In Britain, Remembrance Sunday fell on the 10th of November this year. As I was joining the people of my adopted country in a moment of contemplation to honour their heroes, altogether another kind of commemoration was taking place in my mother country.
The 10th of November is the anniversary of death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic.
As usual, government and opposition party leaders lined up for the official ceremony, laying wreaths at Ataturk’s mausoleum, the Anitkabir.
This year, on the 75th anniversary of his death, throughout the day, one million people turned up at the mausoleum, with flags in their hand, turning the courtyard into a sea of red.
Here in Britain, the colour red was everywhere, too. The familiar emblem of Remembrance Day, the red poppy, reminded the blood spilt during the World Wars and the ones still raging.
Even though the issue of war often provokes controversy, Remembrance Day in Britain manages to unite the country in thanksgiving.
In contrast, national days of remembrance have become occasions to further divide Turkey in recent years.
Anniversary of Ataturk’s death on the 10th of November is the most controversial date.
The professions of gratitude by officials ring hollower each year. In return, Ataturk’s memory is invoked at every turn by those driven to despair with the erosion of their civil liberties.. The more the fear of creeping Islamisation of public life grows, the bigger the crowds that run to his mausoleum.
Creating a cult of personality around Ataturk has always been a weakness of Turkish democracy, mostly cultivated by the military. Equally, insulting his memory is not the sort of progress Turkey needs in moving away from the grip of the army.
This year, too, there were those who called themselves “the foot-soldiers of Ataturk”, dreaming of him returning to put things right.
On the opposite side, an increasingly militant front was blaming Kemalism for all ills of the country.
They went one step further and placed an advert in the aggressively Islamist newspaper Akit proclaiming “We would have existed without him”.
Between these two extremes, many in Turkey feel a genuine anxiety about the direction of their country. For those, 75 years after his death, Ataturk is still a powerful symbol of valiant defiance against adversity. Unlike the supporters of the government who are convinced of their Prime Minister Erdogan’s infallibility, they do not see another leader that matches Ataturk’s farsightedness in the understanding of the modern world, his geopolitical intelligence and strategic vision.
As a shrewd politician and a realistic statesman, Ataturk had transformed Turkey from the ruins of wars and invasions into an independent, respected regional power. Today, there is a huge gap between the ambitions of Turkey’s leaders and the world reality. While they try to turn Turkey into an all-powerful global player, they seem to undermine its hard-earned regional status. Ataturk became the leader of a country under invasion, surrounded by enemies and left it without a single foe. Today, those that claim to have “Zero problems with neighbours”, find themselves with no true friend among neighbours.
Unlike some of today’s leaders and their second-rate advisors, Ataturk was an intellectual, a man of European Enlightenment.
His approach was egalitarian; his reforms radical. Secularism stood at the heart of his vision for Turkey. He broke the tie with religious law, making it possible to adopt a new civil code. This was the most important step for emancipation of women in Turkey.
75 years after Ataturk’s death, women’s participation rate in the labour force has been falling for two decades. There have been serious reversals in women’s position in society.
Ataturk built much more than he destroyed. Almost all of Turkey’s key institutions that make the backbone of today’s modern state had their foundations laid in Ataturk’s time.
There are many things Ataturk and his republic should be questioned about. There were excesses in Cultural Revolution. Republic’s policy of assimilation has ultimately failed. In creating a homogenous society, it flushed out its Christian population, losing country’s religious diversity and with it valuable human capital. By not recognizing the Kurdish identity, it laid the foundations of a conflict that still rages today.
But for detractors of Ataturk, the biggest criticism has always been his policy of keeping Islam out of governance of the country.
Emergence of political Islam in politics in recent years and its destructive effect on pluralism and democracy in today’s Turkey make me appreciate Ataturk’s legacy even more.
For Turkey to be a truly democratic, plural society, it is imperative that the country confronts, re-evaluates and criticizes its history, including all of its iconic figures.
Ataturk was not infallible. No leader is.
Once again, this year’s remembrance of Ataturk turned into an unseemly row. The contrast between poppy wearing Brits with their chants of “Lest we forget” was miles away from the scenes we were witnessing in Turkey.
No matter how many adverts claim that we didn’t owe him anything, Ataturk’s name is preserved in indelible ink at least in the heart of one Turkish woman who couldn’t otherwise be writing this today.
This post is also available in: Turkish