In defense of Secularism in Turkey

Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk,  led Turkey into the modern world after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Under his leadership, thousands of new schools were built, primary education was made free and compulsory, and women were given equal civil and political rights, while the burden of taxation on peasants was reduced. He was and still is considered by most Turks as the Father of  a Secular modern nation and  the principles of  his reforms are enshrined in the Constitution.


The Turkish President since 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan served previously as Prime Minister  from 2003 to 2014. When he was first  elected PM,  the West  hoped that he would serve as a democratic model for the rest of the Islamic world. That was a long time ago.

But Erdoğan is fast becoming a dictator. Not long after his initial election, his  agents embarked on a large and sinister campaign to destroy his political opponents, jailing hundreds—journalists, university rectors, military officers, aid workers—on trumped-up charges and fabricated evidence. Unfortunately, despite his excesses, he has remained fairly popular as the Turkish economy rapidly grew. In 2014, having completed three terms as Prime Minister, he ran for President and won.  The legacy of Atatürk is probably the reason why Turkish voters have refused to give him the blank check he desired, and last year turned down his effort to modify the Constitution to give himself vast new powers.

Since becoming President, Erdoğan has made a further turn toward dictatorship, crushing the remnants of a free press.  Dexter Filkins in his article for New Yorker:  Erdogan’s March to Dictatorship wrote, ” In December, 2014, Turkish police arrested the editor of Zaman, the country’s largest newspaper, which had not only been a critic of Erdoğan but also written extensively about the corruption that pervades his government and family. The editor, Ekrem Dumanlı, was accused of trying to mount a coup d’état. Earlier this month, the government seized Zaman and began printing pro-government articles.

The problem for Erdoğan was that the Cumhuriyet story came out just as he was succumbing to pressure from the Obama Administration to switch his policy and join the fight against ISIS. You can imagine what a hypocrite Erdoğan felt like when the Cumhuriyet story hit the stands. In November, government agents arrested its two top editors, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, both veteran journalists, on charges of espionage. Prosecutors are demanding life sentences for the pair. Erdoğan himself is a plaintiff in the case. Last week, a judge ordered the trial closed to the public.

Erdoğan’s campaign against Cumhuriyet has coincided with an equally brazen assault on Kurdish journalists, at least a dozen of whom have been arrested and detained on charges that they support terrorism. There are at least twenty reporters now imprisoned in Turkey, according to Nina Ognianova, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in New York. “It’s so hard to get information that we aren’t sure how many journalists have been detained,” Ognianova said. “The campaign is unrelenting.”

According to the same article in the New Yorker, President Obama has changed his view on Erdogan: “In discussions with Jeffrey Goldberg, of the Atlantic, Obama said that while he once imagined Erdoğan as a moderate, he now sees him as an authoritarian and a failure.”

The failed alleged coup against Erdogan has been costly in lives. Reuters say that over 200 dead and close to 1000 injured and this is inadmissible. By asking his supporters to go out to the streets against the coup, the government  is also responsible for this toll result of the violence.  The government accuses the moderate cleric Fethullah Gülen who lives in exile in the US as the man behind the coup but he has publicly condemned the coup and suggests that Erdogan might have organized an auto-coup. More of this later.


Since Atartürk founded the modern secular republic of Turkey in 1923, the Turkish military has perceived itself as guardian of Kemalism, the official state ideology, even though Atatürk himself insisted separating the military from politics. Since then the military has both been an important force in Turkey’s continuous Westernization and  enjoys a high degree of popular legitimacy, with continuous opinion polls suggesting that the military is the state institution that the Turkish people trust the most.

Military rule is no solution to a country’s problems and in Turkey until the restoration of democracy there was much repression and many people were incarcerated and killed under military rule. Yesterday’s coup was  in the name of Kemalism and according to the military leaders behind it,  in the name of democracy and secularism. Democracy is paramount and must be preserved in Turkey at all costs.

The Turks should be able to get rid of Erdogan, if that is their wish, through the ballot box  but that will be difficult  as he has total control of the press  and his repressive tactics will help him remain in power indefinitely.


The coup has failed and  since then, the government has detained close to 60.000 people including magistrates, judges, officers, soldiers, teachers and students and has closed over 600 private schools.


Erdogan has announced that there will be no mercy and the government is considering re-instating the death penalty. and has declared martial law.  His big strides towards becoming a full fledged dictator, I believe are a big error.  Negotiation, mercy and compassion should have been his tools to appease the Army and close the gap between secularists and his Islamist followers.  He should realize that as a democratically elected President he has to abide by the constitution of his country but his agenda is clear. Turkey, a magnificent country and an important ally of the West needs our help.

The United Nations, the United States and the European Union have  urged Erdogan to show restraint in his crackdown but their voices have not been heard. Turkey is a valued ally and stability is paramount.

Kemalism must be kept alive and it is now up to the Western leaders to leave  diplomatic language  aside and go straight to the point: that any leader who jails journalists, bombs the Kurds and jails his opponents in such a scandalous manner—is no friend of the the West. This is how we can help maintain democracy in Turkey.