Turkish Islamists may have defeated Kemalism, but not Atatürk

The arrival of November 10th, the anniversary of the passing of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, always sparks fresh debate on the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Often, the discussion centers on how the country's Islamists, which include the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), view the famously secular figure.

It's no surprise that Turkey's Islamists generally view Atatürk negatively, as a radical top-down reformist whose decisions undermined the role of religion in Turkey. But it goes much deeper than that: four different paradigms shape Islamists’ perspective on Atatürk.

The first is the mystical view that sees Atatürk as divinely singled out to arrive with a mission to assault Islam. Dubbing Atatürk Dajjal, the Muslim anti-Christ whose arrival signals humanity's later days, this perspective advises Muslims to hate him for reasons of faith. Said Nursi, the founder of the Nurcu movement, is a leading representative of this mystical thinking on Atatürk.

This perspective, which may sound absurd to secularists, has its origins in the deeply rooted eschatological view of Muslims that humanity is in the period of later days. Like some evangelist groups in the United States, many Turkish Islamic groups believe humanity is in this period, which enables them to articulate themselves, their works and their enemies in a very special manner.

Accordingly, Islamic groups believe that they, their leaders and indeed their rivals have divinely religious characteristics peculiar to the special conditions of the later days.

We can see the impact of the later days mentality in the rivalry between the Gülen Movement and the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan-led AKP, in which each side frequently labels the leader of the other group as the Muslim anti-Christ. A short internet inquiry would provide a rich literature of this sort.

The second paradigm is the rational religious criticism of Atatürk, according to which Islamists denounce his legacy based on more objective criteria.

Here, Atatürk is criticized for his various reforms that shrunk the role of Islam in society. Unlike the mystical paradigm, this view focuses on various results of Kemalist reforms, denounced for supposedly causing cultural and moral decay.

The third paradigm employs various conspiracy theories in criticizing Atatürk. One claims Atatürk is a British agent, while another paints him and his mother as secret Jews. Authors like Abdurrahman Dilipak and Kadir Mısırlıoğlu are well-known representatives of this paradigm.

These conspiracy theories tend to be more influential among young people subjected to an Islamist socialization in high school and early university years.

The fourth approach is the rational political perspective that criticizes the legacy of Atatürk based on how his reforms, such as instituting Turkish in the Roman alphabet, have negatively Turkish cultural and political life.

Rather than focusing on Atatürk’s personality, this approach denounces his political and cultural legacy. Employing various rational arguments, this approach aims to prove that various Kemalist reforms undermined Turkish politics and society.

These four paradigms summarise Islamists’ views of Atatürk, which oscillate in response to political and cultural winds. It is no secret that Turkish Islamist groups aim to undo Atatürk’s legacy, and Turkey’s current government shows they have made significant progress in this mission.

Still, a recent development seems to perplex Islamists: Atatürk has recently become a popular symbol of modernity and progress.

Turned off by the authoritarian decisions of the AKP government, many Turks have began to recall Atatürk as a symbol of modern life. Similarly, Islamists’ near-total lack of cultural life has spurred greater interest in Atatürk, often seen as a stylish and cultured man. 

Even young people from conservative families seem to be allured by this new thinking. As a result, referencing Atatürk has emerged as a means to protest the current regime.

Today, posting an image of Atatürk on social media, even with no accompanying text, is a clear criticism of the AKP, even as Atatürk’s prestige renders some degree of immunity.

Interestingly, recent interest in Atatürk has reframed him as a symbol of civilian protest -- ironic, given that Atatürk himself has long been seen as somewhat authoritarian, and operating in a military framework.

Turkey’s Islamists may have defeated Kemalism, but they have yet to beat Atatürk.