A Pox on All Your Houses
Thessaloniki, Greece….Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan scratched old wounds last month when he said the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which established international recognition of the Turkish Republic and set its borders, handed too much territory to Greece. “At Lausanne, we gave away the islands that you could shout across to,” he said during an Ankara speech to Turkey’s village chiefs.
For many, the remark seemed to come out of left field, but it highlighted the evolution of Erdogan’s grand political project.
Greeks and Turks fought four wars around the turn of the last century, so it was no surprise that Greek officials responded strongly. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called Erdogan’s comments “dangerous.” Defence Minister, Panos Kammenos, went in another direction, accusing Erdogan of seeking to transform the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk into a theocratic state. Their comments made the front pages here in Thessaloniki, where I’ve been reporting on refugees — and where these two nations’ long, complex history seems ubiquitous.
My first morning here I wandered into a courtyard behind my hotel to find dozens of middle aged and elderly men peddling all variety of knickknacks — posters and pins, books, records, postcards and penknives. This is Bit Bazaar, I later discovered, a block of two-story homes built in the late 1920’s to house Anatolian Greeks arriving as part of the population exchange with Turkey. Nowadays its courtyard is a flea market (“bit bazaar,” in Turkish) during the day, and a raucous warren of taverns at night.
A half mile down the street is the massive stone Rotunda, a 4th-century Roman temple that the Ottomans used as a mosque. A few blocks from there, a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy named Mustafa was born in a stately pink house in 1881. In September 1922, that Mustafa led a wave of Turkish troops into Smyrna (now Izmir), chasing the occupying Greek army out of town and all but ending the most recent of the Greco-Turkish wars. At least ten thousand Greeks were killed in the fires set by celebrating Turks in the days that followed the retaking of the city. [Some Turks claim Greeks and Armenians started the fires of Izmir.]
Yet just over a decade later, Thessaloniki municipality bought that pink house and handed the keys to Turkey — a gift to Ataturk, Turkey’s then-president, the year before he died. Ankara gave Ataturk’s house a spitshine, re-opened it as a museum and built its consulate on the grounds. These days, it’s a flashpoint: thousands of Turks make the pilgrimage around the anniversary of Ataturk’s death, in November, while Greek nationalists regularly target the site, including twice in the past year, most recently with a volley of Molotov cocktails in June.
Technically on Turkish soil, Ataturk’s old family home seems a world apart from Erdogan’s Turkey. One wall plaque recalls how at 13 years old, in Thessaloniki Military Junior High, Mustafa had a math teacher with the same name. To distinguish between the two, the teacher bequeathed a second name to the student: Kemal, which in Arabic means “perfect” or “complete.” [Many sources, including Andrew Mango’s sharp and thorough biography, Ataturk, question the accuracy of this tale.]
Turkey’s current president might have chosen another name for the promising teen. As Kammenos’ comments suggest, Erdogan’s Lausanne criticism is less about territory than undermining Turkey’s founders, and founding ideals, in playing to his conservative base. It’s a long-running campaign. When he was mayor of Istanbul, in the 1990s, Erdogan said he would turn all of Turkey’s schools into religious schools — a clear assault on Ataturk’s secular vision. He also suggested that people need not stand at attention to honor Ataturk, and that the annual commemoration of his death was “much ado about nothing.”
In 2013, defending his government’s new restrictions on alcohol, Erdogan appeared to insult Ataturk and his right hand man and successor, Ismet Inonu, saying “two drunkards” had made the original law. A few months ago Erdogan criticized the Lausanne Treaty for placing limits on minority rights, and said a new constitution would improve life for minorities.
Erdogan’s latest Lausanne statements align with an argument making the rounds in pro-government circles: the treaty is problematic largely because, unlike the dismissed 1920 Treaty of Sevres, it ended the Ottoman Empire, in which Islam had pride of place. Ekrem Ekenci laid out this view in a late-July column for Daily Sabah, the English-language government mouthpiece. He attacked Lausanne’s lead negotiator: Inonu “had never been abroad before, had no experience in diplomacy and was deaf in one ear.” Erdogan echoed these sentiments in his Lausanne comments: “Those who sat there did not do us justice and we are reaping those troubles right now.” Ekenci’s column explained to which troubles the president likely referred: “For the conservatives it was a loss, as they lost their entire history including their sultan, madrasahs, religious law and the fez.”
Few question that, for Turkey, Lausanne marked a considerable upgrade from Sevres. In Ataturk’s war for independence, a new and formidable army emerged to reclaim vast tracts of Anatolia, a crucial chunk of Thrace and the all-important maritime choke points, the Bosporus and Dardanelles. Sevres had been “the victors dictating to the vanquished.” At Lausanne the two sides negotiated as equals; Turkish negotiators even called the bluff of Britain’s Lord Curzon, and won greater concessions than most expected.
At the same time, it’s no secret that Turkey’s founder was less than kind to conservatives. A wall plaque in the Thessaloniki museum shows how, in the battle between Islam and modernity, Mustafa tilted toward the latter from his earliest days. As a child, Ataturk’s mother wanted him to attend the nearby traditional religious school, while his father preferred the new modern school. His father resolved the crisis by having the boy first attend the religious school to satisfy his mother, then transfer to the modern school.
Years later — a century ago this fall, according to Mango’s biography — as he led the Ottoman Empire’s Second Army against mostly Russian forces, Ataturk’s diary entries hint at his vision for the future Republic of Turkey. He noted that it behooves superior officers to allow their subordinates to think freely and express themselves, and also wrote: “I chatted with my chief of staff on abolishing the veiling of women and improving our social life…Leading a common life with women will have a good effect on men’s morals, thoughts and feelings.”
After founding Turkey in 1923, Ataturk all but cleansed his new state of religion. He outlawed the fez in favor of western-style brimmed hats, and the law quickly became a symbol of religious oppression. Out, too, went the caliphate, women’s headscarves, Islamic judges, and Friday as a day of prayer. Like Erdogan, Ataturk also attacked his predecessors as out of touch, calling the late Ottoman sultans “madmen and spendthrifts.”
Observers have pointed out that much of Erdogan’s work could be seen as an effort to undo what Ataturk created. The headscarf ban has been lifted. Alcohol use has been curbed. Religious schools are ascendant. And the military, given a place of primacy by the modern military officer who founded the state, has lost its independence and its privileged status, particularly in the wake of the failed coup this past July.
At this point it’s nearly impossible to tell if Erdogan is himself a pious Muslim, or if he toes what he imagines is the conservative line for political gain. Either way, he has empowered Turkey’s conservative majority and enabled conservative Turkish women to live fuller lives. He has also created a society in which women’s labor force participation has fallen in the past couple decades, unlike nearly all other Muslim-majority states, and where a man can assault a young woman on a public bus for wearing shorts while fellow commuters sit and watch.
Meanwhile, the government’s post-coup purge is ridding the state of not just the supposed perpetrators, Gulenists, it’s also jailing, harassing, and scaring away countless leftists, liberals and progressives — the very types likely to support the lead opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party of Ataturk.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) likes to refer to the defeat of the recent coup attempt as Turkey’s second war of independence — a somewhat ridiculous claim, as the entire affair took about 12 hours. But the grand narrative of Erdogan’s party — from the revered Ottomans to the problematic founders and the great martyrs of July 15 — aims to show that Ataturk’s war for independence was incomplete, a failure, because it led to the marginalization of Islam.
This is the founding myth for Yeni Turkiye (New Turkey), the conservative Turkish state they’ve long envisioned — and its broad acceptance will mark the further dimming of Ataturk’s republic. Erdogan is among the most successful politicians of the past half-century, but he has a will to ultimate power: he is on a mission to eclipse all who came before. The reason he attacks Lausanne and Inonu and not Ataturk (the name, given to him by Turkey’s parliament in 1934, means “father of Turks”) is that it’s still verboten in today’s Turkey to directly criticize the nation’s founder. Someday soon he’ll likely break even that taboo.
Because his bluster has succeeded so wildly at home, Erdogan has gone international with his equal opportunity offending. He shot down a Russian fighter jet a year ago, yet now makes deals with Putin. He regularly threatens the EU, Turkey’s largest trading partner. And just this week, he criticized Hillary Clinton, likely the next U.S. president, for her “political inexperience” in regards to Syria, and told Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad al-Abadi “you are not at my level… your screaming and shouting in Iraq is of no importance to us.”
Erdogan aims to establish that Turkey is strong, but beset on all sides — even from history — and that only he is bold enough to take on all comers. Only those who believe in his vision of New Turkey, meanwhile, are safe from his volleys. Everybody else, from Greek officials to friendly neighbours, from journalists and academics to the leader of the free world, should expect verbal and other attacks.
Don’t take it personally, just be ready to return fire.