The latest ‘traitor’ of Kemalism

The latest ‘traitor’ of Kemalism

Yılmaz Özdil is a popular columnist for the popular daily Hürriyet. (Not the more modest English-language Hürriyet Daily News you are reading; the Turkish-language one, which is huge.) One of Mr. Özdil’s skills is to write in very simple and blunt Turkish. He never offers complicated arguments or bookish references. (He actually once said “I hardly ever read books.”) His target audience is the man on the street, not the professor on the campus. 

A particular man on the street, though: the hardcore Kemalist, whose ardent secularism is only matched by his passionate nationalism. That is why Mr. Özdil’s book signing events look like Kemalist rallies, where love for Atatürk, and hate for his “enemies,” set the mood. 

Those enemies are quite numerous, but probably none of them are more prominent than Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, who, according to hardcore Kemalists, is destroying Atatürk’s Republic by empowering the Islamists and pampering the Kurds, while “selling” the homeland to capitalists and imperialists. Such arguments are common in Mr. Özdil column, whose readers are happy to reaffirm their strongly held ideological belief in every single line he writes. 

However, a recent controversy led to a crack in this love affair between Mr. Özdil and his loyal readers. He was on a talk show on Halk TV, a news channel that represents the Kemalist line. One of the “guests” of the show was Bashar al-Assad, the tyrant of Syria, whose harsh words against Erdoğan were aired fully and joyfully. But Mr. Özdil, in return, said that while he, as a Turkish writer, has the moral right to criticize Erdoğan, Bashar al-Assad, a ruthless dictator, “does not have the right to insult the Prime Minister of Turkey.”

This could have been taken as a manifestation of Mr. Özdil’s good character; he did not allow his strong views against Erdoğan to serve the anti-Erdoğan propaganda that Bashar al-Assad, the butcher of innocents, carries out for his own purposes. But, alas, that was not the way Mr. Özdil’s stance was interpreted by most of his readers. He was rather vilified as a traitor to the Kemalist cause and yet another Erdoğan mouthpiece who sold his soul to the conservative devil. 

Mr. Özdil himself complained from this fanaticism in piece of his titled, “How much money did you get from Erdoğan?” As he explained, hundreds of his readers sent him angry emails asking this presumptuous question. Others have condemned him outright for “lying,” lacking a spine or “selling his pen.” 

This incident, to be sure, proves how much fanaticism there is among Turkey’s hardcore Kemalists: they cannot tolerate even the slightest positive take about Erdoğan and his party. Those who voice such views, they believe, must be doing this only for immoral reasons. 

However, these hardcore Kemalists are not swimming alone in this sea of fanaticism. The same black-and-white approach can be found in virtually every political camp in Turkey, including the pro-Erdoğan religious conservatives. Here, too, nuanced and self-critical voices can invite accusations of “treason” or “opportunism,” as I have personally experienced in the past five months. 

In short, we Turks really have a universal problem with political fanaticism. And unless we try to heal it within our own political camps, instead of just seeing the fanaticism on the opposite sides, we will not be able to move forward much.