Thursday, November 13, 2008

More on Atatürk

This article was recently published in Time magazine about a controversial documentary released about Atatürk. The article does a really nice job painting a picture of the current clash between nationalist secularists and those less steeped in "kemalism." It is also true that there is a picture of Atatürk in every classroom, multiple statues of him in every town; and huge red flags hanging from many high rises in Ankara bearing his portrait. This is probably the first thing a visitor to Turkey notices.

A Turkish Film Draws Fire for Its Portrait of Atatürk
By Pelin Turgut / Istanbul Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008

A friend's 6-year-old recently started primary school in Istanbul. By the second week, his favorite superhero, Spider-Man, had been supplanted by a flesh-and-blood mortal who died 70 years ago: Mustafa Kemal, better known as Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. The boy's shift of allegiance is a universal rite of passage in Turkey, where children are raised on a diet of passionate poems, military derring-do and sanitized history that elevate the national hero into a demigod.

The blue-eyed leader retains that grip on Turks' imagination well beyond their school days. His portrait graces every office, classroom, boat, bus and building in the country. The sleepiest of Anatolian towns features an Atatürk statue in its square. On Tuesday morning at 9:05 a.m., as sirens wailed, the entire nation came to a halt to mark the minute of his death in 1938.

But in a fast-changing Turkey, Atatürk's personality cult is slowly cracking, and the ructions are reverberating through the nation's political life. A new film about the legendary officer, who fought off occupying European powers to create modern Turkey from the remnants of a moribund Ottoman Empire, has stirred controversy by depicting Mustafa Kemal the man, not the icon. He is shown as a lonely figure, a heavy drinker and a failed husband, racked by doubts at the end of his life. The documentary uses original footage as well as re-enactments and is tellingly called Mustafa instead of Atatürk (literally, Father of the Turks), the name given to him by a grateful nation.

Recognition that Atatürk was all too human is hardly taboo-breaking, but the film has the secularist establishment, which sees itself as the guardian of Atatürk's legacy, up in arms. Critics have accused director Can Dundar, a popular and well-respected journalist, of lying, insulting Turkishness and even being part of an Islamist plot to weaken the staunchly secularist military.

"The film is part of an operation to de-Atatürkize the Turks," the Association for Atatürk's Ideas said in a statement.

The controversy is yet another reflection of the epic struggle under way regarding Turkey's future. Secularists fear that Atatürk's legacy is threatened by the Islamic-rooted ruling party, and they look to the military for protection. The government denies it has any secret Islamicizing ambitions. Meanwhile, European Union–inspired reforms are transforming society, allowing previously taboo issues, such as rights for the Kurdish minority or the overbearing role of the military in politics and society, to be aired.

Ahmet Altan, editor of Taraf, a liberal daily newspaper, argues that the crusaders against the film are motivated by a desire to curtail any such debate." Atatürk is being used as a shield to fend off questions about many things that are misshapen or rotten in this country," he wrote.

Mustafa tells the story of Mustafa Kemal, who was born in 1881 in Thessaloniki, which is now in Greece but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. He became a soldier, and at 22, as a mere captain, he rebelled against the Sultan. The army banished him to faraway posts but couldn't quash him. A brilliant military strategist, he defeated the British at Gallipoli in 1915, and in 1919 he started a war for independence against occupying European allies that resulted in the founding of modern Turkey in 1923.

As that country's first President, Atatürk steered resolutely westward, implementing radical reforms. He removed all references to Islamic Shari'a law from the statutes, introduced a Swiss-based legal code, abolished religious education in schools, introduced women's rights and changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin.

After his death in 1938 (of liver disease, believed to be caused by heavy drinking), the reform program he had enacted — most important, secularism and the concept of a monoethnic state — became an official ideology called Kemalism. It is enshrined in the constitution as an inviolable founding principle. Atatürk's mausoleum in Ankara has become a hallowed place for his followers. Last year hundreds of thousands of secularists staged an antigovernment rally in front of it.

Filmmaker Dundar, a well-known secularist, says he is shocked by the criticism. "I'm being lynched," he said in an interview in daily Hurriyet. "Now I know what a taboo is." At the film's premiere, he said he wanted to "show a more real Atatürk — a man who fought difficulties, loved women, who made mistakes, who was sometimes scared and achieved things." (See pictures of movie posters.)

The Old Guard might object, but for young people — and they are legion, with 70% of the population under the age of 35 — the film is a big draw. "Why shouldn't this man, who transformed an entire country, enjoy raki, like dancing, miss his mother or not like sleeping in the dark?" asks pop singer Nil Karaibrahimgil. "Do these [facts] change what he did or diminish it? Being introduced to Mustafa made Atatürk even more of a hero in my eyes." Some 800,000 people have seen Mustafa so far — more than the latest James Bond movie — proving perhaps that taking on Turkey's taboos is no longer quite so scary.

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