[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
The people of Damal, a district of the eastern city of Ardahan, couldn’t have imagined that their modest and destitute town would attract droves of visitors and become the focus of the Turkish media. But that is exactly what happened in the past few years with the ”Atatürk miracle” discovered on the face of the Karadağ heights. Apparently, the silhouette of Turkey’s revered founder appears on the shadow that falls on these heights between June 15 and July 5. And thousands of Atatürk lovers, including military officers, bureaucrats and urban professionals, visit the region in order to observe this fascinating solstice.
Mr. Gülcemal Fidan, the mayor of Damal and a member of the ultra-secular People’s Republican Party, or CHP, recently announced that the Damal Festival in the Shade of Atatürk will be observed every year, and his office has spared YTL 200,000 (about $163,000) for this year’s organization — which is quite an amount for a tiny and poor area like his. Mr. Fidan also added that they expected Turkey’s Chief of Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt to attend the celebrations.
The Druid-like Festival
Daily Milliyet, a mainstream paper, reports all these under the headline, “Atatürk Miracle Observed in Damal” — with no quotes for the term “miracle”. The story also reads:
“The Atatürk silhouette once again showed itself on the outskirts of Damal. Visitors who came to see this magnificent silhouette could not hide their awe in the face of this natural event. The locals have celebrated it with playing drums and zurna [a Turkish flute]. Visitors have danced ‘halay’, and children chanted, ’Turkey is secular, and it will remain secular’.”
With all due respect, I tend to disagree with those kids. I think Turkey is not secular, and this Druid-like festival of the solstice of the Cult of The Supreme Leader is just one the many signs showing that it really isn’t.
This official cult is so internalized by many Turks that they don’t see how bizarre all this is. Their faith in an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-hearing Atatürk overlooking his children is just taken for granted. When the Turkish football team beats that of the Croats with some last-minute miracle, for example, Atatürk is thought to have played a role in this. Daily Vatan, a staunchly secularist paper, notes that Fatih Terim, the trainer of the Turkish team, had a small Atatürk poster in his cabin. ”Supreme Leader Atatürk was among those who watched the match,” the newspaper hence ”reports.” “It has been understood that Fatih Terim, throughout the whole match, received power from the presence of Atatürk.”
And, not too surprisingly, such a strong religious faith hardly tolerates heresy. When the Justice & Development Party’s (AKP) deputy chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat says to the New York Times, “Atatürk’s revolutions traumatized Turkish society,” he is accused of being a ”traitor” or a person with ”mental fatigue.”
But why does Turkey have this bizarre official cult of personality created around the country’s founder — who was a great leader, to be sure, but no demigod?
The Naked Public Square
Well, it is not too surprising. Almost all authoritarian secular regimes that suppressed traditional religion ended up with creating their own religion. Richard John Neuhaus, a leading American thinker on religion and public life, stresses this fact in this classic work, The Naked Public Square. The term ”naked” refers to the public square that is systematically excluded from religion and religious values. For Turkey’s secularists, that is heaven-on-Earth and the only way to modernity. But Neuhaus warns:
“Such religious evacuation of the public square cannot be sustained, either in concept or in practice… When recognizable religion is excluded, the vacuum will be filled by ersatz religion, by religion bootlegged into public space under other names.”
But why? Neuhaus reminds of Spinoza who noted, “Transcendence abhors a vacuum.” And since societies tend to need moral judgments that are rooted in transcendence, soon the vacuum gets filled by a new source of transcendence.
“When particularist religious values and the institutions that bear them are excluded,” Neuhaus explains, “the inescapable need to make public moral judgments will result in an elite construction of a normative morality from sources and principles not democratically recognized by society.”
The Civil Public Square?
This happened in Soviet Russia; hence came the cult of personality of Stalin. It also happened in North Korea; hence we still have the cult of personality of the Eternal Leader and his son, the Dear Leader. It happened in Turkey, too, as evidenced by the Cult of the Supreme Leader. (The genius of the Turkish system lies in the fact that it is a hybrid system. Since 1950, the authoritarian secular state has opened some limited space to democracy. So authoritarian and democratic mechanisms co-exist here, which save face internally and internationally. But once in a while, the authoritarian mechanism “comes down” to crush the democratic one, as it is happening these days.)
Neuhaus says that there are two alternatives to the naked public square. One is the sacred public square, in which religion dominates the system. This is, of course, a bad alternative. No wonder Turkey’s secularists, and many others, defend the naked public square by showing us this bad alternative.
But there is another alternative as well: the civil public square. This is one in which the religious and the secular can express themselves, and the name of the game is democracy. This is, I believe, the best political choice for all nations, including Turkey.
So, will Turkey ever manage to build a civil public square? I really don’t know. The disciples of the silhouette on the holy mountain are just too powerful. And theirs is quite a jealous god.