ANKARA (Reuters) - For decades his picture dominated Turkey, piercing blue eyes staring from hoardings, keeping watch over city streets and army barracks. Schoolyards echoed every morning to his oath:
“Happy is he who can say ‘I am a Turk!’”
Now that oath rings out no more and the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular republic, seems for some to be retreating into the shadows, victim of a new ruling class they suspect of cherishing a new more ‘Islamic’ Turkey.
Turkey’s “Kemalists” flinch at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan advising women on the number of children they should have, fostering restrictions on alcohol and expressing moral outrage over male and female students living together in the same house or flat.
The natural place to turn, as in hard times before, was to Ataturk’s tomb, the Anitkabir, a columned stone monument atop a hill in Ankara. Over a million people descended on it this month on the anniversary of his death, the highest number in more than a decade. Tens of thousands more marked the ritual at Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace where Ataturk spent his last days.
“They’re stepping on everything Ataturk stands for and I felt the need to show my reaction,” said Ozgur Diker, a 36-year old insurance salesman from Istanbul who travelled with five friends to Anitkabir.
“Whatever little democracy we have today, we owe it to Ataturk,” he said, one of many first-time visitors to the tomb to mark the anniversary this year.
Tension between religious and secular elites has long been one of the underlying fault lines in the predominantly Muslim but constitutionally secular republic, forged from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy by Ataturk 90 years ago.
But a stream of provocative comments from Erdogan, who is expected to stand for president in elections next year, has heightened accusations of religiously-motivated interference in private life and exacerbated secularists’ sense of siege.
Erdogan suggested this month that rules could be drawn up to stop male and female students living together, one ruling party official suggesting such unregulated cohabitation could be used to harbor criminals.
Ataturk forged a Western model of a woman, wearing Western clothes and pursuing a professional and independent life.
“This debate about males and females staying in the same dormitory was the very last straw,” said Nese Yildiz, a 46-year old former banker visiting Anitkabir.
“The state is trying to enter our homes. And they create this impression that their kids have the moral values and ours don’t,” she said.
Turks who share Yildiz’s views say this sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has become a increasing part of the fabric of Turkish society under Erdogan, accusing him of alienating anyone who does not live according to the Islamic values he espouses.
His comments earlier this year that Turkey’s existing alcohol laws had been made by “two drunkards” was taken by many as a reference to Ataturk, part of a polarizing rhetoric that contributed to a summer of violent protest a few weeks later.
“We are not talking about Turkey becoming an Iran here,” said Tanil Bora, a writer and an academic at Ankara University.
“But no one can deny the rise of a moral authoritarianism.”
Erdogan, founder of the ruling AK Party whose roots lie in political Islam, bristles at the suggestion he is anything other than a democrat. His supporters argue he is simply redressing the balance and restoring religious freedom to a Muslim majority after decades of restrictive secularist rule.
For some his colorful words have a revanchist edge.
“These people have drunk their whiskies for years overlooking the Bosphorus ... and have looked down on everyone else,” Erdogan told a rally in the conservative central Anatolian province of Kayseri at the height of the summer protests, referring to the country’s secular elite.
Lifting a ban on Islamic head scarves in state institutions last month was one such redress. The ban, based on a 1925 cabinet decree when Ataturk introduced clothing reforms meant to banish overt symbols of religious affiliation from public life, had kept many women from joining the public work force.
The schoolyard oath was seen by many Kurds as denying their ethnic identity - why could they not be happy to be Kurds? - and a complication to Erdogan’s efforts to end a three decades old insurgency that has killed 40.000.
Erdogan has made curbing the clout of the army - self-appointed guardians of secularism who carried out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pushed an Islamist-led government from power in 1997 - a central mission of his decade in power.
Hundreds of top generals have been jailed for plots to overthrow his government, prompting accusations of a witch-hunt. Where once a deliberate or unintended public slight of the army or of Ataturk might land someone in court, these days religious offence can have the same result. Times are changing.
Erdogan’s force of character has ushered in unprecedented political stability which has also brought wealth, per capita income tripling in nominal terms and the days of hyperinflation and chronic currency instability fading to a distant memory.
Despite the secularist backlash and the fierce protests of summer, Erdogan remains the most popular politician in Turkey, his polarizing rhetoric and emotionally blunt manner rallying supporters in the country’s conservative Anatolian heartlands.
the AK years, since Erdogan’s party was first elected in 2002, has seen a boom in business in that heartland, the emergence of the “Anatolian Tiger” in a country long dominated by a number of large sometimes family-owned companies
A series of opinion polls since the summer protests show zero or little fall in his AK Party’s popularity.
“The AK Party and Erdogan’s supporters usually take the more grotesque examples of Kemalism and portray it like a form of extremism, which reinforces the resentment against secularists,” said Ankara University’s Bora.
But his critics - including a growing number within his own party - fear the uncompromising reluctance to tolerate dissenting voices which have become increasingly evident during his third term in office are making him a liability.
Under party rules, Erdogan cannot run again as prime minister in elections in 2015 and is widely expected instead to stand for the presidency next year, potentially under a deal with fellow party founder and current president, Abdullah Gul, a more moderate voice who could then become prime minister.
Erdogan has failed to push through the constitutional changes he wanted to create an executive presidency to replace the current largely ceremonial role ahead of the vote; but he is nonetheless unlikely to take a quiet back seat.
“They have the power,” said Mustafa Ozel, 52, an Ankara-based artist visiting Anitkabir. “And they can dictate everything; how we give birth, at what time we are allowed to have a drink, how many kids we should have.”
Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton