Turkey’s ‘Museum of the July 15 Martyrs and Democracy’: Erdogan’s stamp on history

Published April 24th, 2017 - 01:30 GMT
Supporters of President Erdogan rally in Istanbul against the failed military coup in July 2016. (AFP/File)
Supporters of President Erdogan rally in Istanbul against the failed military coup in July 2016. (AFP/File)

The July 2015 coup attempt in Turkey took local and international political actors by surprise – but the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government was quick to commemorate the event and brand the failed putsch as a triumph of democracy.

Just ten days after the coup, the Bosporus Bridge that was the scene of a showdown between military tanks and Erdogan supporters was renamed the “15 July Martyrs Bridge.” Shortly after that, July 15 was declared a holiday – the “Day of Democracy and Martyrs.” Rather than burying or downplaying the importance of the coup attempt, Erdogan went on the warpath to show just how close democracy had come to being vanquished.

Earlier this month, Turkey’s Culture Ministry presented plans for a new major museum outside Ankara – the “Museum of the July 15 Martyrs and Democracy” – to commemorate the failed bid to unseat President Erdogan.

The museum will feature permanent, temporary, and interactive exhibits on the “martyrs and warriors” who stopped the coup, along with a library, café, and gift shop, according to Hurriyet Daily News.

This is hardly the first such memorial to “martyrs” in Turkey. A 2014 exhibit organized by the Istanbul municipality showcased artifacts from the start of World War One (with a special section for refuting the Armenian Genocide). Memorials at Canakkale are popular destinations as field trips for school children who come to learn about how Turkish Ottoman soldiers defeated British, Australian, and French forces from taking Istanbul between 1915 and 1916.

Turkey’s also no stranger to military coups that unseated presidents past. May 27 became Turkey’s new “National Day” following the 1960 coup. Freedom and Constitution Day was celebrated for 22 years until 1982, when a military junta established a new constitution – the constitution which was only replaced earlier this month during the nationwide referendum.

With a coup that came as a surprise and failed to unseat the government, how did they so quickly manage to put together a fully-fledged, triumphant narrative?

It helps to understand that Turkey’s military, since the modern republic was founded, has always been staunchly secular. A guardian of Kemalist ideology, it has in the past very successfully intervened in politics against incursions of religion or leaders showing signs of authoritarianism.

But at the same time there are many who recall the unstable days of emergency rule in the 1960s and 1970s and hardly view military overthrows as a sign of healthy governance.

It also means that the majority of these holidays Turkey has commemorated over the years have been reflective of the vision Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his political party, the CHP, had for the country.

After more than a decade in power, the AKP had been looking for ways to commemorate the full Turkish history, as Erdogan sees it – that of the Ottoman Empire, of Islamic advancement, and perhaps less significantly, the republican era of the last century.

AKP originally billed itself as something of a rebellious movement – as representing the more religious, traditional Turks who had been oppressed by the secularism of Kemalists and the West.

So the coup fit this narrative perfectly – it shows the AKP government simultaneously under attack by the military, secularism, and the West – and victorious against it.

Less than a year later, a new constitution is in place, Erdogan has secured executive powers – and the coup is another memorial day in the annals of the republic.

Lindsey Leger

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