Remembering Atatürk

Remembering Atatürk

Yesterday, Turkey commemorated Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic. Both the tall man and the short man with the almond moustaches praised Atatürk’s vision, naturally without using the word “Atatürk” (Father of Turks), which they dislike.

Who are the Kemalists? I don’t believe Atatürk himself subscribed to that ideological club. Indeed, there is evidence that he strongly admonished some bootlickers who described themselves as “Kemalist.” I have high respect for Atatürk because he not only commanded and defended Turkey at its worst hour, but also successfully created a modern republic on the ashes of the defeated “sick man of Europe.”

He could have been a dictator. Indeed, to some degree he was perhaps a very authoritarian leader. He could have established a dynasty and founded a new sultanate to succeed the former Ottoman Empire. He did not have a child, but he raised some children. Was it because he did not have a child that he avoided establishing a new dynasty? No, it was his dream to establish a democratic republic, and when conditions allowed he did his best to create it. It could be argued that he established a single-party dictatorship very much like the Soviet regime, (which indeed cooperated with the Turkish National Liberation Movement led by Atatürk). 

But he managed to set up a parliamentary government while there was still an imperial government in the British-occupied Istanbul. Atatürk did his best to establish a pluralist parliamentary democracy and it was his conviction that sovereignty could not rest with a sultan, or be divine. For him, that sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the nation. He was the great commander who won the War of Liberation, the great statesman who established the republic, and the great leader who was cherished and almost worshipped by his people. It was he who showed that only the parliament could be sovereign, and it exercised power on behalf of the people.

Opponents of Atatürk even today lament that he was protected by law. Indeed, the law on the protection of Atatürk must be annulled and people who want to pour out whatever they have against Atatürk must be able to do it. Atatürk was not an untouchable figure in his lifetime, so why is he untouchable now? It wasn’t he who made parliament legislate that law, but rather the Democrat Party that introduced it in the 1950s, long after his death. What might happen if parliament removes that law tomorrow, together with the Penal Code articles punishing “insulting Turkishness” and “insulting the high offices of the republic,” behind which some executives of the present administration hide and thus become untouchable?

If and when someone comes out with nasty remarks about Atatürk, Turkish society by and large considers that person “insane.” There are indeed some Islamist zealots, some insane people, and some people trying to earn a place in magazine pages through such whimsicality. But despite the fact that they and their offices are protected with a huge web of penal code articles, is it not a fact that because of their huge success in creating a polarized society at least half the nation is cursing at someone else at every moment?

Atatürk was a great Turk, a great personality who achieved a miracle at a time when the nation needed a miraculous salvation. He and his immediate successors naturally made some errors, perhaps very one.

Cutting the links of the modern republic with its imperial past and historic roots, going to extremes in the application of secularism (as if laicism was some sort of atheism), and emphasizing one section of society at the expense of the other (although it was Atatürk who underlined back in 1925 that this country is the common home of the Turks and the Kurds). But perhaps these errors are understandable considering the need for nation-building at that particular period of time. Just think of the political climate prevailing at the same time in Europe, a continent that Atatürk firmly believed Turkey was a part of.

He was a great soldier and a greater statesman. But he died on Nov. 10, 1938. Turkey should have moved on. Indeed it has done, although some still remain frozen on that sad day. Those who believe they are Kemalists just because they wear a silver or gold-coated silhouette of the great leader on their lapels do far worse to the image and reputation of Atatürk than those who honestly criticized him.

He was such a great leader - or his successors were so bad - that the nation still misses him 77 years after his trip to eternity. This fact alone makes one feel proud that this nation raised an Atatürk.