Today is the death anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of Turkey. Strangely enough, those who lamented ceremonies commemorating Atatürk yesterday, have suddenly rediscovered their love for him. Why has Atatürk been so loved by Turks? Why did he receive the title “father of the Turks?” What was Turkey before the Republic? What would it have been, had the Turkish War of Liberation failed?
Today’s Western community of nations cannot be accused of wrongdoings against the Turkey of yesterday. But to build a healthy common future together, perhaps one should remember the common past. Who were the occupying powers? Who were behind the plans to carve up and share out Ottoman territory? What was the 1916-dated Sykes-Picot agreement? Who were collaborating with the occupying powers? What was the role of the last Ottoman sultan and why did he flee the country aboard a British military vessel?
Building a new republic on the ashes of an empire burnt down by the West, Atatürk did not look to the east. He did not surrender to the West, but earnestly struggled to carry this nation to the level of the West, economically, socially and conceptually. Abandoning Abbasid backwardness, weakening religious dogma that catered to the interests of religious sheikhs and acquiring the norms and values of the West without giving up the cultural values of Anatolia was his target. Did he manage? Is the Turkish Republic a success story, when taken as a sum of all its 90 years? It was until perhaps 15 years ago. Since then the Kemalist Republic has failed to convert Turks from pitiable subjects to liberated individuals.
I do not in any way qualify as a Kemalist. Subscribing to ideology is rather difficult for me. But I do respect Atatürk and what he tried to do for this country. I firmly believe his secular, modern Turkey ideal and all the reforms he initiated were instrumental in transforming this country from the “sick man of Europe” to a “success story.”
Be it the shift to the Latin alphabet, the education reform or the giant steps taken to establish gender equality, Atatürk era reforms constituted a cultural revolution that aimed to transform Turkish society from a host of unimportant subjects under the yoke of the sultan to a community of liberated individuals.
Respecting Atatürk, of course, does not mean wearing a bronze Atatürk lapel pin and erecting monuments in every corner of the country. Nor does it entail placing his photographs in offices or building grandiose cultural centers. What about the secular values he wanted this country to cherish? What about the understanding of modern law and the principle of the supremacy of the law that he introduced by pushing aside sharia law?
Atatürk was not the best democrat of course. The post-World War I era was not a time for democratic leaders. Atatürk tried to build a democracy in this country, though both his attempts to establish a pluralist democracy failed and the country had to wait until 1950 to establish a peculiarly deficient one.
The Islamists hated Atatürk and his reforms, not only during the founding period of the Republic, but ever since the Turkish Republic came into being. They hated him and his ideals that carried Turkey from darkness into a bright state, and especially when the founding parliament was debating whether to give him extraordinary powers as chief commander for a brief period of three months.
Gülse Birsel, a writer with a very strong sense of humor, recently wrote an outstanding article in the Hürriyet Daily News: “Atatürk for beginners.” It was indeed a manual for those who had somehow intentionally or accidentally discovered the importance of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Why was the importance of Atatürk discovered so late by Turkey’s political Islamists? Are they sincere? Why was attending ceremonies at Atatürk’s Mausoleum torture for them up until yesterday, but today, the ruling party mobilized nationwide to carry its supporters to the mausoleum for Atatürk’s commemoration?
Is there sincerity in the outpouring love and respect from the highest to the lowest executive of the ruling party? Or, was it a product of awareness that to be elected as super president, a candidate must get over 50 percent of the national vote? Is there a typical deception campaign underway?