From Atatürk to Erdoğan (II)
The other day, an interesting email dropped into my inbox. It included a scanned page from the Los Angeles Examiner dated Aug. 1, 1926. One of the headlines was particularly notable, for it read: “Kemal Promises More Hangings of Political Antagonists in Turkey.” The “Kemal” in question was Turkey’s founder and first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was then busy with crushing the “conspirators” against his rule.
The paper quoted Atatürk (who was still called “Kemal Pasha” at the time) as saying: “I shall not stop until every guilty person, no matter how high his rank, has been hung from the gallows as a grim warning to all incipient plotters against the security of the Turkish Republic.”
These “plotters,” Mustafa Kemal explained, were of two kinds. One was “the group who combined religious fanaticism and ignorance with political imbecility.” Their main crime was staying loyal to the Caliph-Sultan, the very leader of the ancient regime that Ataturk did away with. “I crushed them with an iron hand,” Kemal Pasha proudly said to the Los Angeles Examiner reporter. “For example, [I] had over sixty of their leaders hanged at dawn.”
The second group of “plotters” consisted of the members of the Committee of Union and Progress, or the political party that dominated the final decade of the Ottoman Empire. Although these people “fought in our ranks” against the occupying powers, Kemal Pasha explained, once the country was saved, they turned subversive and turned treasonous by trying to assassinate him.
The treason in question was the so-called “Izmir Assassination,” which was an alleged plot to kill Mustafa Kemal in June 1926. Most historians accept that the failed plot was real, but the prosecution that came after turned into a witch-hunt. Almost twenty people were executed, while many others were jailed or sent into exile. Most were innocent. A conspiracy against the iron-fisted ruler, in other words, made his fist even more solid.
Throughout his era (1923-38), Atatürk ruled in the same manner, crushing many of his opponents by blaming them for high treason. What he failed to see was that so many “traitors” existed mainly because of the exclusive nature of his regime. To be sure, he acted with patriotic idealism, hoping to achieve the best for his nation. He just could not accept that conflicting visions for the nation could also be patriotic and legitimate.
Now, let’s fast forward from the 1920’s to today. President Tayyip Erdoğan is again speaking about the “traitors” to the nation, condemning their conspiracies, and even spearheading criminal cases that appear to be witch-hunts to many. Of course, times have changed for the better, thus no one is executed or exiled. Moreover, just like in Atatürk’s time, not every conspiracy Erdoğan complains about is totally imaginary —the “parallel state,” especially, is not just a myth.
But the deeper problem of the 1920’s is valid for the 2010’s, too: The regime is confronted by too many “traitors,” mainly because of its own exclusive nature. The masters of the regime cannot see this, because they have zero tolerance for self-criticism. Moreover, they believe that they are saving the nation from a centuries-old darkness and propelling it towards a golden future. Therefore, they explain every resistance against their rule as an act of treason.
In other words, some things in Turkey never change, unfortunately. Very, very unfortunately.