A former member of Turkey’s Islamist party executive council sparked a firestorm last week, even among members of his own party, after calling Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the “founding leader” of a “new state” created after the failed July 2016 coup.
Providing commentary on CNN Türk, former AKP Central Decision Making and Executive Council (MKYK) member Ayhan Oğan appeared to compare Erdogan to the founder of the Turkish republic, secular leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and reportedly stated that “the founder of the Republic of Turkey is not Atatürk—it is the Grand National Assembly.”
Under Erdogan the Grand National Assembly, or the Turkish parliament, is transitioning out of a parliamentary system into a presidential one that greatly expands Erdogan’s power.
“We are building a new state and, whether you like it or not, its founding leader is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” Oğan reportedly said on CNN Türk. “On July 15 [2016, the date of the failed coup], all tutelage mechanisms within the state crumbled apart. The state system in which bureaucratic oligarchy was the hegemon has come to an end.”
According to the secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet, Oğan went on to claim that Erdogan, not Atatürk, was the founder of modern Turkey. “Political history will write it like this: The founder of the Turkish Republic is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the founding party is the CHP [Republican People’s Party],” he said during an August 3 broadcast. “The leader of the second process, in which Turkey is designed as an absolutely independent state of the people, is Erdoğan and the political leaders siding with him. The leader of that independence movement is the AKP [Justice and Development Party].”
Oğan is currently a political commentator but previously served on the AKP’s MKYK, making him a particularly influential and well-connected member of that Islamist party. The AKP has thus found itself in a position to rebut his comments, particularly given growing concerns that Erdogan’s government has been insufficiently deferent to Atatürk and his vision of a secular government.
“It is clear that [Oğan’s] opinions belong only to him. The views of our party on this issue have been publicly shared by our president … many times before, personally or through statements. In this way, we want to express once more that the founder of the Republic of Turkey is Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the protagonist of our Dardanelles and Liberation Wars,”the AKP affirmed in its statement.
“We believe that we have fulfilled the legacy of Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” the statement concludes.
Prominent AKP members have begun distancing themselves from Oğan’s remarks. “What is said by TV programmers and commentators are not binding for our party,” Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said this weekend, responded to the quotes in question with “Are you joking?”
Yıldırım’s deputy Bekir Bozdağ issued a statement echoing the official party line, reiterating, “It’s clear who forms and announces the views of the government. All other statements are binding only for the person who said them.”
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet notes that the secularist CHP, founded by Atatürk, has demanded the AKP “take action against Oğan” for his remarks. “Insulting Atatürk” remains a crime in Turkey, punishable by up to three years in prison. Insulting Erdogan is also a crime, punishable by up to four years in prison.
This latest controversy once again raises concerns that an increasingly Islamist Erdogan administration has led to the erosion of respect for Atatürk. While mocking Atatürk remains a crime, Erdogan has reversed such Atatürk policies as banning Islamic prayer at the Hagia Sophia, a Christian landmark constructed before the conquest of Constantinople and emboldened Islamists who have publicly attacked secularist assemblies, even as those rallying chanted “we are soldiers of Mustafa Kemal.”
Last week, a crazed man in Muslim garb attacked a statue of Atatürk with a sickle, shouting “there is no idol worship in Islam,” in southeastern Siverek.
Erdogan has claimed that Atatürk would have supported his move to eliminate the parliamentary system Atatürk himself established to allow Erdogan to amass more power.