Defying Turkey’s blasphemy law
Nagehan Alçı is a young Turkish journalist who writes a column for the mainstream daily Akşam and appears regularly prominent on news channels, including CNN Turk. She is, by all definitions, a secular liberal who challenges both the political authoritarianism and the cultural machismo that are so prevalent in Turkey. (In other words, she is not a burqa-wearing, shariah-thumping Islamist – things that might have made her a usual suspect according to the political norms of the 21st century.)
Yet Mrs. Alçı said something on TV last week that enraged millions of secular Turks. During a discussion on Turkish political history, she referred to Atatürk, Turkey’s founder and “the father of all Turks,” as a “dictator.”
Then it took less than a day for a campaign to culminate against her in the media. “The National Party,” a die-hard defender of the Atatürk cult, called on “the whole Turkish nation” to protest this “insult.” Kemalist columnists in various papers wrote angry pieces that bashed Alçı and passionately argued why Atatürk, the “Supreme Leader,” was never a dictator.
A particular die-hard Kemalist, an ever-angry man named Nihat Genç, wrote a disgusting piece against the newly wed Alçı, saying that she “would not be able to convince anyone that her future baby was from her husband.”
Moreover, a Turkish prosecutor initiated an “investigation” into Alçı’s comment for possible violation of the Law to Protect Atatürk. It is very probable, in other words, that Alçı might be tried for “insulting Atatürk,” which is a serious crime in Turkey that can put you in jail for six years.
The funny thing, of course, is that the “term” dictator is not an insult but a political definition, and Atatürk really fits into that quite nicely. From 1925, when he initiated “the single party regime,” to his death in 1938, he ruled Turkey with the perfect dictatorial style: he banned all opposition parties, closed down even civil society organizations (from Sufi orders to freemasons), and did not allow a single critical voice in the media. You just need Politics 101 to call this regime a dictatorship.
Of course, Atatürk cannot be considered in the same camp with the more notorious dictators of his age, such as Hitler or Stalin, who were ruthless mass-murderers. When compared to such figures, Atatürk was a very mild autocrat. Hence historian Ahmet Kuyaş, who has genuine sympathy for Atatürk and his heritage, argues that he must be called “a good dictator.” Yet a dictator, nonetheless.
The real issue, though, is not who Atatürk really was. The real issue is that we still don’t have the right to discuss that freely in Turkey. Prosecutors are always ready to put critics on trial for “insulting Atatürk.” And millions of hate-filled Kemalists are always ready to unleash the ugliest insults against those who simply think that Atatürk was a mortal who made serious mistakes.
The zeal here is most staggering, and it is only paralleled by the “blasphemy laws” that are found in some Islamic states such as Pakistan. In those countries, what is protected by law from any “insult” (and actually criticism) is Islam and its sacred symbols such as the Prophet Muhammad. In Turkey, a similar veneration is imposed by law, but this time for “Turkishness” and Atatürk.
Which gives us hints about the bizarre nature of Turkey’s much-cherished “secularism.” Unfortunately, this principle is not about creating a civil public square in which various religions and philosophies can co-exist and engage in rational discussion. Turkish secularism is rather about replacing traditional religion, especially Islam, with ersatz religion. Atatürk is the latter’s both demigod and prophet, and his words and deeds constitute a new form of scripture.
To me, that would have been still fine, had Kemalism existed as mere ideology and belief, to be followed by those who are convinced and inspired. The problem is that it is the official creed that is imposed on everyone, and that its blasphemy laws threaten us all.