Istanbul, Turkey – Turkey marked its centenary as a post-Ottoman republic on Sunday with somewhat muted celebrations held in the shadow of Israel’s escalating war with Hamas fighters in Gaza.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was front and centre of day-long events that both honour the secular republic’s founder and play up the achievement of the Islamic-rooted party that has run Turkey since 2002.
“Our country is in safe hands, you may rest in peace,” Erdogan said after laying a wreath at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the Turkish military commander whose legacy the current president has vied with during his two-decade rule.
Ataturk is lionised across Turkish society for driving out invading forces and building a brand new nation out of the fallen Ottoman Empire’s ruins in the wake of World War I.
Turkey was formed as a Westward-facing nation that stripped religion from its state institutions and tried to forge a modern new identity out its myriad ethnic groups.
It eventually became a proud member of the US-led NATO defence alliance and a beacon of democratic hopes in the Middle East.
But Ataturk’s social and geopolitical transformation of the overwhelmingly Muslim nation created divisions that weigh on Turkish politics to this day.
Erdogan tapped into these as he led his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power over the leftist Republican People’s Party (CHP) formed by Ataturk.
He has spent much of the past decade testing the limits of Turkey’s secular traditions as well as its ties with the West.
These competing forces were on full display as Erdogan moved from honouring Turkey’s past to celebrating his own government’s achievement while he was prime minister and president.
Sunday’s celebrations have been partially eclipsed by Erdogan’s increasingly fierce attacks against Israel over its response to the October 7 Hamas attacks.
The fighters killed 1,400 people and took 220 hostages in a surprise raid that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the worst ‘since the Holocaust’.
Israel has retaliated with ferocious air strikes and an unfolding ground offensive that the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says has claimed more than 8,000 lives.
Turkish state television has also scrapped the broadcast of concerts and other festivities because of the ‘alarming human tragedy in Gaza’.
Erdogan’s lifelong defence of Palestinian rights has turned him into a hero across swathes of the Muslim world.
He announced that 1.5mn people had come out for a pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul on Saturday that ended up drowning out national television coverage of the centenary.
Erdogan accused the Israeli government of behaving like a ‘war criminal’ and trying to ‘eradicate’ Palestinians.
“Israel, you are an occupier,” Erdogan declared.
His remarks prompted Israel to announce the withdrawal of all diplomatic staff for a ‘re-evaluation’ of relations.
The emerging diplomatic crisis further pulled attention away from Turkey’s birthday party and onto Erdogan’s handling of global affairs.
Turkey has suffered a turbulent spell of relations with Western allies since Erdogan survived a failed coup attempt in 2016 that he blamed on a US-based Muslim preacher.
Istanbul’s Kadir Has University lecturer Soli Ozel saw Saturday’s pro-Palestinian rally as part of Erdogan’s tacit effort to undermine Ataturk’s secular vision.
“Couldn’t (this rally) have waited until next week? The centenary only comes around once in a century,” Ozel said in an interview.
But one survey suggested that Erdogan’s comments play to his Islamic conservative core of supporters and not the public at large.
The Metropoll survey showed just 11.3 per cent of the respondents saying they ‘back Hamas’.
But 34.5 per cent said Turkey should stay ‘neutral’ and 26.4 per cent said it should mediate.