The Turkish Coup-Kemalism Revisited

By Dr Michael Herron

A number of reasons have been given for the recent coup in Turkey that followed those in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.  One argument was that elements of the military had been given wind of a plan to purge them by the Erdoğan government and moved to pre-empt this purge. Another that it was instigated by the Gülen movement to overthrow the government.  Another was that elements of the army had been angered by the revival of the Kurdish war and the machinations of the Erdoğan government in Syria.

However, the most common reason for the Turkish military to engineer a coup has been to protect the principles of secular government as established by Mustafa Kemal, Atatürk, which Erdoğan’s opponents claim have been threatened by Erdoğan’s government.  This article will argue that there are in fact many commonalities between Erdoğan and Atatürk but of course some vital differences.

One common argument used to criticise Erdoğan is that he wants to set himself up as a Sultan.  The revival of the Ottoman Empire in popular culture appears to chime with this idea.  However, arguably rather than wishing to be a latter day Sultan Erdoğan wants to emulate Atatürk’s presidential style and power.  To do this he has adopted some of Atatürk’s methods while rejecting a number of his key principles.

The principles of Kemalism as enumerated by William Cleveland were reformism, republicanism, secularism, nationalism, state capitalism with a further principle for foreign affairs of maintaining peaceful relations with Turkey’s neighbours.

These principles underpinned Turkey’s transformation from what Atatürk believed was the backward remnant of a multi-faith, multi-ethnic empire into a nation state that could survive in the modern world.

Many of these principles were accepted without much controversy.  Reformism, the willingness to accept new ideas was exemplified in the change from a Muslim lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar with Sunday replacing Friday as the day of rest.  Another reform that was generally accepted was the replacement of the Arabic alphabet by the Roman alphabet.

Nationalism embodied the production of a new Turkish national and cultural identity around which Turks could rally around.  This was largely accepted although Kurds found this new identity problematic.  Populism characterised by the creation of peoples’ houses which engaged in adult education, sporting activities and political education successfully mobilised the people.  State capitalism, which was developed as a response to the depression when Turkey decided it could not rely on imports and moved to develop an industrial base was also well received in Turkey.  Regarding the final principle of keeping the international peace, throughout Atatürk’s rule relations with Turkey’s neighbours remained peaceful.

The two principles which were the source of most controversy during Atatürk’s rule were those of republicanism and secularism.  These two principles went hand in hand.  By consolidating his authority under an amendment to the Constitution of the republic Atatürk was able to enforce the necessary reforms to reduce the public role of Islam and to put it under the control of the state.

Under this amendment, as noted by Andrew Mango the Turkish president would be elected by thy assembly, his term of office would run concurrently with the assembly members and he could be re-elected, the president would appoint the prime minister who would then choose ministers from among the assembly members.  The assembly would approve the cabinet.  The President as head of state could chair the assembly and the cabinet whenever he chose to do so.  In effect the President was an “elected dictator” in all but name whose prime minister would execute his will.  This gave Atatürk the power to suppress dissent and where necessary crush opposition to his rule.

Regarding his views on Islam, Atatürk wished to emulate France’s secular approach to religion of the separation of church and state with one difference, Islam in Turkey would come under the control of the state.

Initially, Atatürk had removed the Ottoman Sultanate while preserving the Caliphate.  However, he came to see the Caliphate as standing at the head of a religions hierarchy of Islamic clerics, the ulema, who ran the religious schools, the medreses, and also interpreted the Muslim holy law, the sharia, that governed most interactions between Turkish citizens.

According to Bernard Lewis, Atatürk saw the ulema as the biggest obstacle to his efforts to reform and modernise Turkey.  Indeed, the ulema had been able to hinder reforms by previous regimes.  By removing the Caliphate Atatürk undercut the authority of the ulema, thus clearing the way for Atatürk to end Islam’s public role in the state and refocusing the allegiance of the citizenry to the nation state.  This was solidified by Atatürk replacing sharia law with a civil law based on Swiss civil law and penal and commercial codes copying those of Italy and Germany respectively.

The ending of the Caliphate witnessed an example of Atatürk’s authoritarianism.  This act had aroused opposition from Muslims around the world including two leading Indian Muslims, the Agha Khan and Amer Ali.  They had written to Ismet, Atatürk’s prime minister, requesting that the Caliphate should be preserved.  However, the letter was published by Turkish newspapers before it had reached Ismet.  As a result, the Independence Tribunal ordered the arrest of the bar association president and the editors of three newspapers for high treason.

Atatürk’s authoritarian tendencies were again brought to the fore when he was the victim of an assassination plot.  He used this conspiracy as an opportunity to round up political opponents.  These included twenty-seven members of the banned Progressive Party, five of them generals and former members of the Congress and Union Party who had previously opposed Atatürk or had split with him after the War of Independence.  Death sentences were handed out to a number of the defendants, six of the Progressive Party defendants were executed, four Unionists were put to death while five were condemned to ten years in prison for incitement to murder.

This incident has its echoes in Erdoğan’s crackdown on political opponents after the recent failed coup.  This repression has also followed a number of arrests of journalists which have multiplied in the wake of the coup.  Indeed, many in Turkey prior to the coup believed that Erdoğan wanted to consolidate power around the presidency as Atatürk had done previously, although this time to reverse many of Atatürk’s secular reforms and promote Islam as more central to daily life.

Erdoğan has also challenged Atatürk’s principle of maintaining peaceful relations with his neighbours as his involvement in the war in Syria attests.  All this may be a consequence as the Popes argue of the Turkish establishment over the years trying to preserve Kemalism in aspic rather than allowing gradual reform that would have permitted Turkey to become a more developed democracy.

In the meantime, Erdoğan has used populism and nationalism to mobilise his Conservative Muslim base to support his claims to aggrandize more power for himself.  It may be one of the great ironies that a figure like Erdoğan has used some of the principles of Kemalism as well as Atatürk’s methods to undermine the foundations of the secular republic, which Atatürk established.



William L. Cleveland A History of the Modern Middle East (Colorado: Westview Press 2004)

Andrew Mango Atatürk (London: John Murray 1999)

Bernard Lewis The Emergence of Modern Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002)

Nicole Pope and Hugh Pope Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey (Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press 2004)


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