Kemalists versus Liberal Intellectuals in Turkey

Promoting the Kemalist Personality Cult and Keeping Rank

Against the backdrop of the recent demonstrations held "in defence of the secular republican order", Günter Seufert profiles the nationalist discourse in Turkey, which condemns everything that is not in line with Kemalist dogma

What on earth is going on in Turkey? Hundreds of thousands of people – among them large numbers of women and young people, representatives of the well-educated, Europeanized middle class – are taking to the streets to protest against a government that has brought their country closer to Europe than any other government in recent decades.

Fear of the demise of the secular republic has moved the military to threaten a coup. Army generals list the singing of religious songs in schools and the organization of Koran recital competitions as examples of the current threat to the secular state.

Six months before parliamentary elections are due to be held, the military is speaking of its right to bring down the democratically elected government. The loudest applause it receives for so doing comes from a party that is a member of the social democratic Socialist International.

Moreover, millions of people refuse to be distracted from their protests against the government by the threat of a coup d'état.

A gentleman called Europe

How do Turkish intellectuals explain this tangle of paradoxical phenomena? H. Gökhan Özgün's attempted explanation takes the form of a fairytale. It is the story of the relationship between Princess Türkan, the Cinderella Hayrünisa, and a gentleman called Europe who, fed up with Türkan's capricious behaviour, has begun pressing his suit with Hayrünisa.

"Europe began searching for a new bride. And whom did he choose? A Cinderella. Türkan, a princess by birth, who never deigned to take notice of Cinderella before, now looks at her – first with surprise and then with disgust. This Cinderella is supposed to take her place? What on earth could Europe be thinking?"

In this fairytale, Hayrünisa stands for both Hayrünisa Gül (wife of Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gül), whose headscarf turned out to be the stumbling block on the way to her husband's election as president, and the people who elected the AKP government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Türkan, stands for both Professor Türkan Saylan, whose Association in Support of Contemporary Living was one of the organisers of the mass rallies, and the people who attended these demonstrations.

In an open letter to the EU in early May, Türkan Saylan clearly outlined the views of the demonstrators, who once again chanted "neither the EU, nor the USA" in Samsun last Sunday.

"The people of the Republic of Turkey," she wrote, "are particularly sensitive when it comes to certain issues …. and most particularly when it comes to ATATÜRK. Whether villager or city-dweller, whether aged seven or seventy, whether upper or lower class, the creator of this country, that great person who pushed through reforms and established secular order in the country, is universally respected and ardently loved. Only separatists, religious radicals, and a handful of intellectuals think otherwise."

She then went on to say: "If the leaders of the European Union now add their voice to the criticism of ATATÜRK they will damage relations between the union and our country, relations which are already hanging by a thread."

Love and respect for the army

According to Saylan, Europe's repeated fault-finding with the influence of the Turkish military has exactly the same effect. She is convinced that neither the Europeans nor the Americans can imagine the strength of the bond of love and respect that exists between the people and the army in Turkey. "The European Union must understand," continues Saylan, "that the ARMY, whose main task is to protect the secular republican order, has just as much right to voice its opinion as any NGO in the event of initiatives being taken that exploit children and are based on religious law and tolerated by people in positions of authority."

Another group behind the mass rallies was the Association of Kemalist Ideology. The former commander of the Turkish police and Professor Necla Arat are members of its committee. For her part, Arat sees nothing unusual in the recent memorandum issued by the military. After all, she reasons, engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and intellectuals all express their opinions in public. "Why do we get jittery when soldiers express theirs?" she asks.

Just like Saylan, Arat is also of the opinion that this applies all the more in situations in which Islamism – which is often referred to as the "religious reaction" in Turkey – poses a threat. Just what the "religious reaction" is was defined by another academic last week.

In a speech marking the 139th anniversary of the foundation of the Supreme Court of Administration, the president of the court, Sumru Çörtoglu, said: "Every movement that is not in line with Atatürk's principles and reforms is part of the religious reaction." When it comes to defining the official ideology of the Republic of Turkey, this is as succinct as it gets.

Creating a towering taboo

Does this fix the boundaries for every shade of political freedom? And what does this mean for socialists or liberal democrats – political persuasions that have very little in common with the political world of Atatürk – asks Murat Belge, a liberal intellectual from Istanbul. One could also add to this list movements like pluralism, antimilitarism, individualism, and concepts for an open society, all of which have had a major influence on political thinking in the EU since the Second World War.

Such reforms make little sense to the organizers of the mass rallies. In their speeches they talk of "national unity" that has to be protected against "the artificial fixing of borders"; of "enemies of the Republic"; of "neo-colonial influence from abroad"; of the "division of the fatherland"; and, of course, of the "religious reaction". These exact same phrases were used by the military in its statements; terminological building blocks that are stacked on top of one another to create a towering taboo.

The justification for this taboo is given as the legacy of the founder of the Republic, Kemal Atatürk, who is increasingly being portrayed as a sacred figure. Addressing the deceased statesman in his mausoleum, Professor Ali Ercan, chairman of the Association of Kemalist Ideology, said at the rally in Ankara: "Great leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it has been 24,992 days since you departed this life. Today, we stand before you filled with shame and mourning." As if in direct response to the professor's appeal, a recording of a speech made by Atatürk in 1933 was played out over the loudspeakers.

Atatürk's never-ending tutelage

Novelist Perihan Magden recently commented on this personality cult in her newspaper column: "If I were a member of the Kemalist Church and could live like a child under its never-ending tutelage, I would rest my forehead on the marble of Atatürk's mausoleum, kiss the monument, and say: 'my father, I feel so alone!' Then a voice would rise up out of the darkness and say: 'My child, you are not alone! You have the chief of defence staff, Yasar Büyükanit, who considers himself to be my right hand; you have Deniz Baykal, who is considered to be the leader of my party (CHP, Republican People's Party); and you have hundreds of thousands of brothers and sisters who, just like you, understand little of democracy." Then I would go straight out and buy myself a tight-fitting t-shirt with a low neckline and a baseball cap in the colours of the Turkish flag and would join the republic demonstrations."

Like many liberal intellectuals, Magden does not believe that the AKP poses an Islamic threat. The same can be said for the Turkish-Armenian Garo Mafyan, a musician and successful composer. "My favourite life philosophy is fish with aniseed schnapps on the Bosporus," says Mafyan, who has no qualms about setting poems by the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen to music, a man considered by Kemalists to be an Islamic devil in disguise.

Earlier this week, no less than 500 academics and intellectuals issued a declaration renouncing the threatened military coup. In it they said: "we believe that the secular republic can only be strengthened by more democracy, not by memoranda from the military." Neither the opposition, nor those who participated in the mass rallies that cheered on the crew of a war ship in İzmir, have uttered such clear-cut words thus far.

After all, more democracy, which the 500 academics called for in their declaration, would not solve the problem of the secular middle classes at the rallies. More democracy would seek the political integration of disadvantaged classes, religious followers in Anatolia, and the Kurds – people who do not entirely fit the idealised picture of the secular Turk, but who are nevertheless increasing their profile economically, culturally, and also politically.

Günter Seufert

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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