Turkey’s Republic Day: A look at the role of myths in Turkish politics
Today is Turkey’s Republic Day (Cumhuriyet Bayramı), which is celebrated every year to commemorate the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923. On this day, 92 years ago, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declared Turkey to be a republic and was elected by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey as Turkey’s first President.
The establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 came with the conclusion of the 1919–1923 Turkish War of Independence, which saw the Turkish nationalist movement emerging to resist the Allied occupation of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War in 1918. Much of the fighting during the war was between the Turkish nationalists and the Greeks occupying the western parts of Anatolia. The latter’s military defeat, coupled by the hesitance of the other Allied states to intervene, paved the way for the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, which recognized Turkey’s sovereignty as a state.
Given the tumultuous transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, it is not surprising that the Turkish War of Independence and the formation of the Republic became important components of Turkey’s foundation narratives. The themes of struggle and sacrifice that often characterized depictions of the above events laid the basis of a shared national identity.
This famous photograph of the 1933 Republic Day celebrations in the Turkish town of Uşak depicts a placard with the words: Cumhuriyeti biz böyle kazandık. “We won the Republic like this,” it said — with the many individuals portrayed in the photo with somber expressions suggesting that it was a motley crew of individuals, working together under punishing circumstances, that was responsible for the formation of the Republic.
The Nutuk and its constituent myths
The formation of the Turkish Republic subsequently took on more mythic expressions, with Atatürk’s 1927 landmark speech that was known simply as the Nutuk (Speech) one of the most significant examples. Delivered by Atatürk over six days to the congress of the Republican People’s Party from 15–20 October 1927, the Nutuk was Atatürk’s attempt to explain how Turkey gained its independence and became a modern nation-state. In the process, Atatürk elucidated some of the foundation myths that would form the cornerstone of Turkey’s official historiography.
The Nutuk began with Atatürk’s landing at Samsun, a city on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, on 19 May 1919. Subsequently, Atatürk would go on to unite the various Anatolian resistance movements into a cohesive and ultimately successful national movement. Nevertheless, at this point, as the Nutuk outlined, the situation for the resistance movements was apparently extremely dire — the Ottoman Empire had been routed and its government was only concerned about saving itself. It was with this backdrop of a supposedly degenerate Ottoman Sultan and his government that Atatürk stepped in with his messianic call to save the country, as this following passage from the Nutuk illustrates:
“Gentlemen, in the face of this situation, there was only one solution. That was the creation of a completely independent new Turkish state that is based on national sovereignty. This was the solution that we were thinking before leaving Istanbul and we implemented it immediately upon setting foot on Anatolian soil in Samsun.”
Indeed, one of the key mythic themes in the Nutuk is what Hülya Adak, in her analysis of the Nutuk, called “the myth of rebirth.” This can be observed in the Nutuk’s depiction of Atatürk arriving as a savior of the country from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire as described earlier. Specifically, this mythic rebirth has two components: it necessitated not only the distancing of the newly-formed Turkish Republic and its aspirations for modernity from the presumed backwardness of the Ottoman Empire, but also the presentation of its formation as a salvific enterprise, with Atatürk himself taking a prophetic role.
Another passage from the Nutuk, as highlighted by Büşra Ersanlı in her essay on Kemalist historiography, captures both these components well too. The passage depicted the Ottoman Empire as an aberration to be eliminated, so that a Turkish nation — presumably in existence before the Ottomans — could emerge again and flourish; or in a way, be reborn figuratively:
“The Ottomans had usurped the sovereignty of the Turkish nation. And they continued this usurpation for six hundred years. Now the Turkish nation has put an end to this and taken back its sovereignty. This is a revolution.”
The Kemalist Reforms
Taken together, the rupture with the Ottoman Empire and the salvific establishment of the Turkish Republic that made up the myth of rebirth in the Nutuk probably provided the discursive space for Atatürk to justify his far-reaching reforms, such as the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924 and the adoption of the Latin script for the Turkish language in 1928. After all, by consigning the Ottoman Empire to the margins of Turkish history, Atatürk and those who supported his ideas — the Kemalists — could then set out to create their vision of a modern society based on secularism and a Turkish ethnic identity, without the need to consider the primacy of Islam and the cultural heterogeneity of the Ottoman period.
Needless to say, the reforms initiated by the Kemalists had a profound impact on Turkish society. For one, the secularist-Islamist divide in Turkey, a common trope in commentaries on Turkish politics, can be said to originate in the heavy emphasis on French-style laïcité in the Kemalist reforms. This divide continues to polarize Turks today, and the ensuing debate over issues related to modernity and identity remains as heavily contested as ever: How should Turkey modernize? What makes one a Turk? And how does Islam factor into all these?
Mythic undertones of the Turkish identity
Much of the varied perspectives on Turkey and Turkish-ness today have also been conditioned by the foundation myths themselves that were articulated during the Turkish Republic’s formative years. The Nutuk’s myth of rebirth, beyond simply casting the Ottomans to the ash heap of history, imagines and emphasizes a sense of Turkish ethnic purity too. After all, the Turkish nation that was figuratively reborn is supposed to be an indivisible, sacred whole — with pre-Islamic origins that allegedly stretched all the way back to the Hittites.
Considering the traumatic events preceding the Turkish Republic’s formation, the fear that this solidarity based on a specifically Turkish ethnic identity may be compromised has led to a perception among Turks of constant embattlement from both internal and external enemies. This siege mentality, also known as the Sèvres Syndrome, is embodied within the mythos of the Nutuk, under what Aysel Morin and Robert Lee termed the myths of “First Duty,” “Internal Enemy,” and “Encirclement” in their analysis of the Nutuk. According to them, the Nutuk portrays the defense of the Turkish nation as the paramount imperative of Turks, who need to be constantly vigilant against traitors and external countries bent on undermining them.
Hence, as Jenny White noted in her book, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, the Turkish national identity has traditionally emphasized notions of “blood, purity, boundaries, and honor.” This is exemplified in the case of a group of students who painted a Turkish flag with their own blood in 2008 in protest against the Kurdish insurgency, and subsequently announced their willingness to serve in the military. In fact, the education system is one of the primary means in which Turks are socialized into such a security-conscious national culture. As White pointed out, between 1926 and 2012, security courses were mandatory for all high school students in Turkey, in which they were taught to fear differences and avoid dissent against the state, so as to ensure the strength of Turkey.
The AKP and the lingering myth of the “Internal Enemy”
Of course, the Kemalist vision of the Turkish national identity had been challenged throughout Turkey’s history, and in recent times, overshadowed by the rise of the Islamic bourgeoisie as well as political Islam in Turkey. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came into power in 2002, dismantled the Kemalist hold on the state and transitioned Turkey’s traditionally defensive foreign policy to a more assertive one, which went hand-in-hand with its initial enthusiasm to join the European Union (EU).
As part of the push by the AKP to bring Turkey’s democratic standards toward EU standards, the Kurdish Opening in 2009 initially offered hope that the Turkish state was finally willing to address the issue of Kurdish integration. However, this optimism proved to be short-lived as the AKP intensified efforts to target Kurdish activists, especially after electoral losses in predominantly Kurdish areas. The recent escalation of violence between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) may be partially attributed to the AKP’s need to shore up electoral support for the November snap elections, after the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) enjoyed substantial electoral success in the 2015 general elections in June.
This closure of the Kurdish Opening is representative of a turn towards increased authoritarianism by the AKP after the 2011 general elections. The state has continued to crack down on independent media, as well as interfere in judicial affairs. The 2013 Gezi Park protests erupted in response to then Prime Minister Erdoğan’s increasingly heavy-handed rule, which persisted after the protests. Erdoğan’s election as the President in 2014 and his desire to change the parliamentary system to a presidential one has only served to reinforce his authoritarian image.
The recent years have also seen Erdoğan and the pro-AKP media outlets amplify their hateful rhetoric. When a row erupted between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement last year over the former’s alleged corruption, Erdoğan engaged in a smear campaign against the Gülenists, accusing them of being a “parallel state” bent on undermining the country from within. In the process, he indulged in vivid metaphors such as viruses, blood-sucking vampires, assassins and fake prophets. Likewise, Erdoğan has referred to journalists, Armenians and the LGBT community as “representatives of sedition.”
This hateful rhetoric is reminiscent of the myth of the “Internal Enemy” as depicted in the Nutuk, in which internal enemies are envisioned as existential threats to the Turkish nation. In this sense, the AKP has proven that it is not so different from the Kemalists after all, at least with regard to how it frames dissent.
The Nutuk’s myth of the “Internal Enemy” had its origins in the fact that the speech itself, as Eric Zürcher argued in an essay on the Nutuk, should be construed as Atatürk’s attempt to vindicate his political purges between 1924 and 1927. According to Zürcher, 20 percent of the Nutuk’s text concerned the post-independence emergence of the political opposition comprising of a number of top military leaders in the Turkish War of Independence — a process that was described as “a dark plot, even an attempt at a coup d’état.” The “Internal Enemy” back in Atatürk’s day was therefore the political opposition that arose within the nationalist movement that he led.
Subsequently, however, the label of the “Internal Enemy” was soon affixed to the non-Muslim minorities. The rise of a “populist nationalism” after the Democrat Party (DP) won Turkey’s second multi-party elections in 1950 was marked by increasing animosity against the non-Muslims residing in Turkey, culminating with the Istanbul pogrom against the city’s Greek residents on 6–7 September 1955. Leftists were also branded as the “Internal Enemy” — unsurprising given the political climate of the Cold War and Turkey’s pro-Western orientation with respect to security. In fact, the leftist movement in Turkey was completely destroyed by the military after the 1980 coup.
Today, the myth of “Internal Enemy” still lingers on, with potentials threats to the AKP’s political agenda perceived as threats to the Turkish nation. The “Internal Enemies” of today therefore include the Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, journalists, liberals, civil society activists, Gülenists, as well as an imaginary “interest rate lobby.”
On the whole, the authoritarian turn undertaken by the AKP thus represents a continuity with the Kemalism that the AKP had sought to displace. The latter’s reliance on the myth of the “Internal Enemy” is one indication of this. Moreover, as İhsan Yılmaz stated in an interview, “the structures and power relations that enabled the Kemalist authoritarian state are still intact to a great extent [in the AKP government].” Hence, if we look at the rhetoric and institutions of the AKP, the differences between the AKP and the Kemalists should not be as stark as we conventionally assume. In fact, the AKP’s governing ideology has been described as “Kemalo-Islamism” and “Green Kemalism.”
Conclusion: the role of myths
Myths are narratives that offer a simplified and cohesive interpretation of past events. They presuppose “the extraction of an essential truth,” as Lucian Boia adroitly explained in his book, History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness, adding that this truth “is not abstract but understood as the guiding principle in the life of the community in question.” This power of myths to shape a communal consciousness thus undergirds the instrumental value of myths for politicians, especially those in nascent nation-states.
As this essay has outlined, the foundation myths as seen in the Nutuk have been used by politicians for many purposes in the Turkish political arena — be it to ameliorate the passage of radical reforms, construct a cohesive national identity in an unfavourable geopolitical situation, or justify authoritarian rule. Yet, despite the focus on the instrumental value of myths in this article, we cannot ignore the fact that many of the myths highlighted have also become part and parcel of what it means to be a Turk. For some Turks at least, those myths anchor their personal identities in relation to their nation.
Hence, by analyzing these myths and highlighting their instrumental function, I am not trying to undermine the very things that many Turks are proud of. I believe that the historical claims of myths can be interrogated and questioned without disrespecting their symbolic importance. For instance, although I might not agree with the Nutuk’s portrayal of Atatürk as the messianic saviour of Turkey, I still think that his achievements are worth celebrating. Similarly, the myth that Turkey is constantly besieged by internal and external threats can be deconstructed, while still considering the dismissive attitudes of the European Great Powers toward the Ottoman Empire, as well as the immense trials and tribulations that the Turkish people have undergone in the process of building their nation-state.
Ultimately, myths are historical products; their construction and use are structured by the prevailing historical circumstances. As times change, they can change — and should be allowed to. The problem with myths is not that they are imagined, but that their symbolic importance can be artificially maintained way past their natural course of salience. Today, the AKP’s use of the myth of the “Internal Enemy” to demonize its opponents seems anachronistic given that Turkey is a consolidated state. After all, Turkey has ample room for a plurality of perspectives, in which differences do not necessarily constitute the basis of social chaos and disintegration.
Perhaps, a new set of myths are now needed to represent new social realities. The occasion of the 92nd anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic provides just the right catalyst for such reflection. As Turks commemorate their past today, they should be mindful of not only its distinctions, but also its attendant burdens. In the process, they may be in a better position to envision their future — one that is not shackled by the constraints of old myths, but is instead revitalized by the dynamism of new ones.
Cumhuriyet Bayramınız kutlu olsun.
Happy Republic Day.
Today is a very special day in the calendar of Turkey. 29th October is the Republic Day of Turkey or 29 Ekim Cumhuriyet Bayramı. The day marks the anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was named as its first leader.
Republic Day, Turkey – Cumhuriyet Bayramı
On 28th October, 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk announced that the Turkish Republic would be proclaimed the following day and this day is also part of the Republic Day commemorations. If you have Turkish friends on social media, you will see some of them sharing images of Atatürk with his famous phrase, “Efendiler, yarın cumhuriyet ilan edeceğiz.” (Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow we will proclaim the republic.)
Fethiye’s statue of Atatürk in the town square, Beşkaza Meydanı
And if you know Turkey, you’ll know that Atatürk’s image hangs from walls in all public buildings, even in the tiniest of shops and offices. His statue is also to be found in towns and cities throughout the country.
The statues are of Atatürk in various guises and each has one of his famous quotes at the base. A common one is, “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene.” (How happy is the one who can call himself a Turk.) This was the quote chosen for Fethiye’s latest Atatürk statue. We love to hunt out Atatürk statues when we visit new places just to see which image was chosen. These statues are often gathering points for people on Republic Day.
Statue of Atatürk in Dalyan flanked by two Turkish flags
It was decided that the flag of the Turkish republic would be a plain red background with white crescent moon and star. Today, the Turkish flag flies proudly from buildings, statues, hilltops, boats and everywhere else. Even if you just visit the country for a few days, we would hazard a guess and say there is no way you will leave without knowing what the Turkish flag looks like! It’s everywhere.
The Turkish flag is more present than ever on Cumhuriyet Bayramı
On Cumhuriyet Bayramı (Republic Day), as with other Turkish national holidays, those same Turkish flags will be flying. Government buildings and other public buildings will also have huge flags draped from the uppermost point, often covering most of the building. Some will have just the Turkish flag whilst others will also have a flag with the image of Atatürk.
You can also expect to see Turkish flags of various sizes dangling from the windows and balconies of people’s homes. This is quite a sight if you’re in an area with high rise apartment blocks and flags are draped from numerous balconies.
Cumhuriyet Bayramı / Republic Day In Cities
The stunning mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is in Ankara. And, on Republic Day, members of parliament, dignitaries, military and flag-waving members of the public go to pay their respects to the founder. The major city of Istanbul and Izmir, on the Aegean, are other places where Republic Day commemorations will be very much in evidence. Expect gatherings in various parts of these cities and – especially in staunchly secular Izmir – huge, celebratory firework displays.
Huge crowds gather to pay respects at Atatürk’s mausoleum on Republic Day
Cumhuriyet Bayramı / Republic Day In Fethiye
Republic Day in Turkey is not just celebrated in the big cities, though. We also get to take part in commemorations here in Fethiye. Schools hold their own commemorations and children take part in organised displays at the local Fethiyespor stadium.
Republic Day Paramotors
And we can’t have any events in Fethiye these days without the presence of paramotors. Cumhuriyet Bayramı is no different. Paramotors, piloted by members of Turkey’s aeronautical association, can be seen gliding up and down the seafront with flag of Turkey and Atatürk trailing behind.
Fethiye sees paramotors on Republic Day
Various Fethiye dignitaries and members of the different associations gather at either of the Atatürk statues in town. The Turkish National Anthem (İstiklal Marşı) will be sung and speeches given. Incidentally, if you find yourself wandering by any of these gatherings on Republic Day – or at any other time, for that matter – and the National Anthem is playing, it’s polite to stand still until the finish.
At night time on Republic Day in Fethiye, locals often gather to take part in a torch-lit procession. This is a beautiful sight, if you can be around to witness it. We took part in the procession for the 90th anniversary of the Turkish Republic in 2013. As you can imagine, that was a huge turn out.
Torchlit procession for Republic Day in Fethiye
Since the harbour and the town square have been built, the route goes along the harbour, passing all the restaurants (who also fly their flags) before finishing in the town square (Beşkaza Meydanı) at the statue of Atatürk. We love this part of Republic Day in Fethiye and hope for many more to come.
29 Ekim Cumhuriyet Bayramımız Kutlu Olsun
(Let our 29th October Republic Day be a happy one)