What if Atatürk had never dictated?
Whenever I write something critical about Kemalism, Turkey’s longtime official ideology, I get nervous comments asking why I am “obsessed” with issue. In return, however, I wonder why so many fellow Turks are obsessed with the same issue, in the sense that they just can’t stand to hear anything that is critical of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The reason, I believe, is what I also call the elephant in the Turkish room: Our national cult of personality, which has elevated Atatürk to an almost demigod, who can only be venerated and followed, but never questioned. This, I further believe, has led to widespread infantilization and intellectual poverty in Turkey, meaning that unraveling the Atatürk myth is exactly what we Turks need to become a more mature and sensible nation.
One of the core principles of this myth is a simple rule: You are supposed to assume that everything that is good in Turkey comes from Atatürk, whereas everything that is bad comes from his opponents. (These opponents are also called “enemies within” or “traitors” by hardcore Kemalists.)
However, I think that quite a few good things in contemporary Turkey would have already existed without Atatürk, as I pointed out in my previous piece. On the other hand, I think we owe some of our current problems to Atatürk’s mistakes as well, as I will argue here.
Just look at Turkey’s bloody “Kurdish Question.” Most scholars who study the history of this issue agree that Kurdish nationalism, which has led to almost two dozen revolts against Ankara, including the latest terrorist campaign by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is in fact a reaction to a Turkish policy: the enforced assimilation of Kurds, with tyrannical bans on their language and culture. But few people say out loud that the inventor of this policy was none other than Atatürk. In his authoritarian effort to create a homogenous “Turkish nation” from the heterogeneous remnants of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk, indeed, unintentionally provoked a fierce Kurdish response. No wonder a new Kurdish revolt broke out almost every year during his 15-year-long iron-handed rule.
Perhaps an all-embracing “Turkishness” could still have been a good idea had it been defined as a loose term implying all Ottoman Muslims – as it has occasionally been used in the West and Balkans. But Atatürk, again unwittingly, made this impossible too with his emphasis on the “racial” content of Turkishness: He spent much of the 1930s imagining, and manufacturing, a mythical “racial history” for contemporary Turks, whom he saw as descendants of a super-civilization in pre-historic Central Asia. Such an ethnic definition of Turkishness could not have embraced the Kurds, whose ethno-linguistic origins are quite different. But it took almost eight decades for Turkey to get that, because Atatürk’s decision to make every citizen of Turkey a Turk was untouchable.
On the much-discussed issue of secularism, too, Atatürk’s way has been wrong, for it defined this principle in overtly anti-religious terms, which made it impossible for any true believer to accept it.
I can list various other legacies of Kemalism that have halted the advance of liberal democracy in Turkey. But perhaps none is more self-evident than the ad hominem attacks Kemalists unleash on their critics, including some comments in these very pages. They just cannot tolerate a reasoned debate on this issue. Not because they are inherently intolerant people, but because the “Atatürk way” they follow leaves no room for legitimate dissent.