Before claiming that Mr. Erdogan’s moves can be countered by returning to the foundations of the secular republic, we should recall that Turkey was not a democracy until 1950; that it was ruled consecutively from 1923 to 1946 by two unchallenged leaders, Ataturk and Ismet Inonu, each invested with dictatorial powers; and that its democracy was “interrupted” three times by military coups or interventions, in 1960, 1971 and 1980, not to mention a failed one in 1997. Moreover, Turkish “secularism” often marginalized and oppressed those who openly displayed their beliefs; head-scarf-wearing women were banned from universities, and few protections were given to religious minorities.
What Mr. Erdogan is currently undermining and destroying isn’t an imagined golden age of a secular and democratic Turkey, which never really existed, but rather the “état de grâce” that followed his party’s first electoral victory in 2002. For five or six years, the A.K.P. used democracy as its only defense against the authoritarian ways of the old guard — the coalition formed by the secular political parties and the army, long considered the guarantor of secularism.