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 militants in Gaza.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was front and center of day-long events that both honor 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,” Erdoğan said after laying a wreath at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — the Turkish military commander whose legacy the current president has vied with during his two-decade rule.
Atatürk is lionized 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 defense alliance and a beacon of democratic hopes in the Middle East.
But Atatürk’s social and geopolitical transformation of the overwhelmingly Muslim nation created divisions that weigh on Turkish politics to this day.
Erdoğan tapped into these as he led his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power over the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) formed by Atatürk.
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 Erdoğan moved from honoring 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 Erdoğan’s increasingly fierce attacks against Israel over its response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
The militants 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.”
Erdoğan’s lifelong defense of Palestinian rights has turned him into a hero across swathes of the Muslim world.
He announced that 1.5 million people had come out for a pro-Palestinian rally in İstanbul on Saturday that ended up drowning out national television coverage of the centenary.
Erdoğan accused the Israeli government of behaving like a “war criminal” and trying to “eradicate” Palestinians.
“Israel, you are an occupier,” Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’s handling of global affairs.
Turkey has suffered a turbulent spell of relations with Western allies since Erdoğan survived a failed coup attempt in 2016 that he blamed on a US-based Muslim preacher.
İstanbul’s Kadir Has University lecturer Soli Özel saw Saturday’s pro-Palestinian rally as part of Erdoğan’s tacit effort to undermine Atatürk’s secular vision.
“Couldn’t (this rally) have waited until next week? The centenary only comes around once in a century,” Özel said in an interview.
But one survey suggested that Erdoğan’s comments play to his Islamic conservative core of supporters and not the public at large.
The Metropoll survey showed just 11.3 percent of the respondents saying they “back Hamas.”
But 34.5 percent said Turkey should stay “neutral” and 26.4 percent said it should mediate.
© Agence France-Presse