Turkey’s Kemalists see his secularist legacy under threat

November 18, 2013

(People gather at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey and founder of the modern secular state, to commemorate his 75th death anniversary at Anitkabir in Ankara November 10, 2013. The slogan on an Ataturk poster (R) reads as: “Take an oath today”. TURKEY-KEMALISTS/ REUTERS/Stringer)

For decades his picture dominated Turkey, piercing blue eyes staring from hoardings, keeping watch over city streets and army barracks. Schoolyards echoed every morning to his oath:  “Happy is he who can say ‘I am a Turk!'”

Now that oath rings out no more and the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular republic, seems for some to be retreating into the shadows, victim of a new ruling class they suspect of cherishing a new more ‘Islamic’ Turkey.

Turkey’s “Kemalists” flinch at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan advising women on the number of children they should have, fostering restrictions on alcohol and expressing moral outrage over male and female students living together in the same house or flat.

The natural place to turn, as in hard times before, was to Ataturk’s tomb, the Anitkabir, a columned stone monument atop a hill in Ankara. Over a million people descended on it this month on the anniversary of his death, the highest number in more than a decade. Tens of thousands more marked the ritual at Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace where Ataturk spent his last days.

“They’re stepping on everything Ataturk stands for and I felt the need to show my reaction,” said Ozgur Diker, a 36-year old insurance salesman from Istanbul who travelled with five friends to Anitkabir.

“Whatever little democracy we have today, we owe it to Ataturk,” he said, one of many first-time visitors to the tomb to mark the anniversary this year.

Tension between religious and secular elites has long been one of the underlying fault lines in the predominantly Muslim but constitutionally secular republic, forged from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy by Ataturk 90 years ago.
Read the full story by Humeyra Pamuk and Gulsen Solaker here.

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