Ban on remembering Atatürk backfires in Turkey

Ban on remembering Atatürk backfires in Turkey

Satirical Turkish web site Zaytung - the equivalent of The Onion, issued hypothetical “breaking news” yesterday. It said that international departures at Ankara’s Esenboğa airport were overloaded due to Nov. 10 traffic.

It was making fun of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) officials, who choose to stay out of the capital during official ceremonies to commemorate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, on this 74th year of his passing. Similar jokes have been whispered in ears over the last two days, as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan decided to extend his Indonesia visit to Brunei, after getting an invitation from its sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah. This means that Erdoğan could not be back in Ankara to attend the Atatürk Day ceremonies.

Those ceremonies have been one of the most controversial symbols of Kemalism. Because they were reproduced by the military and civilian bureaucratic elite for years - especially following the 1980 military coup - they turned into a kind of ideological propaganda. As a result, the image of Atatürk as the hero of the Turkish War of Independence, the founder of the Republic, and the reformer who put an end to Sharia law and adopted a Western-oriented secular system and a relatively modern economy, started to turn sour. It became like the source of all evil in the country, especially in the eyes of the religious and conservative masses.

This strong ideological symbolism started to fade away during the AK Parti rule from its beginning in 2002. In parallel to Atatürk Day, the government also decreased the military and protocol levels for celebrations of national festivals, including the Oct. 29 Republic Day. Not very many people were happy about the North Korean-style celebrations anyway.

The picture started to change when the government introduced a ban on marking national days in public in front of Atatürk statues (present in almost every town square in Turkey) other than official ones. Even placing flowers at them was banned. The government’s motivation for this came from its bitter memories of the “Republic Rallies” of 2007, allegedly manipulated by the military. But barring civilians from marking the days was a bit much.

The Republic Day this year was a turning point. When the government said civil associations would not be able to gather in front of the historical Parliament building in Ankara, a number of opposition parties, lead by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), joined together to break the police barricade and rally from there to the Atatürk’s mausoleum.
Yesterday, the government had to lift the ban it brought forth only a few months ago. Today, perhaps for the first time in many years, Atatürk’s admirers will take to the streets to show their respect for the founder of the republic.
This is not a comeback of Kemalism, but perhaps for Atatürk, as summarized by Müjdat Gezen, a popular actor who was put in jail by the 1980 military regime for being a socialist sympathizer and is now accused by conservative writers of being a Kemalist because he said he would attend the rallies today. “I am not a Kemalist,” Gezen said in reply, “I just love Atatürk.”