The Failed Putsch in Turkey Put the Last Nail in Ataturk's Coffin

As Erdogan tightens his grip, the legacy of the leader who became the symbol of secularism is fading, the military elite is crumbling and fear is spreading in the academy.

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Posters of Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, left, and Turkey's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Posters of Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, left, and Turkey's current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, during a political rally of the AKP party in 2015.Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

ANKARA – Even with the shade temperature at 38 degrees Celsius, hundreds of Turkish pilgrims an hour trooped into the vast mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the Turkish capital this week. There is nothing like this tomb in the Western world, and very few even in dictatorships from ancient times to today.

A pedestrian walkway, the Lions Road – lined with 24 copper lions – leads to the auditorium, beneath which lies the founder of the Republic of Turkey and “father of the Turks” (the meaning of his surname). The walkway passes via the Peace Park, a garden consisting of some 50,000 trees, flowers and shrubs from all over the world, to a stone plaza patrolled by soldiers marching three by three in slow goose steps.

The long wings adjacent to the tomb showcase the elegantly dressed Ataturk’s personal effects: from uniforms and evening suits to silk pajamas. The lengthy corridors tell the story of his life, the wars in which he fought as an officer and marshal, the founding of the Turkish republic and his acts as president to advance science, the economy and women’s rights.

An entire wing is dedicated to detailed charts of the famous battles he commanded, along with dozens of life-sized dolls and explosion-shooting sounds. Huge amounts of money have been spent on the site, and everything looks brand new. Only two weeks ago, a team of experts from Russia and Azerbaijan finished renovating the frescoes, showing the battle in which Ataturk defeated the Allies during World War I.

The mausoleum (Anitkabir in Turkish) depicts the way in which many Turks see Ataturk to this day – not only as the father of their modern nation, but also the figure responsible for its thriving as a modern state and regional power. When Turkish chemist Aziz Sancar won the Nobel Prize last year, he chose to bestow his medal to the mausoleum – as a tribute to the education system established by Ataturk that made him a leading scientist.

The mausoleum is also a monument to the secular Turkish republic and army, which for almost 100 years shaped and preserved its image. An engraving of Ataturk’s last letter to army commanders is engraved at the tomb hall’s gate. One of the museum’s large rooms is dedicated to the attempted coups and assassinations on the president’s life – all by Muslim extremists. The entire site has no religious symbols or effects.

Yet even here, one cannot avoid the political reality outside. The museum’s entrance wall shows lines of photographs of important visitors who have visited the mausoleum in recent years. One features President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, laying a wreath on the grave. No figure could be further removed from Ataturk’s secular heritage than the current president, who is relentlessly advancing a conservative Islamic policy.

But the change Turkey has undergone in the last decades is not seen only in the policy of the man heading the republic. One cannot ignore the fact that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party reflect positions prevalent among large sections of Turkey’s 80-million population, if not most of it. This is highlighted by the women visiting the mausoleum this week, most of whom had their heads covered.

“Only a few years ago you wouldn’t be able to see a woman with a head covering at Anitkabir,” a horrified former senior officer in the Turkish army tells Haaretz.

Periods of mass purges are not foreign to the Turks, of course. As of Thursday, the number of soldiers, civil servants and educators who have been arrested, dismissed or suspended from work has exceeded 60,000. And with President Erdogan’s declaration of a three-month state of emergency on Wednesday night, this number is expected to rise (recent reports indicate that journalists are among those who have been detained).

Bitter memories of previous coup

At this point, though, these numbers still pale by comparison to the number arrested during the three years of military rule that followed the 1980 coup, when 650,000 people were detained. Many of those who sat in jail for months and even years underwent abuse and torture. Fifty people at the time were executed, and hundreds died from torture, poor living conditions or lack of medical care. The memory of that period remains widespread in Turkey and was a main reason why masses of civilians – including many who oppose Erdogan’s politics – took to the streets during last week’s coup attempt to try and halt the military vehicles taking up positions in Istanbul and Ankara. About 200 people were shot dead by soldiers or crushed under tanks.

Although coups and failed coups and purges have been part of Turkish political life for generations, what’s different now is the fear that is apparent in the eyes and voices of the ex-army officers. They refuse to speak openly about their feelings, although when granted anonymity are prepared to admit that, for the first time, they are afraid of losing their freedom – and even if that doesn’t happen, of losing other privileges they have enjoyed as a distinct elite.

“No one is immune,” says one former officer. “If there is a shadow of suspicion, they can send investigators who, even if they don’t arrest you, will enter your company office, examine the books and find something against you that will finish things off.” Concerns about their economic futures exist due to the fact that many former soldiers work as civilians in military industries, consulting firms and other businesses that have major contracts with the army.

Anyone who has visited the centers of the country’s major cities or the neighborhoods of the well-to-do has seen the electric gates and fencing surrounding buildings and whole complexes, with signs prohibiting photography. These are not just sensitive, security-related sites. Many are places for relaxation and culture, serving not only army officers but their families. Every city has its own officers’ club, which is actually a luxury hotel placed at their disposal.

Even after they retire from the army, officers are entitled not only to a handsome pension but a range of other perks that set them apart from the general public. These include special passports and ID cards, which even gives them special parking at government ministries and national sites. And army people of the rank of colonel and above are entitled to burial in a special cemetery, with full military honors.

In his 11 years as prime minister before becoming president in 2014, Erdogan had already carried out a series of purges of high-ranking military officers, when generals and admirals were accused of running the country from behind the scenes. But despite the highly publicized arrests and trials, Erdogan has not acted up till now against the senior army officers as a group.

Now, with a third of the serving generals and admirals under arrest, and with the cars of police loyal to Erdogan demonstrably parked at the gates of major military bases, the army brass are a lot less confident. “You can’t describe how we feel when we see a police cruiser come into our base,” noted one retired military officer.

Erdogan’s allegation that the officers who planned and carried out the latest coup did it in service of the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen prompts chuckles from the ex-soldiers. After all, Gulen was an Erdogan ally until three years ago. And lawyers who had been educated in Gulen’s schools and universities actually played a key role in the investigations and trials of officers previously accused of planning coups. Before the final split between Erdogan and Gulen in 2013, there was already talk not about a state within a state threatening Turkey, but a parallel state. This was a reference to Gulen’s mass of followers – members of the Hizmet (“Service”) movement, active in all parts of the civil service and educational system.

The military hates Gulen’s followers no less than it despises Erdogan and his supporters. One can almost feel the hurt in the officers’ voices that the Gulenists, not they, have become a major threat to Erdogan.

Yet they are not buying the widespread conspiracy theory that last week’s coup was “staged.” They claim Erdogan is taking advantage of the coup attempt to get rid of all of his rivals, not only those in the army, but do not deny that there was an attempted coup. They know full well how to recognize a coup. They can expertly analyze the terrible timing – in the evening, when people were still awake. And how the lack of coordination between the various teams that should have sabotaged the broadcasting stations, and taken over the main command headquarters and arrested Erdogan at his vacation spot, caused it to fail. The officers who led the coup were as expert as they are, and apparently failed because they knew their plans had already been discovered and, therefore, had to launch the coup hastily.

These ex-officers don’t believe there will be another coup attempt. “Look how Erdogan is penetrating the education system,” says one of them. “They have brought down the level of the teachers and the teaching; they are teaching them nonsense and everyone passes the exams. That’s done on purpose, so people will stop thinking for themselves.”

Strange bedfellows

Like many middle- and upper-class Turks, they send their children to be educated and to seek their future outside of Turkey.

These thoughts are echoed in conversations with Turkish academics, who traditionally are not considered the generals’ allies. They also fear expressing themselves publicly on political issues these days. “Every university or college lecturer fears that almost everyone at one time or another has studied or taught at an institution with Gulenist influences, or that they had Gulenist students or teachers. That way, anyone the regime doesn’t like can be tainted and lose their job,” says one academic.

Thousands of academics were suspended over the past week and rectors have been instructed to find additional suspects. Lecturers find it very difficult to do their work. “I have the very best students,” said a professor at the prestigious Istanbul University. “They are very good at answering questions on exams, but not at thinking for themselves. They are already the product of Erdogan’s educational system.”

Turkey’s leftist academics have been marked for years. But if in the past it was because of their liberal views, attempts to speak out against the oppression of the Kurdish minority and the concealing of dark chapters in Turkey’s past such as the Armenian genocide, now they must add to their troubles being tainted with Gulenism.

Every day in their lecture halls, they see the two vectors of Turkey’s next generation – the secular, seeking to grow closer to Europe and the West; and the religiously observant, growing closer to Islam – moving farther apart before their very eyes.

This split was clearly evident this week in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue, which have emptied of foreign tourists in recent months due to the terror attacks by Islamic State, and now the coup. Young people continued to sit in the bars and restaurants, drinking wine and beer – the women in colorful, skimpy outfits. But supporters of the ruling party marched in the streets nearby; Erdogan had instructed them not to sleep. This was not a “12-hour revolt,” but an ongoing battle. Young women were draped from head to toe in the national flag and pictures of the president. The men, driving motorbikes or jeeps, bore mock gallows with pictures of Gulen and the coup’s generals, and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“Allah is great”) and “Allah will settle the score.”

There are, of course, other academics who support the regime. For example, Talip Kucukcan, a sociology professor and member of parliament for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. It’s hard to argue with him when he justifies the purges of the past few days. “Turkey has gone through some hard days. There was a military coup here and we almost lost everything and were put in prison,” he said. If the rebels had managed to shoot down Erdogan’s plane, there would have been chaos, he added. “You have to see the threats the country is facing, and we have every right to investigate who is behind this – and who is connected to Gulen’s movement who has penetrated the state institutions and civil society.”

Kucukcan is convinced a military coup in a European country or the United States would have met with the same response. And he insists that none of those who were arrested or suspended from their jobs will be punished before they receive a trial. “Everything has to be checked according to Turkish law, with evidence. They are not guilty yet. But how can our response be criticized when it is clear that a key group here organized the coup, and meanwhile we are working together with the opposition parties, who also condemned the coup,” he noted.

Kucukcan doesn’t understand how Erdogan can be accused of being a dictator. “True, he is a very strong and influential man. But he is also pragmatic,” the lawmaker said. “He was involved at every stage of the negotiations and renewal of ties with Israel. He understands that this is what is needed, and this is what the people want. What people outside of Turkey are not willing to understand is that while it’s true that there is a conservative thread in our party, it reflects more than half of our society. We have conservative and Muslim values – but we are also different from Muslims in other places because our Islam is more moderate, being mixed with Sufism and influenced by our close contact with the West and the minorities that live among us,” he said.

Does this mean that modern Turkey has cut itself off from its Kemalist roots? That it has turned its back on Ataturk? Kucukcan responds cautiously. “We respect him very much, but today we have a country in which the army no longer decides, nor academia, nor the media. This is a different kind of democracy today. His decisions were right for the 1930s and Ataturk must be seen in the right context – not to use his memory or ideology to frighten us into using the army and forcing secularism [on people]. Ataturk was always the excuse, but we have to move on,” said Kucukcan.

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