MUSTAFA AKYOL > Size matters - especially for Atatürk

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There was an interesting story in the Hürriyet Daily News on Feb. 18, titled “Atatürk’s real height revealed by Turkish General Staff.” Turkey’s generals had opened a new website that conveyed important truths about the founder of the Turkish Republic, including his “real height.” The “Father of the Turks” was 5 feet 7 inches (1.74 meters) tall, the site proudly noted, “as opposed to previous reports that claimed his height was 5 feet 5 inches (1.68 meters).”

This, as you might expect, raised some questioning, and giggling, in popular media such as Twitter. People asked why the Turkish military, an institution whose job must be national security rather than historical scrutiny, would claim to establish facts about a political leader who died some 75 years ago.

Also, some wondered why the “real height” of that leader would be a matter of such importance.

The answers to these questions were not that hard to find, though. First, unlike any other military in any democratic country, the Turkish military is extremely ideological, proudly subscribing to a doctrine called “Kemalism,” created partly by (and partly in the name of) Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president.

Moreover, Kemalism is not just a political ideology, but also a cult of personality. That is why the Turkish Constitution, imposed in 1982 by a military junta, begins by praising Atatürk as the “immortal leader and unrivaled hero.” That is also why his statues and photos are present every public space, in an abundance that is overshadowed only by the presence of Kim Il Sung in North Korea.

Furthermore, the Kemalist cult of personality venerates not only the genius of Atatürk, but also his physical features. A poem which is titled “I am thinking of Mustafa Kemal,” and which is memorized by all school children, begins with the following lines:

“He is on a horse whose manes are from fire,
He is taking over huge mountains, endless seas,
His golden hair floats in the wind
His blue eyes shine like stars.”

However, there has been one physical feature of Atatürk that Kemalists have not found too helpful to emphasize: That he was not terribly tall. There is even a rude joke telling how he once went to a little town in Anatolia, where the locals - who had expected a giant - were disappointed with his height and his not-so-baritone voice.

Of course, like all of us, Atatürk was the way he was created, and his physical features should not say anything about his life, mission and ideas. But minds tuned for cult of personalities apparently don’t think way, and hence we are having Turkish military websites telling us that Atatürk was taller than what people think.

Now, the readers of this column are probably aware that I am quite critical of this Kemalist cult of personality. I have condemned it as irrational, infantilizing and authoritarian. And I still stand by these criticisms.

However, the more Turkey unfolds, the more I see that I should be a bit more lenient on the Kemalists on this issue for a simple reason: They are not the only one. Kurdish nationalists worship their own “supreme leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Some religious conservativeshave recently begun to elevate Prime Minister Erdoğan to similar heights. In all these camps, there is a tendency to have a super-strong leader who will be always followed and venerated, but never questioned and criticized. And herein lies, I believe, some of the roots of Turkey’s ever-present liberalism deficit.


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Notice on comments

Tekion Particle

2/22/2013 5:26:54 PM

My earlier post was rejected by the moderator. I have read it again and thought it was quite moderate in comparison to what I really wanted to say. Mr Akyol is an attention seeker, he knows he will get lots of comments reacting to his article when it involves digs at MKA, democracy and secularism. For Mr Akyol it’s all about ratings, increase in number of comments means increase in ratings regardless of disapproval. We should reward him by not making any comments on his next articles.

Kerem Kemal

2/22/2013 5:10:03 PM

he is the father of the Turks, you have to multiply 1.74m by approximately 80 million Turks. Therefore his real length is approximately 139,200 km

ismail demir

2/21/2013 6:53:59 PM

Roxy, except Arabs (they dont have problems with Turks) and tiny number of Lazs,Armenians,Greeks,Assyrians, there is no native minority in Turkey.If you imply Kurds, majority of them settled in Turkey by excepting Turkish hegemony after Turks founded states in Anatolia similar to Latins in US.Basques and scotishs are native people in their lands for thousands of years.Only Assyriansin Turkey have similarity with them.

mara mcglothin

2/21/2013 6:05:57 PM

Great Great Writing KOKSUZ!!!!!!!!

Blue Dotterel

2/21/2013 10:25:09 AM

Roxy R, I was merely stating a fact, not that I agreed that assimilation was the best way to do things. I personally prefer a general multiculturalism, even for Turkey, but understand how imperialism has always used ethnic and religious differences in other countries to attain their own goals of political and economic control. This is one reason that assimilation seems desirable to many nations. Ataturk was more "Multicultural" in attitude than most of his contemporaries in Europe.

mara mcglothin

2/20/2013 10:17:16 PM

MURAT There is a huge difference in "worshiping" and giving credit where credit is due! I shudder to think where Turkey would be without MKA. ROXY I am not sure what you are talking about, but I am rarely lumped in with BLUE.

american american

2/20/2013 9:40:52 PM

i guess content doesn't matter

Turkish Sal

2/20/2013 9:23:55 PM

Roxy, "spot on!" as they so annoyingly say. I have a hard time believing that the so called "foreigners" posting here are in fact foreign as anti-liberalism to this degree is usually associated with being Turkish. They must be taking on these names to say "see, even the foreigners are against your liberal views, Mr. Akyol".

ege capulcu mustafa

2/20/2013 8:25:06 PM

Mr. Akyol you write that Ataturk was a 'political leader' like RTE or a common tinpot dictator like Kim Il Sung. How wrong you are. He is revered because he was much more than that. He was given the surname Father of the Turks for his deeds. Saviour of the nation, the leader who who led us on the road to moderrnity, away from the straightjacket backwardness imposed by religion, advanced the emancipation of women, enabled the literacy rates to leap forward by changing the alpabet etc. word limit

Köksüz Kosmopolit

2/20/2013 8:19:36 PM

So, MKA wasn't especially tall (but at 170cm, nor was he especially short by the standards of his day). And MA doesn't have especially much hair. In both cases, so what? It's not MKA's height that established a free Turkish republic on the ashes of a failed empire, and it's not MA's thinning top that makes him a bore who resents the republican ideals that gave him prosperity and freedom. To be honest, I neither knew nor cared how tall MKA was. Tell us, MA, how tall is Fethullah Hoca?
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