Why Atatürk is still so revered
TODAY, November 10, 2018, is the 80th anniversary of the passing of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and all across Turkey and North Cyprus there will be an outpouring of affection for the man who won the War of Independence and went on to establish the Turkish Republic.
When I lived in İstanbul at the end of the 1990s, Atatürk — which means “father of the Turks” — was held up as a demi-god whose worship was not only expected but demanded. Under the AK (Justice and Development) Party, that sacred role has been challenged.
Many of the leading lights of AKP are deeply religious and dislike Atatürk’s early reforms that turned Turkey into a Western secular state. Islamic sects were treated like cults and outlawed in the newly formed republic, while wearing the headscarf and fez — relics of the old Ottoman Islamic order — became frowned upon.
However, contrary to what some anti-Atatürk figures say, he never banned the headscarf. That came many years later, after the 1980 coup, when the military dictatorship issued a public clothing regulation banning it being worn by students and civil servants in public institutions such as courts, universities and the Turkish Parliament. The controversial law was finally repealed in October 2013.
After Atatürk died in 1938, a Kemalist ideology took root in Turkey; those who fell foul of the state’s nationalist secular policies were persecuted, leading many to equate “Atatürk” with fascism. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself was one of the victims, stripped of his position as the Refah (AKP predecessor) Mayor of İstanbul, jailed for four months and banned from public office for reciting a poem that promoted religious governance during a speech he gave in 1998.
Under AKP, the reputation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has come under increasing attack. He has been described as an “ayyaş” (drunkard) by Erdoğan in 2013, while ex-Speaker of Parliament ‹smail Kahraman makes no effort to disguise his contempt for Atatürk, claiming in 2014 that “the founders of the republic were atheists”.
In recent years, the Atatürk Cultural Centre in Taksim has been demolished and a similar fate awaits Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. Part of the Gezi Park protests was about resisting President Erdoğan’s plans to replace the green space with a replica of an Ottoman barracks which in 1909 had tried to resist the secular reforms proposed by the “Young Turks”. This anti-Atatürk climate has given rise to many more public outbursts around the country, including the defacing or removal of the founding father’s statues.
Yet the nation’s affection for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has not diminished. On the contrary, year after year we see record crowds visit his monument in Ankara, Anıtkabir. Despite government efforts to undermine his legacy, respect and understanding of what the great man has done for Turkey is growing. Here are just a few of the reasons why there is eternal love for this blue-eyed soldier from Salonika. He was a successful military man, leading the Turkish charge at Gallipoli that repelled the Allied invasion of the Dardanelles. The veteran soldier (Gazi) Mustafa Kemal then became commander-in-chief of Turkish troops, forcing European powers Britain, France, Italy and Greece from its borders.
After emerging victorious from the Turkish War of Independence, he set about creating the new state that was formally launched on October 29, 1923. The Sultanate ended and a new Parliament with a secular Constitution was established in a new capital city, Ankara, in the heart of Anatolia. The caliphate was abolished and the Koran translated into Turkish to enable the common man and woman to better understand what was being preached to them at the mosques. The alphabet went from Arabic to Latin script to make it easier for the masses to learn and use.
Atatürk deliberately created a separation between the state and people’s private beliefs, which is actually more in keeping with Islam where one’s relationship with God should be direct and not through an intermediary. The state also brought religious institutions under government control, directing imams on the content of their weekly Friday sermons so they informed their congregation properly about the teachings of Islam, which in turn dispelled the many superstitions that had previously taken hold.
Socially too, Mustafa Kemal’s reforms were wide-ranging too. Chief among these was granting women’s suffrage in 1930 — earlier than many other Western states. Equality of the sexes was important too. In 1930, Turkey appointed its first female judges, and in the same year, university attendance by women reached 10 per cent. Polygamy was banned — Turkey was the only Middle Eastern country to do this — and women inherited equally to men.
Education was another crucial element for Atatürk. The state needed a more skilled workforce to compete in the modern arena. There was emphasis too on girls attending school and on co-education, ending segregation of the sexes imposed by the Ottomans.
Atatürk constantly emphasised the importance of young people to Turkey’s wellbeing. It was in them he entrusted the future of the country. During his term in office, two major public holidays were dedicated to young people: April 23 Children’s Day and May 19 for democracy, young people and sports.
The focus too fell on the economy, infrastructure and industrialisation, to prevent foreign control of Turkish assets. Businesses were urged to adopt new practices to improve output in areas such as farming and manufacturing, while the government also invested in a new national rail network.
For some the pace of change was too quick and those who resisted were dealt with using an iron fist. Turkish secularism and nationalism did not sit well with some minorities, particularly religious Turks and the Kurds, who viewed Atatürk’s legacy as deeply oppressive. These days, the AKP prefers to emphasise Turkey’s Islamic and Ottoman heritage. However, many ordinary Turks are starting to realise this need not be “either, or”, but of absorbing and accepting both, and recognising and overcoming the deficiencies of Atatürk’s reforms to strengthen the Turkish Republic.
It is not for nothing that Turkey’s Founding Father is revered in India, Cuba, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Israel, Japan, the US and many more countries as one of the greatest leaders of all time. It is for this reason the Turkish people gave this incredible man the name “Atatürk” and why he will remain immortalised and embedded forever in Turkish hearts.