The presence of Turkish neo-nationalists at the demonstrations even prompted the liberal-left Guardian to go soft on Kemalism. “At issue,” the newspaper claimed, “is whether Turkey should be the progressive, secular European nation-state that Ataturk originally envisaged and shaped from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, or a more explicitly religious country.”
Never mind that secularism in Turkey was brutally imposed, and that many Islamic practices were violently eradicated by Ataturk. That Istanbul’s long-standing, cosmopolitan communities of Jews and Greek Catholics were chased out during the heyday of secular nationalism. Or that the long-persecuted Turkish Kurds suspect — rightly — that they might get a better hearing from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan than from fans of Ataturk.
Simple ideological oppositions also obscure a more revealing irony: the Islamist Erdogan expediting, with the help of crony capitalists, the touristification of Istanbul. This highly lucrative beautification campaign requires the destruction of familiar landmarks, such as Gezi Park.
But it should not be forgotten that Ataturk, beloved of modernizing despots from the Shah of Iran to Pervez Musharraf, presided over a cultural inferno more extensive than Erdogan could ever dream of — one that turned Turkey’s greatest writers, from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar to Orhan Pamuk, into melancholy private archivists of an officially scorned Ottoman culture.
Those conditioned to see Erdogan’s cultural vandalism as a fall from a golden age or as evidence of his latent Talibanism, should recall Turkey’s long history as a country with plenty of rich and powerful secularists but no democracy and human rights. Like Meiji Japan, Kemalist Turkey wanted to achieve civilization and enlightenment on terms defined by the West, yet only managed to violate the values of both.
Commenting in 1997 on Turkey’s prolonged and weird isolation, Pamuk held out a bleak prospect: “Since people have lost their memories and their relationships with their cultural neighbours” he wrote, “the entire country has acquired the crudeness, inflexibility and slovenliness which often occur in those who live alone.”
Both Erdogan and his neo-nationalist opponents manifest many of these tendencies. The difference is that in the age of global capital flows and rapid communications, Turkey no longer lives alone. In many ways — and this may be their enduring significance — the recent protests have rancorously shattered Turkey’s almost century-long solitude.