ISTANBUL — If one clear winner has emerged in the battle over personal freedoms in Turkey, it may be modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday met for the first time with representatives from some of the main groups behind the protests that have swept his country for two weeks, Ataturk flags fluttered on both sides of the conflict.
For years, Erdogan and his conservative Islamist associates have been unenthusiastic about Ataturk, resentful of his legacy of such strict secularism that until recently women who wear head scarves could not attend college. But with Erdogan on Thursday delivering a “final warning” to protesters, his forces have embraced Ataturk’s image — an effort, critics say, to justify a pending crackdown and to pit the demonstrations against the Turkish nation.
Security forces on Wednesday draped a massive banner of Ataturk’s face over a building facing central Istanbul’s Taksim Square, after clearing it of a jumble of left-wing signs placed there by protesters. Protesters and government alike agree that Ataturk’s image — out of fashion for years — is again in vogue, although many protesters say that his legacy is far from what unites them. At the protests at Taksim and adjoining Gezi Park, street vendors hawk metal Ataturk statuettes, while Ataturk flags flap from trees.
To many of the people in Taksim, the government’s move to embrace the imagery of Ataturk — whose honorific last name means “father of the Turks” — reeks of opportunism.
“They’re trying to make people in Gezi Park look like vandals,” said Aysu Setin, 21, an international relations student who was walking through the protest on Thursday. “I don’t remember their using the image of Ataturk before.”
Setin — a member of a generation barely marked by the military rule that dominated Turkey for decades — said that Ataturk’s legacy was not a major force behind the protests, which were sparked by a plan to raze Gezi Park and to build a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks there.
“Love for Ataturk is not what binds people here,” she said. Rather, she said, it’s about “freedom.”
Other protesters, though, say that Ataturk’s secular emphasis underpins their conception of Turkey, and some complain that Erdogan has done little to honor that legacy as he has pushed restrictions on alcohol, counseled newlyweds to have at least three children and tightened access to abortions.
Even the plan to rebuild the Ottoman-era barracks has an
anti-Ataturk subtext, some say, by honoring a time when Istanbul was the capital of an Islamic empire rather than merely the largest city in a modern, secular Turkey. And just days before the protests started at the end of May, Erdogan gave a speech in which he implicitly called Ataturk and his successor, Ismet Inonu, alcoholics — a touchy subject given conservative Islam’s ban on drinking.
“Why are the laws crafted by two drunkards respectable while laws dictated by religion are rejected?” Erdogan told a meeting of the Justice and Development Party.
That line was enough to sdrive Aysun Yerlikaya to protest in the fiercely Westernized city of Izmir earlier this week.
“We’re here because he called Ataturk a drunkard. No one can call Ataturk a drunkard,” said Yerlikaya, 23, a biology student. Erdogan “pokes into everything — what you drink., what you eat,” she said, referring to advice he gave earlier this year to eat “genuine wheat bread” with a lot of bran in it.
Ataturk, an Ottoman-era military officer who fought pitched battles to reclaim Turkish land after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, presided over the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. He ruled with a tight grip until his death in 1938, establishing many of the institutions of the modern country but also, critics say, giving the military outsize power that lasted until Erdogan finally took it back under civilian control.
The long legacy of Erdogan’s less-than-enthusiastic embrace of Ataturk made the decision this week to hang the massive banner of the founder’s image on the empty Ataturk Cultural Center facing Taksim all the more striking, analysts said. Until now, even the way Erdogan and his allies referred to the man — by his name at birth, Mustafa Kemal, rather than by the honorific Ataturk that was bestowed on him four years before he died — showed a certain reserve about glorifying him.
“The government, by pulling down all these different slogans and putting up the flags and the image of Ataturk, might be saying we are one nation, one flag, under the image of Mustafa Kemal,” said Zafer Uskul, a constitutional law professor at Dogus University who is a former member of the Justice and Development Party and has criticized it for its violent response to the protests.
Just how long Ataturk will retain his newly privileged position is unclear. His image has slowly been retreating from Turkish life under Erdogan’s rule, although it is still common everywhere from offices to subway stations to roadside placards. Erdogan has vowed to tear down the cultural center on which the banner hangs and replace it with an opera house.
And Erdogan’s mixed signals on Thursday — meeting with protesters and offering a referendum for the first time on the plans to raze Gezi Park but also saying that “we have arrived at the end of our patience” — led many protesters to expect clashes similar to those on Tuesday, when riot police swept Taksim Square with tear gas and water cannons in an all-day effort to reestablish control.
After that effort, protesters defiantly turned out in even greater numbers — but the ubiquity of helmets and makeshift gas masks in Gezi Park on Thursday suggested that many people were preparing for the worst. Many rejected the idea of a referendum.
“It’s a silly sign of democracy,” said Burcu Gozetici, 30, a dentist. “We’ve seen lots of referendums in Turkey. But we don’t believe the electoral system is fair.”