The Cult of Ataturk

The first time I came to Turkey to live, I was living in Izmir. Life in Izmir was a constant barrage of Ataturk paraphernalia. People had decals of his signature on their back windshields, tattoos of it on their arms, and pictures of him everywhere – on the wall, on cell-phone cases, on their transit cards, key-chains, you name it. Reading a book about Ataturk in public got me many approving comments and people would stop walking to comment and show me their tattoos/keychains/cell phone cases, etc.

Once, while at the beach in Cesme I saw a woman splayed out on the beach, blond hair seductively spread out on her towel. Her bathing-suit area was barely covered by a black bikini. She had Ataturk’s signature tattooed on her pelvic bone, angled towards her vulva like a Freudian exclamation point.

This is an Izmir transit card. The writing says, "Oh Turkish youth, your first duty is to preserve and defend Turkish independence and the Turkish republic."

This is an Izmir transit card. The writing says, “Oh Turkish youth, your first duty is to preserve and defend Turkish independence and the Turkish republic.”

From other people, I heard about a fancy dress display in Izmir where the dress on the right was a big Turkish flag and the dress on the left had a giant decal of Ataturk’s face.

Ataturk's face on a Turkish government building in Istanbul

Ataturk’s face and signature on a Turkish government building in Istanbul. Izmir is the epicentre of the Ataturk fan base, but his cult extends into many other parts of Turkey.

This was just my introduction to the Cult of Ataturk in Turkey. Izmir is the epicentre of this, but Ataturk’s popularity ranges far and wide among people of a few different political stripes. Although these people are predominantly secular or secular-ish, the range of their political beliefs can include everything from hoping for Turkey to become more aligned with European ideals (yea) to virulent Turkish nationalism (and it’s bastard child – hating Kurds and Armenians) (nay).

“But I don’t know anything about Ataturk!” you say. Here is a crash course, because I am less here to talk about the history of Ataturk as I am to talk about his current legacy in Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a military leader who became the first president of Turkey in 1923 after securing military victory against the Allies. He is known for implementing a series of reforms in Turkey. This included changing the writing system of the Turkish language to the Latin alphabet and proposing new ethnically “Turkish” words to replace Arabic or Persian loan-words; secularization of the government and country including banning religious-based attire; and providing civil rights for women.

Sounds okay, right?

Ataturk also was a major figure in the Turkish nationalist movement, which gave Turkish people a great common identity but was less beneficial for some other groups living in the former Ottoman Empire, such as Greeks. Much of the “Turkification” of Turkey can be attributed to Ataturk’s efforts, and people who espouse his ideas int he present day are known as “Kemalists.”

Let’s get back to the matter at hand. When I talk about “The Cult of Ataturk”, I’m not being hyperbolic. As one friend from Izmir explained to me,

“Back when I was still a believer [in God], every time I imagined God he had Ataturk’s face. And it wasn’t just me. I’ve spoken to other friends about this and they’ve said the same thing.”

I already believed her, so imagine how unsurprised I was when I had a similar conversation about a month later.

“We, in Turkey, we need to go back to what it was like under Ataturk – not with any of this Kurdish people playing the victim stuff. When I was a kid, Ataturk was like GOD!

Ataturk postcards I picked up in North Eastern Turkey

Ataturk postcards I picked up in North-Eastern Turkey

A few weeks before this, I had been to the Ataturk mausoleum in Ankara with another Turkish friend. This mausoleum is, no joke, like a Greek temple of the gods, all pillars, statues, polished stone, gardens, and carefully tended grandiosity. We got there late in the afternoon and weren’t able to go into the museum. My friend said, “too bad we couldn’t go into the museum. The last time I was there, and I could see all of Ataturk’s things and his books, I – I really felt something.”

Ataturk Masoleum

We got there right at closing time, and soldiers were shooing people out. I snapped this picture as a soldier stared daggers at me for not moving fast enough. Usually, this area is full of throngs of people.

The other part of the “Cult” part of the “Cult of Ataturk” is most Turkish people’s unwillingness to criticize him or his legacy, even just a little bit. Another friend in Izmir told me,

“Ataturk is such a huge figure in Turkey, and people treat him like he was beyond reproach. Even my friends are like this. For instance, I think Ataturk was mostly a good guy – but human. He did some good things, but he wasn’t perfect so he did some things that also weren’t that great. But I can’t even say that.”

Another friend said,

“Turkey in general is very conservative, but in Izmir there is another kind of conservatism – that is, Kemalism. People just aren’t critical and the devotion to Ataturk prevents people from seriously examining their attitudes.”

If you don’t believe these people, allow me to show you several screenshots or comments from a blog post that called Ataturk a “benevolent dictator.” To me, this seems fair, as the word “dictator,” applies to anybody who was not democratically elected, no matter how good at governing they are . . . right?

According to these comments, wrong. Here is one where the person took it rather personally.

Ataturk Comment 1

Here is my favourite. Somehow, this ‘anonymous’ manages to hate Racists, Kurds, and Armenians all at the same time! I can only dream of one day reaching such impressive levels of hypocrisy!

Ataturk Comment 2

Of course, may of the comments on the site are quite reasonable, and you can read them for yourself. However, most of them are much more reactionary than the post deserves.

The Problem with the Cult of Ataturk

It bears saying that I fully support when people are fans of Ataturk because of the good things that he did. Even I think women’s rights and having a secular state are a good thing, and there is no doubt that many of Ataturk’s reforms were beneficial to Turkey in general.

However, Ataturk is also a powerful symbol of the Turkish Nationalist movement, and I have something of a fraught relationship with the ideology of nationalism in general. At best, nationalist movements can gain rights for people who lack them. At worst, nationalism can create division or violence, particularly when people belonging to two (or more) previously not-so-clearly delineated groups begin to use a particular identity in order to make claims about how another group is a very bad thing, or when one clearly delineated group decides that another clearly delineated group should become exactly like them.

To add to this, nationalism is difficult to define. In the Turkish case, does being proud of speaking Turkish count? Listening to Sezen Aksu? Eating breakfast for an hour every morning?

When I write about nationalism in Turkey, I am not simply writing about appreciation for Turkish national culture and language, but rather about cultures of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ specifically regarding Turkish people and Kurdish people. A common attitude that I have observed among Turkish people is this: Traditional non-Turks that toe the line and act like Turks are fine, of course. Kurds, however, are not fine because (and I quote somebody I met) “Turkey has given them so much and then they complain.”

(Again, it bears repeating before I continue that they are many fabulous wonderful Turkish people who are not like this at all, some of whom read my blog – guys, I don’t mean you!)

But for those who do think this way, the argument goes like this. Turkey, in its benevolence, gave Kurdish people Turkish passports and the chance to be Turkish (wasn’t that nice of them?) Kurdish people don’t work hard enough and have way too many babies, so they’re poor. If they complain about the fact that they are poor, they are just ungrateful whiners. Some Kurdish people aren’t poor, so that must mean that Kurdish people in general could just be exactly like Turkish people if they would only pull their socks up and behave like proper Turkish people. This includes speaking Turkish, acting Turkish, and calling themselves – you guessed it – Turkish. Also, there are lots of poor Turkish people, which de facto means that things are definitely not worse for Kurds in general in Turkey because if Turkish people can also be poor, discrimination is obviously not a problem.

What is especially frustrating is that many of the Turkish people I talk to don’t understand that their frustrations with Kurdish nationalism are a result of their own Turkish nationalist ideas. In the words of one friend,

“I really hate Turkish nationalism.”


“I cannot even believe that Kurdish people want to take their government oaths in Kurdish.”

If you aren’t a nationalist, why would it matter what language people took their oaths in???

I am not particularly exaggerating the tone of this discourse. And while I think things get thornier when we talk about the PKK (the Kurdish rebel/terrorist army, depending on who you ask) because they actually engage in combat and I don’t think killing people is ever a good thing, some of the things that people say about Kurdish nationalism seem like non-issues to me. So Kurdish government officials want to take their oaths in Kurdish. If you’re not nationalist, it shouldn’t matter . . . right?

None of this can actually be said to be Ataturk’s fault, as he’s been dead for nearly 100 years. Ataturk’s legacy, on the other hand, is a major contributor to this as Ataturk advocated for the Turkification of Turkey. And instead of allowing Turkish people to be critical of this “True Turks act Turkish” ideology, the cultish nature of Ataturk’s legacy means that people who express doubts about Ataturk’s ideology or legacy are likely to be lambasted in by similar comments to the ones found in the article I linked to earlier.

Another problem is that Kemalism positions itself in opposition to strong religious factions in the country. One person said to me, “I don’t love nationalism, but I think it might be the only way to work against the conservative religious factions that are gaining power in Turkey right now.”

The only way? It was astonishing to me, coming from a country whose national narrative is basically multiculturalism, that he didn’t envision a middle ground.

Free Speech and the Cult of Ataturk

“Insulting the Turkish Nation” and insulting Ataturk’s legacy are illegal under the Turkish penal code, punishable by up to three years in prison. YouTube has been banned several times in Turkey, allegedly because some people have insulted Ataturk in the comments. Nobody likes to be insulted, but what is this? Could this post be seen as insulting Ataturk’s legacy? As a Canadian, I am unlikely to be tried in a Turkish court, but could I be denied a visa for writing this kind of thing? I don’t know and I hope not.

And here we are today!

Today there are parliamentary elections in Turkey, and I have my fingers crossed into knots that Turkey will elect somebody good to parliament.

These elections are taking place in order to try and correct a snafu that Turkey has been dealing with since the last parliamentary elections five months ago. During those elections, Erdogan’s party failed to secure a majority, which meant that they couldn’t form the government unless they were supported by another party. Everybody got very excited about the possibility of a coalition, but none of the parties were particularly willing to share the toys in the parliamentary sandbox. Because there was no government, a new series of elections are called.

My hope is that, instead of people sinking further and further into their respective political corners, pointing fingers and screaming “You’re the bad guy! I’m the good guy!”, making it difficult to come to any sort of meaningful compromise or even form a parliament, Turkish people will elect good leaders today, leaders who will work together for some kind of unity within the country for Turkish, Kurdish, secular, and religious people alike. It’s a high hope, to be sure, but maybe not impossible.

Polls have closed now, so I’m off to look at the news. Have a good day everybody!

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