Turkey holds muted centennial celebrations as Israel-Hamas conflict looms in background

ANKARA — Turkey commemorated its 100th anniversary as a republic on Sunday. Despite much grander plans, celebrations were significantly subdued, largely due to the ongoing conflict in Gaza. The decision to tone down the celebrations have exposed divisions within Turkish society, particularly concerning the country’s secular legacy, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increasingly challenged.

On the country’s centennial, President Erdogan paid his respects at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, and expressed his confidence in the nation’s current leadership.

A firework and drone show was organized in Istanbul, as well as a procession of 100 navy ships down the Bosporus, but little else was planned, including a traditional gala.

Many events were scaled down or canceled. Official state receptions were scrapped, and special TV coverage of concerts and celebrations was canceled, citing the ongoing tragedy in Gaza. Erdogan’s participation in a pro-Palestine rally in Istanbul the day before further overshadowed the centennial celebration, where he strongly criticized Israel for its actions in Gaza and praised Hamas.

This more subdued observance of the centennial has stirred controversy among some citizens who believe that Erdogan is downplaying the significance of the occasion to advance his own political agenda which favors religiosity over secularism.

Critics argue that Erdogan’s policies have shifted Turkey away from its founding principles, with official functions often beginning with prayers, increased funding for religious affairs, and an emphasis on religious education to foster a “pious generation”. In 2020, Erdogan converted the Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine-era church that had been a museum, back into a functioning mosque, reversing a decision made by Ataturk to honor both the site’s Christian and Muslim heritage.

Absent from the commemorations was any conversation about the darker aspects of the country’s history, particularly concerning the crimes committed during the Ottoman Empire era. The Ottoman Empire engaged in a series of atrocities, including ethnic cleansing, massacres, and genocides targeting Armenians, Syriacs (Arameans–Chaldeans–Assyrians), Kurds, and others. These actions left millions of victims, and the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic rested upon the suffering, bloodshed, and displacement of these people from their ancestral lands.

International organizations and nations worldwide have recognized these crimes as genocide and systematic ethnic cleansing. However, even a century later, the Turkish government has not fully addressed these historical injustices, and present-day leaders like Erdogan continue to both deny the crimes were committed and use them as a threat to keep minority populations in-line.