Saturday, 17 November 2012

Has Ataturk Been Relegated?

Is Atatürk, the once revered founder and very soul of the modern Turkish Republic, being relegated to the status of Uncle Buck, the slightly disreputable distant relative who tends to show up inconveniently at holidays? This may be a bit of an overstatement, but Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) is slowly but steadily eroding the iconic reputation of the man who lifted Turkey out of the chaos of a crumbling, discredited empire, and dragged it into the modern world.
Ataturk: The Father of Modern Turkey
 His name used to be considered synonymous with that of the Turkish Republic. Indeed, the very name Atatürk was bestowed on him by a grateful parliament, thus changing him from simply Mustafa Kemal to the everlasting Father Turk. Every school child had to memorize his famous speeches – especially the one directed to the youth of Turkey. Huge posters of Atatürk adorned many buildings and his picture was in almost every office. Several of his memorable sayings would be emblazoned in neon lights across streets and central squares in every Anatolian town. Every town had its Atatürk Boulevard and/or Atatürk Square. Anyone who dared take his name in vain was quickly and viciously sued by zealous state prosecutors. At the beginning of a new parliament each member had to come forward and swear an oath to continue the principles of Atatürk and his revolution.

Now, under AKP’s steady air-brushing of history, he is in danger of becoming ‘Atatürk who?’. The policy came to a head last month at what was supposed to be a celebration of the founding of the Republic on Oct. 29. AKP officials decreed that supporters of Atatürk could not have a demonstration in front of the old parliament building in Ankara. Thousands defied that ban and were soaked with water cannons from the police for their efforts. Police removed the barricades only after the president of Turkey, Abdullah Gül, intervened.
Police confront pro-Ataturk supporters at Republic Day celebration
 November 10, the day that Atatürk, died in 1938 is another day heavy with symbolism. Traditionally all traffic stops and sirens start to wail at around 10 am when he died in Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. This year the prime minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, conveniently arranged to be out of the country on a ‘crucial’ visit to the Sultanate of Brunei on November 10. Critics were wondering if Erdoğan was perhaps getting tips on recreating a ‘sultanate’ in Turkey – under his leadership, of course.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
May 19, the day that Atatürk landed in the Black Sea port of Samsun in 1919 to start the campaign against the Greek invasion, used to be a major celebration where stadiums were filled with marching school children. No more. Various excuses were offered last May as to why this once mandatory celebration has been all but forgotten.

Recently AKP officials have also suggested that the standard parliamentary oath to remain faithful to Atatürk’s revolution should be dropped. No one knows what, if anything, would replace the oath.

And now a ceremonial procession in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir marking the 75th anniversary of Atatürk’s arrival there has been cancelled for ‘security’ reasons. One person commented that if the Turkish army couldn’t defend itself who could?

The trend is obvious, and supporters of Atatürk’s reforms are now derided merely as Kemalists. Those not familiar with Turkey today wonder just why the ruling party is going to such lengths to downgrade a man largely perceived as the saviour of Turkey. The basic reason seems simple enough. It’s payback time. Erdoğan and his more zealous sycophants have never hidden their anger at some of Atatürk’s more memorable reforms, many of which were designed to limit the role of religion and make sure Turkey became and remained a western-oriented secular republic. The AKP deeply resents not only that orientation but also the military, economic and bureaucratic elite that grew up around it. This elite rigidly enforced its interpretation of Atatürk’s reforms and created the hagiography that surrounds the man.

AKP spokesmen would have us believe all this reduction of Atatürk’s place in Turkish society is being done in the name of increasing ‘democracy’, giving voice to a large segment of the population that felt denigrated for decades. It would be nice if Erdoğan had used this opportunity to bring real democracy to Turkey. But unfortunately, the AKP version of democracy seems merely to replace one rigid dogma with another, to assume that winning an election gives the right to ignore any other opinion. Once it was the word according to Atatürk. Now it is the word, the new reality, according to Tayyip Erdoğan. No criticism shall be tolerated. Democracy that anyone outside of Erdoğan’s narrow circle of advisers would recognize as such must wait for another day.

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