ISTANBUL — Turkey marked its 90th anniversary on Tuesday, paying homage to the country’s revered founding father and unveiling its latest multibillion-dollar “mega project,” a massive rail tunnel through Istanbul that links the Asian and European continents.
Yet, in a region dominated by despots and autocrats, the struggle for the nation’s identity continues.
A wreath of red and white carnations was laid on the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — who established the Turkish republic in 1923, following the Ottoman collapse at the end of the First World War — at a ceremony in the capital, Ankara.
“Because of our country’s gains as it approaches its centennial anniversary, we are proud of our country for its rise in all fields and its development as a global center,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul reportedly wrote in a guestbook at the mausoleum.
Turks throughout the country celebrated the occasion, known as Republic Day, by setting off fireworks and marching in streets waving the red Turkish flag.
In Istanbul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the world’s first underwater rail system, the Marmaray, to link two continents, Europe and Asia which are separated by the Bosporus Strait.
“The project of the century, Marmaray, has been opened on the 90th anniversary of the foundation of Republic of Turkey,” said Mr. Erdogan. “It both dignifies Republic of Turkey and also we have proved to have fulfilled such a project with a democratic republic in stability and solidarity.”
The $2.8 billion tunnel is the latest in a slew of controversial and large-scale construction projects that have driven hyper-speed economic growth the past decade. A third bridge over the Bosporus is in the works, as well as a 31-mile canal linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.
Meanwhile, Mr. Erdogan intends on erecting a mosque — 17,000 mosques have already been built during his decade in power — visible at any point in Istanbul, which he claims will have the world’s tallest minarets.
Analysts largely agree that Mr. Erdogan is the most effective leader Turkey has had since Ataturk implemented his broad, sweeping reforms last century that fiercely prescribed, or engineered, a secular “Turkish” identity for Turks and denied the existence of ethnic minorities.
The Turkish military — Ataturk led the defense against the allies at Gallipoli — has traditionally viewed itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s secular legacy, meddling extensively in politics and repressing Islamic movements, culminating in a 1997 coup that saw Mr. Erdogan’s mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, and the nation’s first overtly Islamic prime minister forced from power.
Mr. Erdogan rose out of Istanbul’s radical Islamic underground following decades of political instability, punctuated by military coups, to become the most powerful man in the country in 2003. He heads the country’s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a center-right, socially conservative party with strong Islamic leanings.
He immediately set about scaling back the military’s powers, made headway on the country’s Kurdish issue, eradicated torture and aggressively pursued European Union membership.
Meanwhile, per capita income rose steeply and Turkey, forming NATO’s eastern bulwark, implemented a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy.
Indeed, Turkey has been transformed over the past decade, and is regularly held aloft as a model of moderate Islamic rule, Western-friendly, in a region known for oppressive governance.
“I wish Turkey and its citizens a happy holiday as you celebrate this special anniversary,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday. “The United States looks forward to deepening our cooperation as you carry forward Ataturk’s vision of a strong, free and democratic Turkey.”
Yet fears mount that below the glistening towers that dominate Istanbul’s skyline, Mr. Erdogan, perceived as increasingly authoritarian, is attacking “Ataturk’s vision” by engaging in social engineering and a creeping assault on Turkey’s secular identity, the force that has defined the republic the past 90 years.
Moves to curb alcohol consumption and statements by Mr. Erdogan claiming to be engineering a “pious generation” have done little to dispel such fears.
“He is making Turkey more and more conservative,” said Istanbul activist Timur Karadeniz. “Turkey declared the Republic 90 years ago and proclaimed democracy; however it’s still struggling to be a real democracy.”
Protests earlier this year over plans to demolish Istanbul’s central Gezi Park — in essence a protest against Mr. Erdogan’s construction projects that are causing massive deforestation and environmental damage — morphed into calls for Mr. Erdogan to resign.
The protests — driven by a previously apolitical secular youth, highlighting the country’s secular-Islamic rifts — were brutally crushed in an ongoing campaign of intimidation that Amnesty International recently described as “brutal denial of the right to peaceful assembly.”
Meanwhile, the EU bid has mostly stalled. Despite economic growth, the rich-poor gap is among the highest in the developed world. Violence against women is routine.
The “no problems” foreign policy is in tatters: Mr. Erdogan’s support for the opposition in neighboring Syria — Ankara is believed to have supplied arms to insurgent groups there — has escalated the Syrian civil war, leading to a flood of 500,000 refugees into Turkey and costing the government billions of dollars.
Yet, it is the fear of Mr. Erdogan’s heavy hand, of a steeled authoritarianism and gradual Islamization, that his opponents most often cite.