Is Turkey reassessing Ataturk’s legacy?

November 10, 2008

The following piece is written by Turkey correspondent Ibon Villelabeitia:

A new and intimate documentary on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the
venerated soldier-statesman who founded modern Turkey after
World War One, has sparked controversy in this European Union
candidate country at a time of national self-absorption.

“Mustafa”, which opened on Oct. 29 on the 85th anniversary
of the foundation of the republic, has spawned a lively debate
in newspapers and television shows on the merits of the film.

Is it appropriate to depict Turkey’s national hero as a
flawed man who drank heavily and suffered from bouts of
loneliness? Could he be called a dictator? Did he talk about an
autonomous land for the Kurds?

An anti-smoking group has complained that the movie sets a
bad example for the youth because Ataturk is seen smoking one
cigarette after another — 3 1/2 packs a day we are told.

Calls for a boycott from hard-line “Kemalists” have been
mixed with praise for bringing “Ataturk down from a pedestal”.

Westerners visiting or living in Turkey are always mystified
by the almost religious reverence Turks feel for Ataturk, who
laid down the strict secular principles of today’s Turkey.

His peering blue eyes and sage-like composure tower over
everyday life here. Banners and portraits of Ataturk, adorn the
walls of government offices, barbers and kebab stores across
this deeply nationalistic nation.

Our 4-year-old son, born to an American mother and a Basque
father, came home from school the other day with the white-and-
red colours of the Turkish flag painted on his cheeks, a banner
of Ataturk in one of his hands.

– “Who is that gentleman?” I asked.

– “Well, Ataturk the Father of the Turks”, he replied,
dutifully repeating what children here are taught by teachers,
before rushing to the living room to play with his Scooby-Doo

Personality cult is no exclusive preserve of Turks,
but the omnipresence of Ataturk has no parallels today in any other
European country.

Is Turkey — where profound social changes, EU-inspired
reforms and globalisation are shaking the pillars of Ataturk’s
autocratic state — reassessing the legacy of its founder?

Ataturk is still deeply respected by most Turks, as a visit
to his mausoleum in Ankara shows. Young and old, urban and
rural, covered and uncovered women line up to visit the
Anitkabir in awe — a pilgrimage to a secular Lourdes of sorts,
as a Turkish friend defined it to me.

Ataturk is universally credited for giving women the right
to vote, modernising the education system and removing religion
from public life in order to bring up levels of social and
cultural development on par with Europe.

But the strict tenets of Kemalism — secularism, statism
and nationalism — are under strain 70 years after his death.

A rising and religious-minded middle class from the Anatolian
heartland is moving to positions of power, and with it,
redefining notions of Islam, secularism and individual rights.

Critics say Ataturk has been taken hostage by an entrenched
military, judiciary and state bureaucracy, which have turned his
legacy into dogma to defend the status quo. Those who claim to
defend Ataturk’s legacy more fervently are, ironically, the same
who are blocking his fulfilment of a modern Turkey, they say.

Can Dundar, a 44-year-old film-maker with impeccable republican credentials and who calls himself an Ataturk follower, said his goal was to present a more human Ataturk to better understand his legacy.

“Ataturk said once his greatest achievement was to bring
sovereignty to earth instead of a sovereignty stemming from a
book which is believed to come from the sky, refering to the
Quran,” Dundar said. “I hope this film helps to bring him down
to the earth again.”

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