March 18th was the day of commemoration for one of World War One’s worst military disasters for the Allies. In Turkey, it is celebrated as the anniversary of the Ottoman victory against the invading naval forces at the Dardanelles Straits.
It was one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Great War. Yet, 101 years on, the legacy of Gallipoli is still very much alive, not purely as a battle that changed the course of history, but also as a lesson in how out of the ashes of the worst brutality can arise the very best examples of basic humanity.
The Johnies and the Mehmets, lying in graves in Gallipoli side by side were honoured by memorials, erected on three different continents after the war. Inscriptions on them salute the fallen not only for their heroism, but also for their dignity and magnanimity.
The Battle of Dardanelles is deeply embedded in the psyches of all the nations that fought in it, but nowhere more than modern Turkey, where it has always been seen as a defining moment in history. The Gallipoli campaign brought a young lieutenant-colonel in the Ottoman Fifth Army, Mustafa Kemal, to prominence and revived the national resolve and pride of Turks in the twilights years of the Ottoman Empire, leading the way to the war of Independence which laid the foundations of modern Turkey.
In recent years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken several steps to dismantle the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the military statesman that founded the nation. With the rising Islamist politics of the AKP, it was the Ottoman past that was glorified and the secular Republic’s history modified. Almost all key historical national events were given a distinctly Islamic tone.
This year, too, on March 18th, marked as the Remembrance Day for Martyrs, the ceremony held in the north-western province Çanakkale, had a strong emphasis on the Islamic concept of martyrdom. “For us, martyrdom is not something to be frightened of” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “it is something we all strive for”.
Religious fervor in Mr Erdogan’s speeches is nothing new. It was the obvious departure from the reconciliatory language that came to be identified internationally with the Gallipoli commemorations that surprised many.
“We, as a nation, never fear or shy from battle, no matter who or how powerful our enemies are. Nobody can stop us from writing a new epic as long as we protect our solidarity and brotherhood,” the President said.
Recipients of his comments were internal enemies, but everyone else, including the European Union with whom his Prime Minister was simultaneously negotiating a refugee deal in Brussels, had their fair share too.
Mr Erdogan told his audience that Turkey has had 300 martyrs to terrorism since July, “but our gain is comparable to the Battle of Dardanelles and the War of Independence”, he added rather haphazardly.
When taken together with his comments the day before, declaring that democracy and freedom had absolutely no value in the country any longer, and “those who stand on our side in the fight against terrorism are our friend; those on the opposite side, are our enemy,” the President’s words sounded particularly chilling.
This month’s Ankara massacre by the PKK’s off-shoot, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) was committed by two young suicide bombers. The earlier atrocities in Ankara, Istanbul and Suruc, by ISIS, “sacrificed” the lives of militants while killing hundreds of innocents. Violent extremists of all kinds want to elevate their barbaric actions to some kind of heroic martyrdom; be it on the path to heaven or to an ethno-nationalist ideal.
Today, Turkey is already on edge. Fear of further indiscriminate attacks is visible everywhere.
There is something dreadfully wrong when people are subjected to the same narrative from those that threaten them and the ones that should protect them.
We expect our leaders to strive to promote life, and do everything in their power to stop those hell-bent on extinguishing it.
This post is also available in: Turkish