as when Erdogan attacks today's Kurdish movement, PKK.

The only breach of this continuity was Bülent Ecevit, who for several periods directed Turkey on a pluralistic and social democratic course, eventually having to give way to the conservative Abdullah Gül, and after him Erdogan.

Religious rhetoric

Where is the common thread? Atatürk liked to compare the Turkish revolution with the French. In both cases, the clerical establishment was initially considered the main enemy, but where the French fought for the proletariat, Atatürk regarded this class as unenlightened – so he used the rhetoric of religion to gain their sympathy and support. These are exactly the same tools Erdogan uses, and in line with his famous predecessor, he does so by accepting only ethnic Turks, who are obviously Sunni Muslims in the "right" way. According to Karaveli, we saw this very clearly, as all 14 victims of Gezi happened to be Alevis, who mix the Sunni Muslim faith with elements from Shia Islam, pre-Islamic traditions and Anatolian folk beliefs.


Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

You may also like