[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
Two days ago, on May 19, Turkey celebrated its “Youth Day.” Thousands of youngsters gathered in stadiums in order to rejoice in this official annual festival. Statesmen applauded colorful parades, while millions of citizens watched them on TV. And all of us were repeatedly reminded of the “the meaning and importance of May 19.”
To get this “meaning and importance” better, I suggest taking a closer, and critical, look at it. What makes May 19 particularly important is, of course, its place in the life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. On May 19, 1919, his boat reached the shores of the city of Samsun, from where he launched his mission to first join and then lead the War of Independence against the allied powers which occupied Turkey in the aftermath of the Great War. No wonder the full name of the “Youth Day” is “The Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day.”
‘Commemoration of Atatürk’
Yet, at this point, one wonders: is there any official day in Turkey which is not about the “commemoration of Atatürk?” We have three other annual official festivals, and all of them are again linked with the cult of the Supreme Leader: April 23 (“Children’s Day”) is the day he opened the Parliament; Aug. 30 is the day he won the battle against the occupying Greeks; and Oct. 29 is the day he announced the Republic. We even have a fifth national day, Nov. 10, when Atatürk, unbelievably, died.
In all of these official days, all Turkish students are gathered in school yards or stadiums, and are enlightened about all the great things that Atatürk did for us: He “saved” us from the sultan, liberated us from the enemies and gave us the unshakable “principles” that will guide the nation until eternity. (Of course, we are never reminded of unpleasant facts such as that Atatürk, as a politician, silenced all his opponents, closed down all rival parties and never bothered to compete in free and fair elections.) The whole effort is aimed at portraying Atatürk as an all-knowing, and all-righteous leader, who can be only venerated and obeyed, but never questioned.
No wonder the same official rhetoric proudly defines the Republic of Turkey as “the Atatürk Republic.” I am leaving it to you to figure out which regimes in the 20th century have been similarly defined with the name of a single (and unelected) political leader. Let me just point to something else: Keeping Turkey as “the Atatürk Republic” has a very pragmatic benefit for those who define themselves as “Atatürkist.” It implies a political system to which they have an exclusive right to own and utilize, whereas the non-Atatürkists can only be second-class citizens, and even deserve to be labeled as “enemies within.”
Now, my problem with “the Atatürk Republic” is not just that it is discriminatory against a very large part of the society – which includes conservative Muslims, ethnically conscious Kurds or liberals. It also is a roadblock to meritocracy: In a political system defined mainly by the charisma of a person, your allegiance to that person becomes much more important than your merits. What matters is not your skills and your hard work, but your loyalty to the leader and his “path.” (The same problem, of course, occurs within other political traditions in Turkey, including the center right. “Loyalty to Erdoğan,” for example, is too much of a value in the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. But we at least do not have an “Erdoğan Republic.”)
Another problem with “the Atatürk Republic” is the intense collectivism that lies at its core. According to its official ideology, the individual is really not a big value in itself. Thus he or she can be easily sacrificed for a collective body called “the nation.” (“Let my existence be a gift to Turkish existence,” reads the oath that Turkish students take every morning.)
The celebrations of the “Youth Day” are spectacular manifestations of this collectivist ideology. The festival is supposed to promote “sport,” but this never includes competitive ones such as football or tennis. The common activity of the day is rather choreographed dances on stadium grounds, or team gymnastics in which male athletes use their well-built bodies to form human towers – a relic from the age of “racial fitness.” Another usual “Youth Day” scene is the thousands of youngsters in stadium tribunes, who hold placards that collectively form huge images such as the national flag, portraits of Atatürk, or slogans referring to Atatürk, such as “We are on your path.”
As liberal philosopher Friedrich A. Hayek explained in his “Road to Serfdom,” such collectivist and “planned” recreation is among the hallmarks of “regimented nations.” No wonder why the only capital besides Ankara in which you can still see such collectivist manifestations of official ideology is Pyongyang.
If Turkey will become a democracy, really, we need to abandon such archaic rituals, which put the state and its ideology above individuals. And if we will continue to have a Youth Day, that should be a one in which youngsters can freely choose what they want to do, and can find the means to express their individual potential.