Ataturk: To Love Him, To Question Him And to Get Hurt

By Begum Burak

Seventy-three years ago, on November 10, Ataturk the founding father of Turkey said “good-bye” to life. Almost no one in Turkey today underestimates the military reasoning of Ataturk. Because, as the leader of the War of Independence, he revealed a considerable degree of enthusiasm and effort to liberate the nation. So it is no surprise that even the “Anti-Kemalist” camp in Turkey states that Ataturk had done a good job in order to establish a free and modern country.

In 1923, Ataturk with his close friends established the Turkish Republic. As known, in this process, in order to break the ties with the “dark and backward”[1] Ottoman past, Ataturk took harsh steps with the aim of making a “Westernized” state. Especially after the middle of the 1920s, important policies and measures were carried out to combat the so-called “dangerous” elements of the Ottoman heritage. In this context, it can be stated that first and foremost Islam and then Kurdish nationalism represented the most threatening elements for the Kemalist regime.

Both in Turkey and abroad, almost no scholar or no single observer argues that Ataturk saw democracy as an indispensable necessity. This view has a number of explanations. First of all, during the time Ataturk carried out the modernization project along with harsh policies, while other countries were still ruled by non-democratic means. Secondly, in a newly-established nation-state, some “suspect” movements, practices and/or institutions many of which are said to be directly related to religion (Islam), had to be get rid of.

This brief historical summary of the emergence of modern Turkey reveals the fact that Ataturk, with the aim of making a homogeneous nation-state, eliminated and/or suppressed almost anything which he regarded as suspicious. In line with this, it is not hard to say that Ataturk did not see democracy as a need for the time-being. By contrast, he let no real opposition parties[2] to come into being while suppressing any other opposing ideas in the society. For instance, the Tribunals of Independence can be regarded as an effective instrument in suppressing the opposing movements in the society.

Apart from that, today in Turkey, people feel much freer in questioning Ataturk and what he had done. Above all, many people think and declare that the Kemalist way of secularism had put a considerable amount of pressure on religious people in addition to violating their basic rights. Also, some dramatic events such as the Dersim Incident show how the “other” was treated in those years.

On the other hand, of course, as a military and political leader, Ataturk paved the way for a free Turkish state and modernized Turkey to a great extent. The Kemalist revolution in that sense played a key role in making Turkey wear a Western veil.

 We all know that the instruments employed in this process are debated today. Some argue that Ataturk acted as a dictator while others disagree. In questioning and criticizing Ataturk, some ultra-Kemalist people cannot accept any critiques. Even the Turkish judiciary takes its position in “protecting” Ataturk. Last week a dramatic event occurred revealing the pathological state which shows how these critiques over Ataturk are treated in Turkey. Also, last week the social media (Twitter) has witnessed how these treatments can be rather hurting and rude. Some authors called Ataturk a dictator on Twitter while some other users called the people saying him a dictator, of bad stock. (making #Ataturkediktatordiyensoysuzdur -#ThosewhocallAtaturkadictatorareofbadstock- a trend topic on Twitter)

It is also true that despite the above-stated horrible experiences, it can be said that Turkey has covered a considerable degree of distance in making rightful critiques about the policies carried out during the emergence of the Republican Turkey and about Ataturk. Of course, all Turks respect Ataturk as the founding father of Turkey and the victorious leader of the War of Independence, however that does not mean that he had super-natural powers or that he cannot be questioned or criticized. If we want to reach the level of “contemporaneous civilizations” which Ataturk had regarded as a purpose for Turkey, we have to respect those who disagree and we must ask for more freedom, especially in terms of speech and conscience.


[1] I do not see the Ottoman past backward. However this view is put forward in many books and publications.

[2] The two political parties established in 1924 and 1930 had just lived for a few months. Their activities were ended by Ataturk.

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