Was Atatürk not a dictator?
If you are concerned about media freedom in Turkey, you should not miss the latest case opened against Ahmet Altan, editor and columnist of the liberal daily Taraf: An Istanbul prosecutor recently accused Mr. Altan for “insulting Atatürk,” which is crime that is punishable by up to six years in prison. (Atatürk, for the record, is not just “the Father of all Turks” as his surname-by-law literally means, but also the “Supreme Leader,” the “Eternal Chief,” the “Prime Teacher,” the “Unmatched Hero” and the “Everlasting Sun” of the Turkish nation, as various official texts call him.) But how, exactly, did Mr. Altan “insult” Atatürk? Well, by simply stating in one of his columns that “Atatürk was a dictator.”
In his defense, which he gave last week to an Istanbul court, Mr. Altan made a clever point. He asked the prosecutor to check how “dictator” is defined in any dictionary, and then explain why Atatürk cannot be called that way.
But instead of waiting for the prosecutor’s effort, I did my own research, by looking at the New Oxford American Dictionary, which is conveniently on my MacBook Pro. It defined “dictator” as follows:
“A ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force.”
Now, honestly, wasn’t Atatürk a ruler with total power over Turkey throughout his political career?
Sure he was. From 1925 to 1938, the golden era of Turkey’s single-party era, Atatürk had absolute and unchecked political power. He not only banned all opposition parties and figures, but also closed down all civil society institutions, from Sufi orders, to feminist clubs, to freemasons.
And had Atatürk not obtained power by force?
Sure he did. He never competed with his opponents in free and fair elections. He rather relied on arbitrary courts which executed an estimated 5,000 of his dissidents. One of his Atatürk’s prominent political rivals, Ali Şükrü Bey, a parliamentarian, was murdered by none other than one of Atatürk’s devotees. Meanwhile, Atatürk’s most notable political rival, war hero Kazım Karabekir, spent more than a decade under house arrest.
In fact, one would not even need this historical knowledge to decide to agree or disagree with Mr. Altan. If, in any country, you risk going to jail for calling a ruler a “dictator,” wouldn’t that be evidence enough that the ruler in question is indeed a dictator?
In my view, Atatürk must be seen in the light of a series of authoritarian revolutionaries that emerged in the inter-war period (1918-1939), such as Lenin in Russia, Benito Mussolini in Italy, or Jozef Pilsudski in Poland. Most of these dictators replaced traditional empires with non-democratic republics. They all claimed to embody the wills of their nations, and imposed radical reforms, some of which were indeed helpful (Lenin, for example, had advanced women rights in a very traditional Russia).
Had Atatürk lived longer, he would have probably been compared to Francisco Franco of Spain, who lived until the 1970s as a relic from interwar Europe. (And, perhaps, we Turks would then decide to reinstitute monarchy, as the Spanish wisely did after Franco, in order to establish democracy.) However, Atatürk passed away as early as 1938, and his less ambitious successor, İsmet İnönü, accepted transition to multi-party democracy in the late 1940s. Yet this transition remained incomplete, for the cult of Atatürk has survived, and has haunted Turkey via repeated military coups and permanent thought crimes, such as the one that just harassed Ahmet Altan.
Turkey, of course, needs to get rid of this hangover from the 1930s and redefine Atatürk as a respected mortal rather than a national deity. Lifting the blasphemy laws against him would be a good start.