By Tim Arango
AUG. 7, 2016
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always had ambitions of surpassing Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, as the country’s most consequential figure.
Now, a failed coup may allow him finally to do that.
For years, Mr. Erdogan, an Islamist, has celebrated great moments of the Ottoman past when Istanbul was the seat of the Islamic caliphate, and played down Turkey’s secular history established by Ataturk. With last month’s failed coup, he now has his own story, and he has wasted little time propagating his own set of events and symbols to cement the narrative in the national consciousness.
A bridge over the Bosporus that was seized by renegade soldiers has been renamed for the civilians killed there. A square in Ankara, occupied by tanks as the military tried to take power, has been renamed as a symbol of democracy. Numerous street names have been changed to honor those who died defending the government.
Pro-government news media outlets have published thick volumes about the coup, celebrating the victims as national heroes, and the state broadcaster is making a documentary. Statues and monuments are planned, and next July 15, the first anniversary of the failed coup, will be a national holiday.
The conspirators have their place, too. Far on the outskirts of Asian Istanbul, on a plot of gravelly land near a dog shelter, graves have been dug for felled coup plotters in what is being called “the cemetery for traitors.”
All this in barely three weeks. Mr. Erdogan’s purpose is to ensure not only that nothing is lost to history, but also that this latest chapter in Turkey’s history will be largely owned by his Islamist supporters. In doing so, historians and analysts say, he has found an opportunity to celebrate what he has long called the “New Turkey” — a modern nation that emphasizes Islam and is a break from the country’s secular past.
Kerem Oktem, a Turkish historian at the University of Graz in Austria, described it as “a narrative of an Islamist defense of democracy.”
The narrative is one of heroic defiance in the name of Islam, against foreign powers, including the United States, that Mr. Erdogan and others have darkly suggested may have been mixed up in the coup conspiracy. But there is a twist: In Mr. Erdogan’s telling, the coup was led not by the old secular elite, but by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who heads a rival Islamist movement and lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania. (There has even been talk in some pro-government newspapers of converting Mr. Gulen’s childhood home in Turkey into a public toilet.)
The coup attempt, and how it was defeated by crowds of Erdogan supporters and even some secularists who flooded the streets to stand up to the soldiers, has already been referred to as Turkey’s second war of independence. The first one, led by Ataturk, followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and was at the center of constructing a Turkish identity centered on secular and nationalist principles.
“The A.K.P. government had already been searching for new commemorations to mark what they define as the New Turkey,” said Esra Ozyurek, the chairwoman of the Turkish studies program at the London School of Economics, using the acronym of Mr. Erdogan’s political party. “President Erdogan expressed how he did not think commemorations of the Turkish Republic reflect the whole Turkish, Ottoman and Muslim history he saw the new Turkey building upon.”
Under Mr. Erdogan, the government has angered secular Turks by canceling several celebrations honoring Ataturk — citing various rationales, like a mining accident and an earthquake — while it has commemorated historic Ottoman victories and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
The coup, though, “seems to be the perfect grand event, complete with martyrs and great popular support,” Ms. Ozyurek said.
Now, Mr. Oktem said, Mr. Erdogan is trying to create a new narrative of a Turkish Islamic identity “that reaches beyond” what Ataturk built. Other analysts say Mr. Erdogan is essentially using the coup events to create a founding myth of an Islamist Turkey.
The overwhelming message now is that Turkey is for the Islamists, even as Mr. Erdogan has sought to unify the country by reaching out to some of his traditional opponents, mainly secular and nationalist Turks, by dropping lawsuits he had filed against them and inviting them to rallies.
Mr. Erdogan, who was once jailed by Turkey’s old secular elite for reciting a religious poem in public, came to power in 2003 as the voice of Turkey’s religious masses. He empowered an entire class of people who had historically been treated as second-class citizens, and gave them a sense that they mattered in the country’s affairs.
In the wake of the botched coup, he has provided them something even greater: a belief that they, in heeding his call and those of the mosque preachers to rise to the government’s defense, saved the country much as Ataturk did after World War I.
Night after night since the coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan’s supporters, at his urging, have gathered in Taksim Square in central Istanbul to celebrate having saved the nation. Ottoman-era music blares, and vendors sell Turkish flags, T-shirts bearing Mr. Erdogan’s face and watermelon slices. To make it easier for people to attend, public transportation has been free.
Taksim Square itself has in the past been associated with secular movements — from social and labor groups in the 1960s to the antigovernment demonstrations of three years ago that began as a protest against a plan to redevelop Gezi Park. The large gatherings of Erdogan supporters in the square over the last three weeks have emerged as a potent symbol of the reclamation of Istanbul’s public spaces by the Islamists, Mr. Oktem said.
A massive gathering organized by Mr. Erdogan on Sunday in Istanbul, called the “democracy and martyrs” rally, was a potent show of unity, with two main opposition parties in attendance. But there was no question of who was being celebrated. Banners showed Mr. Erdogan next to Ataturk, and Mr. Erdogan arrived by helicopter and was introduced as the commander in chief.
“We are now the soldiers of this country,” said Osman Bozoglu, 34, a supporter of Mr. Erdogan who was selling Turkish flags at the rally. “This was the second war of independence, and we won! We would do it again.”
Turkish television has broadcast a stream of stories about heroic acts on the night of the coup, one of the most prominent being by an army sergeant, Omer Halisdemir, who reportedly shot and killed a general who was supporting the coup before he himself was killed.
“We’re getting stories, just like the war of independence,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish columnist and analyst. “Individual stories of martyrs.”
Mr. Erdogan’s own story on the night of the coup, of narrowly escaping as he fled a hotel just before coup-plotting commandos arrived to kill or kidnap him, is already being compared to a famous story about Ataturk, who during the battle of Gallipoli supposedly missed death when his pocket watch deflected a bullet.
Never mind that the story has been contradicted by subsequent reports suggesting that Mr. Erdogan left his seaside hotel hours before the commandos arrived. The bit about the narrow escape has already been welded into the popular account, and is likely to endure in history.
“In terms of myth making, these stories are very important in the imagination of a nation,” Ms. Aydintasbas said. She called the quick efforts by the government and its media outlets an exercise in building a new “national mythology.”
Ms. Aydintasbas said it often seemed that the entire founding narrative of her country had been rewritten in a matter of weeks. She added, “The nation has been redefined as the people out in the streets resisting the coup on the night of July 15.”