[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
You really shouldn’t miss this. Last week, the head of the CHP (People’s Republican Party) in the city of Denizli, Mr. Ali Kavak, unveiled yet another heinous attack on our secular Republic and its founder. He, with all seriousness, posed in front of cameras with a photo of the statue of M. Kemal Atatürk that rests at the center of his city. “As you see,” he said, “the penis of the horse that Atatürk sits on has been broken.”
Then he moved on to disclose the wicked plan behind this blasphemy: “We think that the AKP (Justice and Development Party) cadres have broken the penis,” he asserted, “the mindset which covers our women’s heads with scarves is now attacking artworks!”
Daily Hürriyet made this a headline story: “The shocking debate on Atatürk’s statue.” According to the Hürriyet reporter, the head of the AKP in the city, who is also the mayor, flatly denied the accusation. “This is totally untrue,” he said, and added, “we have found this controversy embarrassing.” He also showed the photos of the statue from 2004 to prove that the alleged overextended circumcision had never taken place.
The Hürriyet reporter also spoke to the sculptor of the Atatürk-on-the-horse statue, Dr. Tamer Başoğlu, who is also the former dean of the Mimar Sinan Art Faculty. “I made the statue with my own hands,” he confirmed, “and I find these allegations bizarre.”
Yes, this incident is totally bizzare. Even if the AKP people were closet Islamists trying to turn Turkey into another Iran, as many CHP folks fantasize, they would probably not start by castrating the horses of Atatürk statues. But such obsessions about the country’s founder and the “attacks” against him never fade away from the Turkish public scene. About a month ago, yet another branch of the AKP, the one in Kuşadası, was accused for “insulting Atatürk” by putting up a poster of him in a local meeting and, then, taking it down.
This “crime” was unveiled by the media, and the public prosecutors started an investigation. Soon, it turned out that the strings that carried the huge poster of the Supreme Leader were not strong enough, and, during the meeting, one of them broke. “That’s why we had to remove the half-hanging poster,” explained the accused AKP local representative, İbrahim Üstün. “We really had no bad intentions.”
Having been a Turkish citizen for more than three decades, I have seen zillions of such cases that point to a fundamental problem our nation has: We have elevated Atatürk to a god-like figure, and this national cult of personality drives us irrational and narrow-minded. There is no doubt that he was a great leader who deserves gratitude and respect. But that should be in the way that Americans respect George Washington, not the North Koreans worship Kim Il Sung.
“You are in the heavens, my Atatürk!
You are watching us from the skies!
You have never gone away.
You are the one who decides our destiny.
You delivered us from death and slavery.
You are the one who gives us life!”
This poem, written by a 12-year old young female student named Ecem, won the “Atatürk Poetry Contest” held in one of the primary schools of Istanbul this year. Such contests are held every year in all schools throughout the country and similar poems float around. No big surprise: The Turkish education system is designed to raise not critically thinking but uncritically obeying citizens.
Now, from all that, I have drawn two conclusions. The first one is that when you look at the debates in Turkey on “Islam versus secularism,” you should note that the “secularism” here has its own religious components that derive from the cult of the Supreme Leader. In that sense, Turkey can even be defined as “theocratic” to some extent. In the neighboring Iran, the theocracy is based on Islam, and the Ayatollahs who claim to have authority over its interpretation enjoy exclusive political power. In Turkey, we instead have a secular priesthood — the state institutions who claim to have authority over the interpretation of Atatürk — which, again, usurp the people’s political sovereignty. To be fair, our “theocracy” is much softer and less palpable than that of Iran, but it is still an obstacle to democracy.
Cartoons and Zealots
My second conclusion is about the zeal that “secular” Kemalist Turks show while defending their objects of veneration. Their intolerance to any real or perceived challenge to Atatürk (and even the horses in his statues!), combined with their deep-seated belief in the existence of heinous conspiracies against him, very much resemble another trouble in this part of the world: Furious Muslims who can’t stand to hear or see anything critical about Islam. These religious and the secular believers can apparently be not too different from each other in defending what they see as sacred.
Then perhaps the zealotry of those extremist Muslims might be coming from not necessarily the core teachings of Islam, as many Westerners readily presume these days, but the deep-seated belief in eastern societies in absolute truths, absolute rulers and absolute obedience.
Let me give you a hint: We know how harshly some Muslims reacted to the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. How do you think Kemalists would respond if there were similar cartoons of Atatürk? I really can’t tell — because I have never seen one.