Why Newt Gingrich loves Atatürk

Why Newt Gingrich loves Atatürk

Who will be the next president of the United States? In ten months we will have a final answer, but the options are gradually becoming clearer. The Democrat candidate is none other than President Obama, who will be running for his second term. The race is on the Republican side, with various hopefuls competing for the candidacy --- the latest star among them is Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Gingrich is the ultimate tough politician, using the strongest words possible to lambast his opponents. And besides Obama, he seems to have two main enemies: “socialism” (which would be called the welfare state in this part of the world,) and secularism. The latter is an especially big theme in Gingrich’s campaign, as he routinely condemns the “anti-religious bigotry” of the “American elite,” which he sees as the root of all evils. In a recent speech, he said:

“A country that has been, since 1963, relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have. We’ve in fact attempted to create a secular country, which frankly I think is a nightmare.”

The readers of this column would be aware that I, too, am quite critical of secularism when it is indeed about “driving God out of public life.” Rather, I’m in favor of “secularity,” or a neutral public sphere, in which both religious and irreligious views and symbols can express themselves freely. (The headcarf, the kippa, the cross and the miniskirt, for example, should be all free.) Therefore, I must say, at least some of Gingrich’s criticisms against secularism make sense to me.

What makes less sense, though, is Gingrich’s admiration for Atatürk, the greatest and the strictest secularist in our part of the world. 

This admiration is longstanding, as Gingrich has praised Atatürk and his political career repeatedly and without restraint. That has led the Atatürk Society of America to give him a “Leadership Award” in 2006, in “commemoration of his contributions to publicizing Atatürk’s legacy.” (The society also gives a “Science Is Guide Award,” an expression of Kemalist positivism - a philosophy which lies at the very core of the aggressive secularism that Gingrich complains about.)

Others have noted the contradiction here, too. “If Gingrich wants to save America from secularism,” asks Haroon Moghul, editor of ReligionDispatches.com, “why is his hero a militantly secular founder of a European one-party state?”

Perhaps Gingrich can enlighten us on the reasons of this contradiction one day. For now, my senses they tell me that the anti-secularist crusade of Gingrich, and some likeminded far-right Republicans, makes sense only when secularism targets their own religion. But when the matter is other religions, and especially Islam, the tone dramatically changes. You begin to hear paranoia about “creeping sharia” in the United States, and sympathy for the secularist dictatorships in the Middle East.

Of course there are fanatic Muslims in the world who should be a matter of concern for anyone who believes in democracy, freedom and peace. But, well, there are such Jews and Christians too -- such as those who are willfully diminishing the chance for peace between Arabs and Israel. Yet neither Gingrich nor his supporters would welcome a Judeo-Christian “Atatürk” to deal with this problem. (They, most probably, wouldn’t see any problem.)

This obvious double standard might help Gingrich’s campaign, which sometimes gives the impression of a new form of McCarthyism, in which the fear of communists is replaced with the fear of Muslims. But it does not help the United States -- a country that has been a beacon of religious freedom since its founding. The more America keeps up with that noble heritage, the more it will be respected by Muslims.