The history of the twentieth century is littered with the carcasses of failed revolutions. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, and Hitler all tried to master modernity—to curb or accelerate it—and all failed. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, it appeared the most consequential revolutionary of the last century might turn out to be Mustafa Kemal Pasha, better known as Atatürk, founder of the secular Republic of Turkey. Amidst the wreckage of the multinational Ottoman Empire, Atatürk emerged victorious, using bourgeois nationalism as a basis for reforming a Muslim country in an attempt to demonstrate that popular sovereignty and Islam could successfully coexist. That proposition remains to be disproven, but the Atatürk revolution itself died on April 16, 2017—the day Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, succeeded in his longstanding effort to transform the country’s parliamentary government into an executive presidency.
It is a cliché in Washington to say that a given country or issue is at an “inflection point,” but that hackneyed phrase tells the truth about today’s Turkey. Atatürk ruled the republic for about 15 years. So has Erdogan: He became prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014, with an eye to enlarging the power of the latter office. The constitutional changes that Turkish voters approved by the slightest of margins in an electoral landscape most objective observers regarded as unfairly tilted in Erdogan’s favor make it possible, his health permitting, for Erdogan to serve as president until 2029 or 2034 (when he will be 80). Should he do so, he will have dominated Turkey’s political life twice as long as its founder did—and complete the work of undoing Atatürk’s secular revolution, remaking the country in his own image.
Atatürk died relatively young but had put Turkey on the road to what Dean Acheson described as an “imperfect democracy.” As his biographer Lord Kinross noted, he undertook to secure a profoundly liberal end using extremely illiberal means. Along the way, he left many questions about Turkey’s future unanswered. What is the role of the military in politics? What is the role of ethnicity in the nation? What is the role of the state in the economy? And, finally, what is the role of religion in society?
Much of the country’s subsequent history was an effort to realize this modern, European vocation in the face of such open questions and a Kemalist system that after the death of the founder became rigid and unbending in its insistence on secularism at all costs. Progress was uneven, but there was a goal towards which Turkey was striving. The more sophisticated Islamists understood this. When Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP), which had arisen from the wreckage of confrontations between the secular state and Islamist political currents, came to power in 2002, it rode uneasily on the Turkish public’s broad aspiration to join Europe. In those heady, early days…