Beyond loving and hating Atatürk!


Saturday, January 26, 2008, Turkish Daily News

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

I do not know whether it still continuing or if it was unique to the high school I went to, but I clearly remember how we were waiting on guard standing by [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk’s bust. I also clearly remember how weird I felt then. By guarding Atatürk’s bust, I was supposed to protect Atatürk and that was, of course, a symbolic duty we were showing our determination to protect Atatürk and his values. To be honest, like many others, I was also an admirer of Atatürk and respected him as a hero and statesman when I was a high school student. But I also remember questioning all these ceremonies as well.

As in many different matters, Turkish society is quite polarized about Atatürk. We have Kemalist state elites and a section of society who adore Atatürk and put him above everything, and we have some other sections of society who are trying to demonize him. We cannot have healthy and fruitful discussions about the role and the consequences of Kemalism since he is almost accepted a kind of sacred value for the elites of the Turkish Republic. However, this official approach cannot prevent unhealthy discussions and discourse production on a ‘black market’ level. Atatürk may be the person under the most fire in Turkish society and some of the anti myths created around his name are quite immoral and insulting. At the official level, even a mere criticism of Atatürk may lead to a prosecution under the law protecting Atatürk but at the unofficial level and behind closed doors every kind of attack and insults occur. It is a well-known phenomenon that certain fundamentalist Islamist groups in Turkey create a lot of rumors about Atatürk’s personality and his private life. Actually I found this kind of discourse quite primitive and disgusting. However, if there is no open society and if open discussions are not allowed, then one cannot prevent mocking, insults and humiliation behind close doors.

Lynching an intellectual

There are of course some people, who try to discuss some of our taboos without having to resort to rumors and indecent discourses. Professor Atilla Yayla is one these people. Yayla is one of the founding fathers of the Turkish liberal movement and an important thinker in our intellectual life. As many other intellectuals in Turkey, he also suffered a lot from persecution and exclusion. Yayla became a victim of a campaign against him and faced charges as result of his criticism on Kemalism.

Let us read the rest of the story from the briefing prepared by the Association for Liberal Thinking:

“Dr. Atilla Yayla, attended a panel discussion along with the writer of Zaman daily Ali Bulaç and [Justice and Development Party]AKP MP Zekeriya Akçam on Nov. 18, 2006, organised by AKP’s Izmir City Youth Group. This discussion was titled ‘Social Reflections of the EU process.’ Yayla talked about the history of civilization and its founding principles, values and institutions. He argued that the history of Turkey after 1923 could be divided into two phases in those terms, the first phase being 1923-45 and the second after 1950. He argued that the first phase could not be considered as a success in terms of those values and principles, thus Kemalism could not be considered as a civilizing process and for this reason it could be characterized as a regression. Following the discussion, a news report was published in Yeni Asır regional daily paper declaring him a ‘traitor’ picking on two sentences he used. The first was that he referred to Atatürk as ‘this man’ (however the audio recording of the meeting proved that this allegation was not true); the other one was that he said that ‘Kemalism was reactionary / applies to regression.’ In the wake of the press reports, the rector of Gazi University Professor Kadri Yamaç stated that Yayla was suspended from his post at the university. The head of the Higher Education Board (YÖK) Tezic argued that Yayla’s words could not be accepted as an expression of scientific opinion. Following the inquiry into Yayla’s ideas he was reinstated to his post but was condemned for his words. In the meantime a criminal case was filed against Yayla with the charge of ‘insulting Atatürk and his memory’ and his imprisoned for four-and-a-half years was asked for. The indictment prepared by Izmir Public Prosecutor Ahmet Güven claimed that Prof. Dr. Yayla insulted Atatürk by referring him as this man.”

‘This man’

Is there any democratic regime in the world that created this kind of sacred aura surrounding their leaders and founders as we have done about Atatürk? Prime ministers and presidents appear in the caricatures portraying them as monkeys, donkeys in the press everyday in every corner of the world! Did we create a secular religion here in Turkey? In Turkey there are two men of whom you cannot draw caricatures: one is prophet Muhammad and the other is Atatürk! Is this not something which we should seriously reflect upon?

Besides drawing Atatürk’s caricature, in today’s Turkey a professor can be prosecuted and tried with serious charges for an alleged mention about Atatürk as ‘that man/guy’! Yayla is one of the few people in Turkey who criticizes Atatürk and Kemalism purely from a democratic point of view. If we silence these kinds of sound voices how can we be an open society in which we can discuss historic events and persons peacefully?

As you see, the freedom of expression problem in Turkey is not limited to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code and I will continue providing other examples from this column.

For those of you who may be interested in Yayla’s case: The next hearing in this case will be held at 10:25 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2008 in Izmir’s 8th Court. Asliye Ceza Mahkemesi (8. Criminal Court of First Instance).