ISTANBUL: Turkey marked its centenary as a post-Ottoman republic on Sunday with somewhat muted celebrations held in the shadow of Israel’s escalating war with Hamas militants in Gaza.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was front and centre of day-long events that both honour the secular republic’s founder and play up the achievement of the Islamic-rooted party that has run Turkey since 2002.
“Our country is in safe hands, you may rest in peace,” Erdogan said after laying a wreath at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - the Turkish military commander whose legacy the current president has vied with during his two-decade rule.
Ataturk is lionised across Turkish society for driving out invading forces and building a brand new nation out of the fallen Ottoman Empire’s ruins in the wake of World War I.
Turkey was formed as a Westward-facing nation that stripped religion from its state institutions and tried to forge a modern new identity out its myriad ethnic groups.
It eventually became a proud member of the US-led Nato defence alliance and a beacon of democratic hopes in the Middle East.
But Ataturk’s social and geopolitical transformation of the overwhelmingly Muslim nation created divisions that weigh on Turkish politics to this day.
Erdogan tapped into these as he led his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power over the leftist Republican People’s Party (CHP) formed by Ataturk.
He has spent much of the past decade testing the limits of Turkey’s secular traditions as well as its ties with the West.
These competing forces were on full display as Erdogan moved from honouring Turkey’s past to celebrating his own government’s achievement while he was prime minister and president.
Sunday’s celebrations have been partially eclipsed by Erdogan’s increasingly fierce attacks against Israel over its response to the October 7 Hamas attacks.
Turkish state television has also scrapped the broadcast of concerts and other festivities because of the “alarming human tragedy in Gaza”.
Erdogan’s lifelong defence of Palestinian rights has turned him into a hero across swathes of the Muslim world.
He announced that 1.5 million people had come out for a pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul on Saturday that ended up drowning out national television coverage of the centenary.
Erdogan accused the Israeli government of behaving like a “war criminal” and trying to “eradicate” Palestinians.
“Israel, you are an occupier,” Erdogan declared.
His remarks prompted Israel to announce the withdrawal of all diplomatic staff for a “re-evaluation” of relations.