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Erdogan opts for a low-key celebration of Turkey's 100th anniversary as a secular republic

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Turkey is marking the 100th anniversary of the creation of the modern, secular republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey is marking the 100th anniversary of the creation of the modern, secular republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire on Sunday, but expect no grand pageantry or gala reception to memorialize the important milestone.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has opted for a low-key celebration of the centennial, which comes months after a devastating earthquake that killed 50,000 people and coincides with the Israeli-Hamas war that has roiled the Middle East.

The subdued affair, however, has caused dismay among many in Turkey who feel that the legacy of the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is under attack by Erdogan’s government. They see the lack of pomp and fanfare an as attempt by the government, which finds its roots in Turkey’s Islamic movement, to erase Ataturk's memory.

Erdogan will observe the traditional protocol of laying a wreath at Ataturk’s mausoleum in the capital and shake hands with a procession of ambassadors and high-level officials at his palace. He will then travel to Istanbul to watch a procession of military ships on the Bosporus followed by a drones and fireworks show. In his speech marking the occasion, Erdogan is expected to highlight his government’s achievements in the past 20 years.

Earlier this year, Erdogan invited a slew of foreign leaders to celebrate his reelection for a third term as president in May but won’t be hosting a reception to mark the republic’s major milestone. State broadcaster TRT announced it was canceling special centennial programs due to the war in Gaza.

Many in Turkey will be holding their own private celebrations or parties in restaurants or homes. Municipalities run by opposition parties are organizing concerts and parades. Pop star Tarkan, classical pianist Fazil Say are among artists that have composed marches to mark the centennial.

“There are those who still have a problem with our republic 100 years later,” said the leader of the center-right opposition Iyi Party, Meral Aksener, accusing the government of not missing the opportunity to ensure the “100th year (celebration) falls flat.” She and others believe a mass pro-Palestinian rally attended by Erdogan on Saturday was especially organized to overshadow the centennial celebration.

But Ahmet Hakan, columnist for the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper, says the scaled-back celebration became “inevitable” due to Israel’s actions in Gaza, which have triggered a wave of protests particularly in Muslim-majority countries, in response to Hamas' attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

A World War I hero who went on to lead a war of independence against occupying forces, Ataturk proclaimed the Turkish Republic on Oct. 29, 1923. He embarked on a series of radical reforms aimed at turning the majority Muslim nation into a secular, Western-style democracy. He abolished the caliphate, replaced the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet and gave women the right to vote.

Ataturk is still held in high regard in the country where his portraits hang on walls of schools, offices and homes. Traffic comes to a standstill as thousands observe a minute of silence on the anniversary of his death. His signature is tattooed on arms.

But not all sections of society were on board with Ataturk’s reforms. Erdogan and his religious support base take pride in Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic past. Erdogan pays homage to Ataturk’s military achievements as an officer of the Ottoman Empire, but rarely praises his republican era.

The Turkish leader speaks of ushering a new era he has dubbed “The Century of Turkey,” with a new constitution that would uphold conservative family values and would have no room for what he has called “deviant” LGBTQ+ rights.

“Erdogan wants to see Turkey become (a country) that embraces Erdogan’s values, that is socially conservative, not necessarily part of the West and also, I would say, has a significant role for Islam from education to public policy,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute and author of books on Erdogan.

Critics say the Turkish leader has already moved Turkey further away from Ataturk’s vision.

Official functions today often begin with prayers. The Directorate of Religious Affairs has been given a large budget that dwarfs most other ministries. The number of religious schools have increased in line with Erdogan’s stated goal of creating a “pious generation.”

In 2020, Erdogan converted the former Byzantine-era church Hagia Sophia — which was turned into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul — back into a functioning mosque. Ataturk had transformed the structure into a museum in a nod to its Christian and Muslim legacy.

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