Let’s just stop abusing Atatürk!

Let’s just stop abusing Atatürk!

Nazlan Ertan - nazlanertan@gmail.com
Let’s just stop abusing Atatürk

AFP photo

As I walked down Kıbrıs Şehitleri Caddesi, İzmir’s mini-version of Istanbul’s İstiklal Avenue, a man who had the signature of Atatürk tattooed on his forehead passed by. I was too shocked to take photos or ask him if the tattoo was a permanent one. Friends told me that there were more than a few people with Atatürk’s signature tattooed on their faces in İzmir, the city that sees itself as the fortress of liberal Turkey.

Symbols related to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founder and, for many Turks, the undying figure of modernization, Western direction and Turkey’s secular and parliamentary democracy, pop up in unlikely places. Atatürk’s signature – a linear, simple crawl that showed the Turkish leader’s determination to replace the Arabic script of the Ottoman Empire with the Latin alphabet – is used abundantly on the rear windows of cars, sometimes leading to a strange juxtaposition between suggestive slogans (“I am not a psychiatrist but so many are crazy about me” on top and Atatürk’s signature at the bottom) or Atatürk’s signature followed by the evil eye. The same signature may also appear on the wrist of your barista as he serves you coffee. A young man pushes postcards featuring his signature in your face as you walk down the shopping arcade. One of the IT specialists in an international company I worked for used Atatürk’s signature in his emails. It gave me jitters in all our exchanges: “I cannot reach my archive files. Can you be here in five minutes?” “Yes ma’am (signed Atatürk).” Blissfully, after he sent one email too many to our U.K. partners, the company told him to stick to the corporate signature format and use his own name.

While it is hardly surprising that many Turks have clung to the Kemalist symbols in the last 10 years, there is something aesthetically irritating, truly commercial and somewhat hysterical in some of the practices. I certainly do not wish for the days when public prosecutors put the infamous Article 5816, which aims to protect the memory of Atatürk, to daily use to limit freedom of expression, and I would not go as far as being nostalgic for a time when the general belief was that no actor was good enough to play Atatürk on stage. But neither am I delighted to have Atatürk memorabilia shoved in my face as I go about my daily business.
More suffocating still is the debate on just what Atatürk would do before all key elections and referenda. Lately, different politicians are busy lobbying around Atatürk – that he would have voted “yes” or “no” in the upcoming referendum. 

This is not a new trend. Using dead idols to reply to today’s questions seems to be a lucrative business even in lighter settings. Take “What Would Jackie Do? An Inspired Guide to Distinctive Living” in Berlin’s The Kennedys Museum, I was told that this book on how Jackie would respond to modern challenges in office, home, fashion on online dating outsold JFK’s “Profiles in Courage.”

So what would Atatürk do if he lived today? Would the man who started signing alliances with the very countries that he fought in World War I right in the wake of the War of Independence forever dwell on the Sèvres Treaty and “the way foreign powers want to break up Turkey?” Would he be into name-calling in diplomatic ties? Would he, a Balkan Turk, seek to provoke the Turkish people in other countries for domestic political gain? Would the man who brought homosexual satirical writer Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar into parliament talk about the moral corruption of intellectuals and mock them at every opportunity? Would he look at multiculturalism as an evil, and ask people to choose their side in the clash of civilizations?

No, I do not profess to know what Atatürk would do in the present disordered world – I doubt anyone does. But I do suspect he would not be too delighted to see the Turks tattooing his signature as their sole means of protest. Most likely, he would feel angry with those who have been putting unlikely words into his mouth for so long and sorry for those who believe the words he never uttered.