Which Atatürk are we talking about?
Over 1 million people visited the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on Nov. 10, the 75th anniversary of the death of the founder of modern Turkey. This was unprecedented. It is obvious that Atatürk is enjoying a revival among Turks.
His portraits also adorned the banners and flags of the Gezi Park protesters, and they continue to do so during anti-government protests by young people. This is obviously a reaction to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Even Bloomberg’s Marc Champion, admits now he was wrong on Erdoğan. “I hate to admit it, but the paranoid secularists who for a decade have been saying Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan harbored a secret agenda are being proved right,” he said in his piece in Bloomberg yesterday.
Western analysts are usually late to pick up on Turkey. This has been my experience as a journalist over the past 30 years. Their initial “bête noire” was the “Kemalists” who they said oppressed the Kurds and kept democracy and human rights in Turkey at bay with their powerful military. That was true, of course.
And so they applauded Erdoğan when he started dismantling the Kemalist system, while totally disregarding what he ultimately represents, and what dismantling this system fully would mean for Turkey. Although Kemalism was undeniably oppressive in the past, the risks of ditching Atatürk as a national symbol for Turks, in the absence of a better symbol of modernity, have also become apparent.
Simply put, Atatürk is seen as the antidote to Erdoğan and the AKP who, despite the headway they have made with their Islamist agenda, are still not in a position to curse the founder of the secular republic openly.
That would be a step too far for them so what they do is use İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s brother-in-arms and co-founder of the secular republic, as a proxy figure they can hate openly. But while Atatürk enjoys this revival 75 years after his death, “Whose Atatürk is it we are talking about?”
Members of the old-school Kemalist camp are hankering after an Atatürk that is different to the Atatürk that the young progressive liberal and educated youth that has taken to the streets is lauding today.
For this youth, Atatürk is not just a symbol of secularism even if it is not democratic. He also represents Western-style democracy, liberalism, tolerance and modernity. Many young people have no problem with the rights of Kurds, Christian minorities, headscarves, liberalism and so on. They just want true democracy that respects all individual rights and lifestyles.
Such things were certainly not acceptable for hardcore and elitist Kemalists in the past that looked down on the neglected conservative masses of Anatolia which eventually spawned Erdoğan and his party as a reaction.
In 1945 Turkey was at the same start line with many European countries in the race to advance and improve its democracy. This opportunity was squandered over subsequent decades as Turkey became a country that ruthlessly oppressed its minorities and infringed on human rights with impunity.
That all happened on the watch of the Kemalists who cling to Atatürk as a savior.
Justified criticism from the West about the state of democracy and human rights in Turkey also made this Kemalist class hate all things European. These included values that determine a genuine democracy. For them to appear to be Western was enough.
Erdoğan cannot give the young people today who carry Atatürk portraits the things they want. But with hindsight, it is also true that old-school Kemalists are also incapable of giving them these things.
And so while Atatürk is enjoying a welcome revival, one has to ask if this is the progressive and liberal Atatürk of young people or the oppressively nationalist and elitist Atatürk of the Kemalists who imposes his will from above, which is exactly what Erdogan is doing, even as he accuses the Kemalists of doing this in the past.