Why Atatürk is still so revered

Cyprus Today - - OPINION - With Ipek Öz­erim

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.

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