Turkey is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a republic, but many of the celebrations planned for Sunday were canceled amid escalating Israeli attacks on the besieged Gaza Strip.

The low-profile affair highlights the far-reaching impact of the bloody Israel-Hamas war, but also raises uncomfortable divisions within Turkish society over the state’s secular legacy, elements that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to challenge.

On Sunday, Erdogan laid a traditional wreath at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s revered founding father. “Our country is in safe hands, you can rest in peace,” he said.

Erdogan was then scheduled to travel to Istanbul to watch a procession of military ships on the Bosphorus, followed by a drone and fireworks show. He was expected to deliver a speech to mark the milestone to highlight his government’s achievements.

However, Turkey has forgone much of the fanfare expected for this once-in-a-century event. No official state reception took place and special television coverage of planned concerts and celebrations was canceled, citing the “alarming human tragedy in Gaza.”

Erdogan’s appearance at a pro-Palestine rally in Istanbul the day before also partially overshadowed the 100th anniversary. There he accused Israel of behaving like a “war criminal” and said a “vicious massacre” had taken place in Gaza.

Subdued affair

Turkey’s scaled-down centenary celebrations angered some citizens who believe Erdogan is glossing over the opportunity to undermine Ataturk’s secular legacy to pursue his own political vision – and that of his religious following.

“The government has done its best to make these celebrations forgotten and trivialize them,” said Gul Erbil, a 66-year-old retired film director who will be toasting the 100th birthday with friends at a restaurant. “The sad thing is… it is [their] Republic too. It is something that has given [them] also freedom.”

Ahmet Hakan, a columnist for the pro-government Hürriyet newspaper, argued that the muted celebrations were “inevitable” due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

Still, many Turks held their own private celebrations, while opposition-run communities organized concerts and parades. Music blared from cars decorated with Turkish flags, including a song written to mark the republic’s 10th anniversary. Many wore red and white – the colors of the flag.

People walk along Istiklal Avenue decorated with Turkish national flags as Turks celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of their modern republic in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 27, 2023 [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Ataturk’s legacy

Turkey’s history is closely linked to Ataturk, a nationalist leader who prioritized development reforms and separated religion from public life. During his 15-year reign as president, he abolished the Ottoman Caliphate, replaced the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet and enshrined women’s right to vote.

Today, Atatürk is still deeply revered throughout Turkey, where his poster can be seen on the walls of schools, offices and private homes. Every year on the anniversary of his death, traffic comes to a standstill as thousands observe a minute’s silence. His signature is tattooed on the arms of many citizens.

But not all Turks are equally inspired by Ataturk’s legacy, including Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, who look fondly to Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic past. And while Erdogan honors Ataturk’s early military distinctions, he rarely praises his Republican-era leadership.

“Erdogan’s values”

“Erdogan wants to see Turkey [a country] that represents Erdogan’s values, that is socially conservative, not necessarily part of the West and, in my opinion, also plays a significant role for Islam from education to public policy,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey expert at the Washington Institute and author of Books about Erdogan.

Critics say the Turkish president has already turned the country away from its founding principles.

Today, official events often begin with prayers. The Directorate of Religious Affairs has a budget that dwarfs most other ministries. The number of religious schools has increased in line with Erdogan’s stated goal of creating a “pious generation.”

In 2020, Erdogan converted the former Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia – which was converted into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul – back into a functioning mosque. Ataturk converted the building into a museum in a nod to his Christian and Muslim heritage.

Source : www.aljazeera.com

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