Will Young Turks Make Turkey Secular Again?

GSTAAD — One hundred years ago this month, representatives from the victorious Allied Powers in World War I gathered in a porcelain factory in the Paris suburb of Sèvres to dismantle the Ottoman Empire, one of the vanquished Central Powers.

The Treaty of Sèvres left the Ottoman Empire a rump state. It cut away the empire’s territory in Northern Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula while carving out French, British, Italian, Greek, Kurdish, and Armenian territories and zones of influence from its Anatolian heartland. It also internationalized Constantinople, the crown jewel of the empire during the 600 years of Ottoman rule.

Like the Treaty of Versailles, which sought to humiliate Germany, the Treaty of Sèvres was signed at sword point. But while it took 15 years for German nationalists to void the Treaty of Versailles — creating a national rage that enabled the rise of Adolph Hitler — Turkish nationalists rose up immediately to reject the untenable peace.

They were led by Turkish field marshal Mustafa Kemal, who had distinguished himself during the war while leading a route of British troops at the Battle of Gallipoli. In the face of Mustafa-led military successes, the Treaty of Sèvres turned out to be as brittle as the porcelain that shared its name. Within two years, the European powers were forced back to the bargaining table and in July of 1923, a new agreement was signed: The Treaty of Lausanne. Out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire the independent Republic of Turkey was born.

Mustafa Kemal — rechristened as “Atatürk” or “Father of the Turks” — became the country’s first president. It was, from the beginning, a nation built in his image. Atatürk hoped to create a secular and democratic state, independent from its Ottoman heritage.

Kemal Atatürk Bursa’da

It was a noble vision. But at the time, it was unclear whether it was a vision shared fully by those Atatürk led. Many wondered: would the new citizens of Turkey support the transformation away from its Islamist identity while embracing Western values? And would this new democratic tradition end with Atatürk or survive him when he’s gone?

A century later, the world asks a similar question about Turkey, but in reverse. This time, the question is focused on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — who, as I first wrote in 2011, “is Islamist to the core, once famously declaring that ‘the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.’”

During his 17 years as head of the Turkish state, Erdoğan has aggressively turned the country away from Atatürk’s secular democracy and back toward theocratic autocracy — seemingly committed, as Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai once wrote, to “a return to the Ottoman Empire’s glory days.”

In a twist on the question once asked of Atatürk, many today wonder: will this new Islamic fundamentalism end with Erdoğan, or have Turkey’s days as a secular democracy — and longtime NATO ally and friend of the United States — come to an end?

For most of the last century, it would have seemed unthinkable. The non-clerical roots that Atatürk planted turned out to run deep among the populace– too deep, it seemed, for any leader to uproot?

In the years following Turkey’s founding — under the banner of Kemalism, a reform ideology designed to align Turkey with the ascendant Western values of freedom and opportunity — Atatürk brought dramatic change to the former empire. He believed that Islamic governance had become a barrier to progress.

Under his leadership, religious courts were abolished, religious education curtailed, and Islamic law abandoned. The new Turkish constitution established the principle of representative government, devolved legislative and executive power to the Grand National Assembly, granted Turkish citizens over the age of 18 the right to vote and those over 30 the right to stand for election in the Assembly.

It has been at these secular, democratic tethers that Erdoğan has slashed. Originally using Turkey’s aspiring membership in the European Union as a tool to suppress opposition, Erdoğan began by targeting the institution that had been the guarantor of a secular Turkey for eight decades: the military. Jailing the nation’s top generals under the pretense of bringing Turkey in line with EU dictates, Erdoğan set to recast Turkey, as one analyst put it, “into a hybrid of Putinist autocracy and Iranian theocracy.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Germany.

He has lived up to that awful promise. Since 2003, Erdoğan has jailed journalists, purged government dissenters, intimidated political rivals through violence, and annulled election results. In 2017, through a constitutional referendum corrupted by official interference, Erdoğan secured greatly expanded executive powers — including the right to appoint judges, limit officials tasked with government oversight, issue decrees that carry the force of law, and impose a state of emergency. Meanwhile, for the first time in a century, headscarves were required in public spaces, the state built religious schools, tax dollars funded an historic building boom of mosques — and there was strong evidence that Erdoğan even supported soldiers of the Islamic State in its fight against the U.S.

While Atatürk believed that Turkey’s future was best aligned with Western nations and values, Erdoğan clearly feels that the EU’s rejection of Turkish membership means that Europe will never be comfortable with a Muslim nation at its core and has aligned with Islamist autocracies instead. During his time in power, Erdoğan has enjoyed relatively stable support for that vision, in part due to his effective economic stewardship. He set out to transform Turkey’s moribund economy, eventually moving millions of Turks into the middle class.

But that growth was propelled largely by unrestrained levels of public and private borrowing and piles of public money given out to Erdoğan’s friends. The bill came due in 2018 when unsustainable levels of public debt caused Turkey’s currency to lose a fifth of its value, tanking the economy and leading to historic losses for Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

The coronavirus pandemic initially helped bolster Erdoğan’s sagging approval numbers, but as cases and deaths mount, those gains have partially faded. However, it has not seriously threatened Erdoğan’s hold on power. Erdoğan maintains a dedicated base of passionate support among conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists.

That base continues to embolden him. Last week, in response to the historic announcement that the United Arab Emirates would become the third Arab country to normalize relations with Israel, Erdoğan joined countries like Iran and angrily asserted that the UAE’s “move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached,” while threatening to withdraw Turkey’s embassy from the UAE. This came a day after the British Daily Telegraph alleged that Turkey was extending citizenship to seven “senior operatives of a Hamas terror cell,” seemingly confirming Erdoğan’s long-rumored desire to align Ankara with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, Erdoğan’s hypocrisy was breathtaking: not only was Turkey the first majority Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1948, but Israel remains one of Turkey’s ten largest export partners, with $6 billion in trade. If, as it seems, Erdoğan wants Ankara to side with Iran over Israel while also working with the Muslim Brotherhood against U.S. and Israeli interests, then Turkey should be treated as a pariah in the same manner as Iran and sanctioned by the international community.

But this brings us back to the original question: will Erdoğan’s continuing desecration of Atatürk’s secular Turkey be a permanent reality that survives beyond him? In a bit of historical irony that Atatürk would surely appreciate, the answer will likely come down to a new generation of young Turks.

It was, of course, the original Young Turks — including a young Mustafa Kemal — that led a rebellion against the sultans that had turned the Ottoman Empire into the so-called “sick man of Europe.” The coming generation of Turkish voters, known as Generation Z — 13 million strong, born since 2000, soon to enter the electorate en masse — are more hostile to Erdogan’s ideals.

Where support of the EU barely cracks 35 percent among older generations, support within Gen Z is nearly 80 percent. Gen Z overwhelmingly supports liberal, democratic rights such as freedom of expression, and far fewer of them than older Turks identify as “religiously conservative.” Gen Z is also more tolerant: only 33 percent of in the last generation would consider marrying someone from a different religion or sect, compared to 82 percent of Gen Z.

Gen Z has grown up in Erdoğan’s Turkey. But they have adopted a philosophy much closer to that of Atatürk. And in the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2023, one in five Turkish voters will come from Generation Z. Erdogan is already feeling the heat: fed up with criticism from young Turks online, on July 29, the so-called “Sultan of censorship” launched a campaign to crack down on Gen Z’s tool of choice: social media. But as thousands join the voting ranks every day, it might be short-lived.

In the meantime, Erdoğan will continue to do all he can to create a new caliphate on the Bosphorus, from whose waters the magnificent Hagia Sophia looms across the Istanbul skyline. Founded as a cathedral in the 6th Century, it was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans captured the city in the 14th Century, and then a secular historical center under Atatürk in 1923. Last month, on the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, Erdoğan turned it back into a mosque.

The name Hagia Sophia, of course, means “holy wisdom.” While both Christianity and Islam are rooted in the wisdom of their elders, in the secular tradition, as every parent knows, the truest wisdom often comes out of the mouths of babes. Soon enough, it will be Generation Z’s turn. When they speak, it might just be Erdoğan’s legacy that becomes history.

Stanley A. Weiss is a business leader and founder of Business Executives for National Security. His memoir, “Being Dead is Bad for Business,” and a collection of selected writings, titled “Where Have You Gone, Harry Truman?” are available online.

Stanley A. Weiss is a business leader and founder of Business Executives for National Security (BENS).