by Uygar Baspehlivan
Turkey seems like a new country. With Erdogan’s pressing political figure and the controversial post-coup attempt politics, this article discerns how this new Turkey is no longer the country it was ten years ago. Turkey’s religious character stands out more, so does its confrontational attitude towards Western nations. This article discusses how this change of character manifested itself through acts of national myth-making, comparing Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s retelling of the Turkish story after the Turkish Independence War to Erdogan’s own reconsecration of the nation after the coup d’état attempt of 15th of July 2016.
From the taking of the Bastille to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, all modern nationalist narratives have predicated themselves upon an idea of a founding moment. It is usually a moment when the once-victimized nation reaches national consciousness and lays the foundations for a new state. These ‘origin stories’ typically involve sacrifices to save the nation, heroism and violence, consolidating the emotional backbone of national imagination. An obligation to make such sacrifices bestows responsibility upon the citizen, an idea disseminated through education, the media and basic propaganda methods. All of these rely on gigantic myth-making efforts. In the case of Turkey, the 15th of July coup constitutes the re-founding myth of this new Turkish national moment.
In order to analyse the new story, however, we first need to deconstruct the old one. For most of the 20th century, the founding moment of Turkish national consciousness has been constructed as the Independence War of Turkey and the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923. As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led the Turkish nation in its fight against the Western armies in Anatolia, as the story goes, he took the nation out of its backwardness, brought modernity to Anatolia and liberated an entire people. This story carries in it the three conditions for the construction of a foundational story: sacrifice, heroism and the enemy. The enemy is constituted in two ways.
First, there is the enemy within: the Ottoman Empire. One of the primary functions of a reproduced foundational myth is to delegitimise the previous. Ataturk, to legitimise Turkey’s new national story, had to break the core of the Ottoman story. Therefore, he produced the myth of the backward Ottoman administration who betrayed the nation by allying with its enemies. The contrast between the religious symbolism of the Ottoman Empire and the ‘laicité’ of the Ataturk’s new Turkey established the untrustworthiness of Islam for the Turkish people. This identity-making based on absolute secularism would haunt the nation for generations, eventually leading to the rise of the reactionary religious-conservative regime of Erdogan.
Secondly, there was the enemy, the West. In this narrative, ‘Greeks’ symbolising the Christian West were an invading force preventing Turkey to find its national consciousness in Anatolia. Only when they were defeated, kicked out of the country, had the nation consolidated itself. The reclamation of space from the invading other not only made Anatolia the rightful territory of the nation but also has endowed the successors of the nation with an epic responsibility of protecting space. Through this narrative of the independence war, the national objective is set: protect Anatolia from foreigners and enemies within.
The function of a founding moment is setting the points of reference through which the nation identifies itself and its mission.
But, how did this story become the norm? How was this story disseminated? Every story needs a text. In this case, this text was the 6-day long epic speech of Ataturk to the Republican People’s Party members in 1927. This speech, read by millions in Turkey, outlined the official narrative of how the nation was born. It answered the questions; What is this new Turkish nation? How was it found? And who was its enemy?’ It vilified the ones who did not participate in the national cause of Ataturk and his comrades. It talked about the sacrifices made by heroic officers and soldiers. It told the glorious story of how the Turkish nation was (re)discovered/ awakened during this independence war. Ending with an address to the youth of the nation, it is clear that this text was meant to be the reference point for how Turkey will understand itself in the seceding generations.
The text was not enough of course! People had to be constantly reminded of how the nation was born, what sacrifices were made and most importantly; what the nation’s purpose was. National holidays were set to commemorate the founding moment. Every year, on the 23 of April, on the 29th of October, on the 30th of August, on the 19th of May, Turkish people are led towards a massive celebration of the independence of Turkish nation from its foreign enemies. The country is filled with statues, monuments, street names, paintings that constantly remind the citizens of how Ataturk and his fellow generals drowned the Greeks in the Aegean Sea and brought Turkey into modernity. This established culture of secular xenophobia was the backbone of the nation for a century.
Ever since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003, there has been a gradual shift in the nation’s glorification and history-making. The Islamic character of the people has come to the fore and the nation’s Ottoman past takes an increasingly leading role in its identity. Erdogan recurrently refers to the Ottoman Empire’s success and the role of Islam in Turkish national identity.
The legacy of Ataturk is being gradually supplanted by a new narrative and definition of the nation: an Islamic-Turkic identity proud of its Ottoman past -not denigrating it as Ataturk did.
Until the 15th of July Coup attempt of 2016, however, this new identity was not strong enough to manifest itself as part of the nation’s historical memory. Seizing the opportunity arising from the bloodshed, sacrifice, heroism and ‘betrayal’ of that night, Erdogan has begun constituting a new transitional/refoundational event defining the nation.The 15th of July represents a new independence war. But independence from what exactly? This is left unanswered, but the implications are unambiguous.
Like Ataturk’s independence war narrative, this new story provides a new founding moment: sacrifices were made by brave citizens who stood up against the tanks, ‘martyrs’, thus connecting nationalist pride to Islamic legitimacy. Statues were built in their names, streets were given their names to remind the nation of their sacrifices and, significantly, the Bosphorus Bridge was renamed the ‘15th of July Martyrs Bridge’. With the name of the ‘martyrs’ all around, the nation’s newly fought war is ingrained into every single corner of the nation.
Contrastingly, people who did not join this ‘war’ were declared ‘traitors’, constituting the enemy within. The Gezi Park protests were a series of independent youth protests against the government that have since become the symbol of Turkey’s opposition. However, Erdogan proclaimed that ‘those who were on the streets during the 15th of July were not the same youth that protested during the Gezi Parki protests’. 2 Erdogan has in this way radically bifurcated the nation into those who supported the coup attempt and those who supported the Gezi protests. This produces inclusion and exclusion based on discourses of patriotism and betrayal. This is not very different from what Ataturk had done in his epic speech. Ataturk told the story of the independence war to establish his secularly-legitimised political power over the religiously-framed Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s new narrative of his own independence war has done the opposite. It has foregrounded the religious character of the coup’s heroes, contrasting them with the secular ‘conformist elite’. The discourse effectively stated, ‘they stayed at home while we were fighting’. This is the power of creating a new foundational event. The narrative of a new independence war has brought a set of political opportunities for Erdogan to seize. He, not only used the moment to eradicate the Gulen movement but also to silence any opposition by the virtue of his ‘war heroism’. ‘He is right because he led the nation out of the darkness of the coup’. This is the same narrative Ataturk had established.
This new narrative of national independence is predicated on the role of religion in the nation’s consciousness.
In the retelling of the story, religion plays a key role and imams calling on people fight against the coup-plotters have become the symbol of Turkey’s new relationship with Islam.
Twenty days after the coup attempt, Prime Minister Yildirim roared ‘you are the grandchildren of those who destroyed the Crusaders that tried to exterminate Islam’. This implication of continuity is an attempt to make a historical character of the nation where the actions of the past make the present responsible for the maintenance of its legacy.
As Ataturk’s speech set the new nation’s path as that of a secular and modern nation, Erdogan’s story of the coup, with its Islamic symbolism and brave martyrs, produced a new, religious while still nationalist understanding of the nation.
Erdogan, following from Ataturk’s own approach, has capitalized on a transitional moment to carve out a new national story. This narrative not only delegimitises the previous story and the political and social basis from which it sprung but also reconfigures the nation’s points of reference. Today, the Turkish nation no longer understands itself through the lens of the Turkish Independence War, but through the coup attempt. Nation’s heroes and enemies are delineated based on their reactions to the events of 15th of July. Those who sacrificed their lives were heroic martyrs, those who stayed home became traitors. This narrative gave Erdogan an immense opportunity to capture the political scene and crack down on his enemies. This ‘re-founding moment’ will continue to power the state’s political and social discourse until the conditions arise for a new story.
Uygar Baspehlivan is a Graduate of International Relations at King’s College London. His research interests include nationalism, critical theory, identity politics, language, and film theory.