I remember visiting Anitkabir (Atatürk’s tomb in Ankara) with a friend of mine who admires Atatürk. He was sort of on top of the world, and I asked him why. He answered: ‘You know, Muslims go to Mecca, Kemalists go to Anitkabir.’
I couldn’t get it out out of my mind today. In the news there was an event that took place this weekend. A (foreign) artist opened an exhibition about religion, and he made a sign with the symbols of four religions: the cross from Christianity, the Star of David from Judaism, the crescent moon from Islam and the portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, from Kemalism. It totally angered some young guys, members of opposition party CHP, which was founded by Atatürk himself. They tried to destroy the placard (which you can see here, the text means ‘worship zone’) with the symbols on it, and made a real fuss this weekend in Istanbul.
People who call themselves real ‘Kemalists’ usually get very upset if you suggest they treat their love for Atatürk as a religion. Atatürk laid the foundation for the separation of state and religion, so considering that being one of his followers is like a religion is just not acceptable. Still, I’ve seen so many similarities between religion and staunch Kemalism. Let me mention a few.
On the way from my house to the harbour of Üsküdar there is a bookshop. Women wearing headscarves work there, they sell religious books and also books about the founding father. Passing that bookshop with a Kemalist, I pointed out the books about Atatürk in the shop window to try to start a conversation about it. But he didn’t even really want to look at the books. ‘These people sell books about Atatürk, but it’s only a cover up, they don’t really love Atatürk.’
Now where else do we see that sort of reasoning? In religion. The ones that consider themselves the true followers of the path usually ridicule the ones that have another approach. If you are ‘pro-choice’ when it comes to abortion, you’re not a real Christian. If you drink a glass of raki, you can’t be a real Muslim. Similarly, if you wear a headscarf, you can never be a real supporter of Atatürk.
Another example: the law. It is illegal to insult Atatürk and his legacy. If you do – and the definition of that is broad – you can be convicted. This is not a law that is just used for very extreme situations. It’s used often, for example in court cases against writers and academicians, but also against normal citizens. In my view, that’s clearly comparable to laws in several Christian and Muslim countries forbidding ‘blasphemy’.
Another example: last year Turkan Saylan passed away. She was considered one of the leading campaigners for sending girls to school. I made an extensive search to find a specific website again reporting her death that I read at the time, but I can’t find it anymore. Anyway, at the time I was struck by the way Turkan Saylan’s inspiration was mentioned. She was inspired by Atatürk. Of course, that’s not very strange since he was the one who made education obligatory for both boys and girls. The weird thing was that Atatürk was referred to as He, Him, His. With a capital H. Only one type of leader is called He, Him and His: a prophet, the founder of a religion. Allah, God, JWH, Jesus, Mohammed, all called He and Him and His.
One more example? Okay then, back to Anitkabir. There is a guest book. The last time I was there (actually my third time), I read some of the things kids had written. They visit Anitkabir on school excursions. Many children of primary school age write things like: ‘I love you Atatürk, I know you look down on me from above and I promise to be a good student.’ Now who can look down from above, keeping an eye on every move you make? Who are often used as a ‘tool’ to pressure kids to obey the rules? Gods, prophets, and the like.
I also saw something else at Anitkabir. A quote of Atatürk himself, saying (paraphrasing): It’s not about me, I will die but Turkey will survive. Exactly that makes it so sad in my eyes, that for some Turks Atatürk and Kemalism did actually turn into a religion. I admire Atatürk for his amazing courage, his modernism, his huge interest in women’s rights. But wouldn’t it just be great to really scientifically look at his legacy? Analyze it, see what is applicable at this time, and what is less applicable? I think it would only help to keep alive all that he meant for the very existence of this beautiful country. Now people disagree in his name, fight in his name, drift apart in his name, even get violent in his name. Bring Atatürk back to human proportions – because that’s what he was, a human being. In my humble opinion, it will only help the unity of the country he founded.