The legacy of Atatürk

The legacy of Atatürk

While I was watching the state ceremony commemorating the National Victory Day, which is the anniversary of the last battle of the War of Independence, on TV, I rethought about the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Although, another historical event was celebrated with great pomp a few days ago, as though it had become a more significant event in the “New Turkey,” the National Victory Day remained as a great tribute to the founding father of the Turkish Republic. 

I have never always been critical of official Kemalist history, but have resented the celebration in republican days as a kind of worship to Atatürk. Sometimes, my critical attitude was welcomed by some other critics, however, my reasons of criticism have always been different from the resentments of Islamists and right-wingers in general.

It was because they resented secularism I have always thought that a secular republic was a great achievement. My point was the authoritarian turn of Kemalism and Turkey’s need for democratization of republicanism.

As Kemalism has been politically defeated in Turkey for some time, many liberal critics became reformed Kemalists. I have not been one of them, since I was never an unthoughtful and ungrateful enemy of Kemalism. Nevertheless, what is more important than intellectuals’ twists is witnessing the living legacy of Atatürk among ordinary people. 

Apart from the fact that visiting Atatürk’s mausoleum and celebrating republican days became a show of protest against the current government party, no other ideology seems to be coming close to challenging the legacy of the republic and its founding father.

That is why right-wing resentments had always needed to compromise with that legacy throughout the republican era. It has never only been the result of republican political repression, otherwise, it would easily wither away with the changing political circumstances. 

As an academic I often needed to remind all sorts of anti-Kemalists that although the secular republican regime was superimposed from above, it has a genuine legitimacy regardless of its shortcomings. That is why, since the 1950’s, conservatives have always needed to rebrand the image of Atatürk and the National War of Independence rather than denouncing it altogether.

During the 1950’s when the conservatives’ Democrat Party (DP) was in power, they chose the second man of the republican history, İsmet İnönü, as a scapegoat to reflect their resentments on. Moreover, they introduced a law to protect the image of Atatürk. It can be argued that the reason then was the power of republican establishment, including the army.

Nonetheless, even after the army lost its power as the guardian of Kemalism, the legacy of Atatürk remains as an anathema due to the legitimacy of his historical role as the savior of the nation from a certain death after World War I. 

That is not to say that the majority of the population is still Kemalist. The truth is that the majority of Turkey is neither Kemalist nor anti-Kemalist. Those arch-Kemalists and their arch enemies are minority fringes, as the majority likes the image of the founder of the republic. As some of the majority still respects and defends his achievements like secularism, some, like conservative Muslim women, enjoy its fruits even if they refrain from admitting it.

Nuray Mert,