Turkish Protests 2013: Erdogan is Fighting to Drag Turkey Backwards


Almost every public building in Turkey today has a portrait of the "Father of the Turks," a name granted exclusively to Kemal Ataturk by the Turkish Parliament. There is no denying the respect and devotion the Turkish people have for the man who transformed the fate of their land and laid the foundations of modern day Turkey. His secular bearings and his vision of a modern European cosmopolitan Turkey transformed the fate of the people of the land.

Over the recent past however, the Erdogan government has set out on a path to undo what many Turks (especially those in the more developed cities) see as Ataturk’s legacy. These changes are essentially backward-looking, and in many ways actually do run counter to Ataturk's vision for Turkey. Nothing good can come from policies of the Erdogan government, neither for the Turkish people nor for Erdogan and his party himself.

Back when Ataturk came to power in 1923, he was faced with a demoralized, war-torn, and deeply conservative nation. On the flip side, however, the nation was desperate for a leader, a mentor: somebody who would help leave the wrath of the Great War behind. Ataturk, a military genius and borderline polymath, emerged from the Great War as a public hero and savior, with designs for his homeland that transgressed its Islamic traditions.

He gave women the right to vote as early as the 1930s. They were also allowed and encouraged to be an active part of the workforce. He made alliances with the Soviet Empire, numerous European countries, and the U.S. Despite disagreement from numerous factions of the Turkish society, he made it illegal for women in the public service to wear traditional Islamic headwear in the course of their work. He claimed that religion and politics should remain separate and wished to rid his country of what he saw as "superstitious attitudes" in favour of the guiding principles of reason and science.

Erdogan by contrast, seems to be offering a way backwards: a society where personal freedoms and the freedom of the press are luxuries to be distributed at the government's discretion and where people are obliged to live under policies based on religious doctrine, regardless of their personal beliefs or lack thereof. He has pushed restrictions on alcohol, counseled newlyweds to have at least three children, and tightened access to abortions. The Erdogan government has set out to undo a lot of the changes considered a part of Kemalism and as a move towards greater "modernity" by many Turks. A significant part of the society that has had 90-odd years of experience to develop a sense of political and ideological freedom and liberalism will not stand for any moves that constrain and interfere upon their freedoms.

To make matters worse, on the issue of raising taxes on the sale of alcohol and its selective banning, Erdogan ended up insulting Ataturk directly in a speech. "Why are the laws crafted by two drunkards respectable while laws dictated by religion are rejected?" Erdogan told a meeting of the Justice and Development Party.

One of the protesters, Yerlikaya, 23, a biology student said "We're here because he called Ataturk a drunkard. No one can call Ataturk a drunkard." Erdogan "pokes into everything — what you drink, what you eat," she said, referring to advice he gave earlier this year to eat "genuine wheat bread" with a lot of bran in it.    

Although there is more to the Turkish protests than the damage Erdogan has inflicted to Ataturk’s legacy, however, many Turks do attribute a significant weightage of their grievances to the policies of the current government that has in many ways contradicted their single most highly revered historical figure and his ideology.