MUSTAFA AKYOL > What if Atatürk had never dictated?

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Whenever I write something critical about Kemalism, Turkey’s longtime official ideology, I get nervous comments asking why I am “obsessed” with issue. In return, however, I wonder why so many fellow Turks are obsessed with the same issue, in the sense that they just can’t stand to hear anything that is critical of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The reason, I believe, is what I also call the elephant in the Turkish room: Our national cult of personality, which has elevated Atatürk to an almost demigod, who can only be venerated and followed, but never questioned. This, I further believe, has led to widespread infantilization and intellectual poverty in Turkey, meaning that unraveling the Atatürk myth is exactly what we Turks need to become a more mature and sensible nation.

One of the core principles of this myth is a simple rule: You are supposed to assume that everything that is good in Turkey comes from Atatürk, whereas everything that is bad comes from his opponents. (These opponents are also called “enemies within” or “traitors” by hardcore Kemalists.)

However, I think that quite a few good things in contemporary Turkey would have already existed without Atatürk, as I pointed out in my previous piece. On the other hand, I think we owe some of our current problems to Atatürk’s mistakes as well, as I will argue here.

Just look at Turkey’s bloody “Kurdish Question.” Most scholars who study the history of this issue agree that Kurdish nationalism, which has led to almost two dozen revolts against Ankara, including the latest terrorist campaign by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is in fact a reaction to a Turkish policy: the enforced assimilation of Kurds, with tyrannical bans on their language and culture. But few people say out loud that the inventor of this policy was none other than Atatürk. In his authoritarian effort to create a homogenous “Turkish nation” from the heterogeneous remnants of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk, indeed, unintentionally provoked a fierce Kurdish response. No wonder a new Kurdish revolt broke out almost every year during his 15-year-long iron-handed rule.

Perhaps an all-embracing “Turkishness” could still have been a good idea had it been defined as a loose term implying all Ottoman Muslims – as it has occasionally been used in the West and Balkans. But Atatürk, again unwittingly, made this impossible too with his emphasis on the “racial” content of Turkishness: He spent much of the 1930s imagining, and manufacturing, a mythical “racial history” for contemporary Turks, whom he saw as descendants of a super-civilization in pre-historic Central Asia. Such an ethnic definition of Turkishness could not have embraced the Kurds, whose ethno-linguistic origins are quite different. But it took almost eight decades for Turkey to get that, because Atatürk’s decision to make every citizen of Turkey a Turk was untouchable.

On the much-discussed issue of secularism, too, Atatürk’s way has been wrong, for it defined this principle in overtly anti-religious terms, which made it impossible for any true believer to accept it.

I can list various other legacies of Kemalism that have halted the advance of liberal democracy in Turkey. But perhaps none is more self-evident than the ad hominem attacks Kemalists unleash on their critics, including some comments in these very pages. They just cannot tolerate a reasoned debate on this issue. Not because they are inherently intolerant people, but because the “Atatürk way” they follow leaves no room for legitimate dissent.


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11/26/2012 9:56:55 AM

Mr Aykol: Ataturk's way of compulsory secularism was the ONLY WAY to obtain a neutral and fair society. It is utterly ridiculous to think that religion should play a part in politics. Just look at the Arab spring (which will go on an on and on in some form or other because relious keeps rearing its ugly head even with the winners of the wars that have taken place!). If every country in the world separated religion and politics, these pointless wars would be massively reduced!!

Aybike Bakan

11/20/2012 10:36:49 PM

Mustafa Akyol, thank you for your thought provoking writings. I grew up learning one sided stories and now as an adult I am becoming more aware of the complexities of these topics I was taught. I am also aware that there is much more work to be done in Turkey to create a social justice focused society. I am hopeful that we will able to stop fearing and face the issues that we've been having so many years. I would like to do my own research on these topics, so can you provide me your sources?

Hasan Kutlay

11/19/2012 5:27:10 PM

From 2nd half 19th C till mid 20th C racial theories were common and popular even among SCIENTISTS(eugenetics,climatology,social darwinism).The liberal West lies that only Nazi-Germany was racist.They were TOO,they justified colonialism with scientific knowledge about the "savageness, stupidity and lazyness" of nonwhite ppl. Roosevelt,Churchill and lot of scientists were callous racists against non-white ppl.Ataturk was rather 'toy'.He just wanted scientific prove that a distinct TR race exists.

turkic voice

11/19/2012 8:23:26 AM

ok mr Akyol find and promote a way of uniting all Turkic people as Turkic giving us a population of about 180million, this i beleve will strengthen our cause and bring you me and all turkic people closer maybe a promotion on our turkic background may give us a stronger base to work with? but your opting to run as a muslim unity which is stronger in numbers but failed in the past history whats your thought on this??this should be more a equal debate to have. turkic vs islamic try that for once???

Agnes Smith

11/19/2012 1:04:46 AM

Blue knows more than Mustafa- this is kind of worrying

alper riza

11/18/2012 10:13:15 PM

The criticism against Kemal Ataturk for extreme secularism and the Kurdish problem is unfair. At the time Turkey had been held back by religion and was trying to reconstitute herslelf. It was madness for the Kurdish leadership to seek to undermine the Turkish nation that rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the defeated Ottomans. Of all the ethnicities remaining, the Kurdish leaders were selfish and difficult. But I agree that Kemalism does need to adapt in order to keep religion in its place.

Johnny Turk

11/18/2012 9:17:49 PM

'Imagining and manufacturing a mythical racial history' OMG-are we all Romans, Greeks, Hittites or other descendants of other empirical forces who called Anatolia home for thousands of years? Or are most contemporary turks descendent of the many Turkic tribes? I know my genetic pool traces back to central asia. where does your genetic pool trace back to mr Akyol? i would like to take a guess and say the middle east. I will have to watch those old Cuneyt Arkin movies in a different light now.


11/18/2012 9:13:37 PM

It's funny how when people attack Mr Akyol in the comment section, it only supports what he is trying to say. Let's say Mr. Akyol actually completely rejects Islamic views as well as Kemalist views, the people would still automatically put him in the category as Islamic, because that's the way people work in Turkey, and that's how Ataturk wanted it. Instant defamation of those who reject.

Engin Atik

11/18/2012 5:28:13 PM

Mr Akyol, I would very much like you to write in your next article about the "British Raj" and "The East India Company" and the similarities between them and the "Reji Company" and "Duyunu Umumiye" (Ottoman Public Debt Administration). This is the real elephant in the room.

Hasan Kutlay

11/18/2012 4:09:49 PM

Sinan, u confuse causality & chronology.It's becoz O Empire became weak that they started reforms (Tanzimat etc).O Empire became bancrupt during era of Abdulhamit (1881) & a commission of imperialists got rule over O finance & some part of administrational rule.Ittihad & Terraki reacted against O decline. Egypt fought O Empire before Turkish nationalism (1831). The desire for nationalist selfdetermination and autonomy/independence of Balkan ppl was inevitable.
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