Kemalism Is Dead, Long Live Kemalism

How the AKP Became Ataturk’s Last Defender

Courtesy Reuters

In both Turkey and the West, Kemalism -- the principle that Turkey should be secular and Western -- has been pronounced dead. The country is drifting away from both, the argument goes, and Islamists, led by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), are socially and politically aligning the country with the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East.

Turkey’s domestic and foreign politics are indeed transforming. In the ongoing Ergenekon trial, state prosecutors, encouraged by AKP officials, are indicting a group of alleged Kemalist academics, journalists, officers, and politicians (accusing them of plotting to overthrow the government) in order to purge them from public institutions. Meanwhile, a growing AKP-aligned religious bourgeoisie is starting to dominate various sectors, including energy, finance, manufacturing, and the media. Trade unions and professional associations, such as the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, are also increasingly under the sway of the AKP. And in terms of foreign policy, Turkey is pursuing ties with Iran and Syria while putting some distance between itself and its old allies in the region, such as Israel.

But in reality, most of the AKP’s policies are not incompatible with Kemalism. Indeed, the irony of Turkey today is that the AKP -- a religiously rooted, conservative political party -- has become the closest thing the country has to a defender of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey’s original Kemalist vision.s

For the last several decades, military Kemalism has been the organizing principle of Turkish politics, with a small group of military officials (along with a few bureaucratic and judicial representatives) responsible for guarding European values in Turkish society. But the military’s dominance has always been a distortion of Ataturk’s idea of Kemalism. Beginning in the 1920s, a few years before the declaration of the Republic of Turkey, the leaders of the Kemalist movement were adamant that the new state should embrace European social, economic, and political practices. Recognizing that Turkish society was still a long way from

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