And Erdoğan praises Atatürk
On Nov. 10, in a ceremony commemorating the 79th anniversary of the passing of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, President Tayyip Erdoğan delivered a speech which surprised many in Turkey.
Slamming those who said he usually referred to the founding father as Gazi Mustafa Kemal only, which means “war veteran Mustafa Kemal,” without mentioning his surname “Atatürk,” which means “Father of the Turks,” until a short while ago, Erdoğan said the following:
“Certain people are writing a lot of scenarios because we referred to Atatürk as Atatürk. If his name is Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, what could be more normal than calling him this? Are we going to leave [Atatürk’s legacy] it to the monopoly of those circles who are Marxist in rhetoric but fascist in soul? We will not let an amorphous party like the CHP [main opposition Republican People’s Party] hijack Atatürk from our nation.”
“Our nation has an eternal respect for the Gazi. There is not the slightest hesitation concerning the respect of our nation for Mustafa. Our nation does not have the slightest problem with Kemal. We know very well that our nation has no difficulty with the surname Atatürk, which itself gave him this surname. So, why has there been a debate about it? The answer is that those circles who favor coups, juntas, tutelage systems, and who are hostile to the values of this nation have been trying to hide themselves under the guise of Atatürkism [the term usually used in Turkey for Kemalism].”
Those remarks need some deciphering for an international reader.
Gazi, or ghazi, is actually an adjective. It means more than a veteran and has Islamic connotations of wounds sustained during a holy war. Here it’s used to reference Atatürk’s injury during Turkey’s War of Independence between 1919 and 1923. It was him who led the liberation of the Turkish Republic after the fall of the more than 500-year-old Ottoman Empire. Mustafa is the name given to him at birth, which is also the first name of the Prophet Mohammed. Kemal is the name given to little Mustafa by his school teacher because there were other Mustafas in his class and because of his success in lessons.
“Kemal” means “maturity” or “perfection.” Atatürk is the surname given to him by the Turkish Parliament when the “Surname Law” was adopted in 1934. Until then Turks had used family nicknames instead of official surnames, as is the case in most eastern cultures.
Many conservative circles and most religious groups in Turkey have been trying to avoid using the word “Atatürk” as a surname in order to make the point that they did not fully support the reforms he pushed after the formation of the republic. Some did it to reject the reforms entirely, and some to draw a distinction between his roles as leader of the War of Independence, head of the new republic and instigator of reforms that aimed to help the new Turkey join the western/global system.
The Turkish reforms led by Atatürk were not limited to the “Surname Law.”
In 1924, the caliphate was abolished in order to eliminate the religion-based dualism in state administration, paving the way for a secular order. The members of the Ottoman dynasty were expelled from the country. In the same year, the “Unification of Education Law” forced madrasas and religion-only schools to close, and a modern education system was adopted instead.
In 1925, religious outfits were banned outside of holy places and public areas. The same year, the Gregorian (Sun) calendar was adopted (as of Jan. 1, 1926) in place of the Islamic Hijra (Moon) calendar together with the adoption of the metric system, in order to be in harmony with the western/global system.
In 1926, the Civic Code was adopted, which banned polygamy for men, imposed gender equality, including state registered marriages and equal heritage and legal rights for women.
In 1928, Latin scripture and alphabets were introduced, replacing Arabic ones.
In 1934, equal rights were granted to women to elect and be
elected, as well as the right to hold office.
In summary, the basis of Atatürk’s reforms was to separate the state from religion and promote gender equality and harmonization with the western/global system.
That is why Erdoğan’s speech could be regarded as a milestone for conservative rhetoric, which has always dominated Turkish politics. To be frank, there has been no conservative politician in Turkey to date, neither Adnan Menderes, Süleyman Demirel, Necmettin Erbakan nor Turgut Özal, who could change the mood in conservative and Islamic circles regarding Atatürk in such a radical way as Erdoğan did overnight.
The moment he made those remarks, almost every media outlet beholden to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began to praise Atatürk’s legacy, referring to the “Father of Turks” by his surname and not only as Gazi.
Burhan Kuzu, the chief legal advisor to Erdoğan, tweeted: “Thanks to the AKP, Turkey has achieved the target set out by Atatürk, which was to reach and surpass the level of modern civilizations.” A staunchly pro-government journalist, Turgay Güler, who used to mock those paying respect with a moment of silence for Atatürk every year at the time of his death, wrote: “Rest in peace, my Ata,” which is the shortened version of Atatürk, meaning father.
The online parody website Zaytung, the Turkish equivalent of The Onion, mocked the situation with a tweet, saying: “AKP: We remember Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with respect on the 1st anniversary of him joining us.”
According to a political backstage story by daily Hürriyet’s experienced parliament reporter Nuray Babacan, the change in rhetoric could be part of a wider strategy to win over the hearts and minds of those who voted against giving extensive powers to Erdoğan in the April 2017 referendum. That is to say, he is attempting to broaden his voter-base ahead of the 2019 elections, to repair some of the damage caused by the highly divisive referendum.
But this may not be the only reason. Not only did many groups, such as nationalist, urban and educated voters, vote “No” in the referendum, but not all AKP voters are comfortable with the impression that the Islamist-conservative core of the party is at odds with the basic values of the republic.
And if all those voters who pay respect to Atatürk vote for the CHP, the CHP should have no difficulty exceeding the current glass ceiling of a 25-26 percent share of the vote.
Crowds flock to Atatürk’s mausoleum in Ankara every national day and Nov. 10 to pay their respect.
In his speech, Erdoğan targeted İsmet İnönü, the War of Independence hero and the second president of the republic after Atatürk, as the one responsible for jeopardizing the values of this nation - meaning religious values in Erdoğan’s language - under the one-party CHP rule.
Actually it was İnönü’s smart diplomatic moves that prevented Turkey from being dragged into the Second World War. He also shifted the country to a multi-party system, anticipating the return of the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic (which Atatürk decreed should only be recited in Turkish - one of his most debated implementations), and opened imam-hatip high schools to educate Muslim clerics (from which Erdoğan graduated).
But every strong move needs an anti-hero, and Erdoğan’s, for now, is İnönü. Perhaps we will have to wait some more time to allow İnönü’s image to recover in Erdoğan’s eyes.
Erdoğan’s praise of Atatürk using his surname is something I would support with reservation. It should not be used as propaganda to bolster claims that the AKP supports Ataturk if the AKP then seek to dilute the basic principles of his reforms: The separation of state from religion, that is the secular order, gender equality and remaining a part of the western/global system with its democratic standards and the rule of law.