A postcard of Ataturk near Chora Church

Thanks, Ataturk! Don’t Roll Over!

For a westerner looking at Ataturk’s chiseled, grey-toned, stoic face—almost always near a red crescent and star—it’s easy to roll him into a dismissive mental ball with other black and white chaps who appear next to red stars, like Lenin and Trotsky.

But please don’t dismiss him. He is the fulcrum on which Turkey teeters. And I worry for Turkey.

Only the blind can spend two weeks in Turkey and not be aware of Ataturk. His face adorns money, businesses, and city squares. Streets are named after him. Presumably babies, too, are named after him.

Ataturk. Literally, Father Turk. His real name? What you’d name a baby after? Mustafa Kemal.

Why does Ataturk watch us carefully from money and the walls of businesses and city squares?

A bronze statue of Ataturk in Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey.

In the center, Ataturk overlooks Taksim Square. He envisioned and lead the creation of the modern, secular Turkish republic. In some circles he is revered. Other circles seek to undo his work.

His first success was a biggie: he masterminded the underdog military victory of Ottoman forces over the British at Gallipoli in World War I.

But Gallipoli was just a warm up. After World War I, he masterminded modern Turkey. Ataturk. Father Turk.

He rose in political power and then essentially called the shots. Think “dictator with an amazingly liberal, future-focused, serve-the-people vision.”  He defines the term “benevolent despot.”

Here are just a few of the things Ataturk (and his helpers) accomplished in the years between World War I and World War II:

  • Negotiated the exit of imperialist powers from Turkey
  • Wrestled power away from Islamic clerics
  • Built a public education system
  • Liberalized women’s place in society through education and employment
  • Invented the modern Turkish language, written with the Roman alphabet
  • Instituted democratic reform (Yeah, I know, it’s weird to talk about a dictator instituting democratic reform with a straight face, but I am, and he did.)
  • Moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara

If Atatruk hadn’t done his deeds, Turkey would be a dusty Islamic backwater, like Yemen or Kyrgyzstan, instead of a serious industrial force and a player in the modern world.

So Turks rightfully venerate him. At least some Turks.

I didn’t really catch on until we were in Sanliurfa, far out in southeastern Turkey. Yes, there is an Ataturk street in town, but if there is an Ataturk statue, I missed it. By contrast, in Ankara, it’s feels impossible to have a business—especially a professional business—and not have a portrait of Ataturk where the customers can see it. It’s a symbol of modernity and embracing a western approach. In Sanliurfa, portraits of Ataturk seem significantly less numerous.

Why I am worried about modern Turkey? It feels that the forces of Ottoman benightedness outlived Ataturk and are chipping away at his reforms.

I have historic anecdotes and in-the-moment anecdotes.

First, some historic examples.

In 1950, Arabic was restored as the official liturgical language, when Ataturk and friends had made an express point of shifting it to Turkish. Yes, I know it’s an important cultural point to many Muslims that they read the Koran, the words of god, in the original language of its delivery to man. Yet I also know that having Arabic in the mosques lowers the barriers for conservative thought to make its way into discourse from outside of Turkey.

Ataturk died in 1938, aged 57. He tried to exemplify secular behavior even in death and only at his sister’s insistence were Islamic rites used. But fifteen years later, when his body was transferred from a temporary resting place to a dramatic mausoleum in Ankara, there was a much more significant religious presence in the cortège. To me, that’s looks like the right wing trying to posthumously associate the symbolic power of Ataturk with Islam: “It’s okay to do it the Islamic way, after all, Ataturk was Islamic at heart.”

Now, some modern examples.

When I was in Istanbul in 2012 on business, there was a pervasive ad campaign for women’s hose. Billboards showed a beautiful woman in a thigh-length dress wearing sexy, patterned stockings. My interpretation of the message? Live the letter of Islamic principle, ladies, (don’t show leg skin), but enjoy the freedom of sexy western dress. In 2014, no images like that can be found in Istanbul. If Madison Avenue—or the Turkish equivalent of Madison Avenue—can’t win against the forces of Ottoman benightedness, I worry that modern Turkey cannot stand.

In 2012 the area around Taksim Square was awash with bars and alcoholic drinks were allowed on the streets. Forces within city government have banned drinking in public there and many of the bars have closed. It’s a much quieter place in 2014.

Are university students—reared in secular Turkey, connected to the outside world—a bastion of Turkish secularism and modernity?

Some are trying, but I worry for them, even as they become increasingly crafty in their tactics.

Riot police in the Beyoğlu neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey.

Riot police form a wall between protestors and passers by in the Beyoğlu neighborhood of Istanbul. The protestors are seated on the ground enjoying an end-of-the-day Ramadan picnic.

While we were in Istanbul, Ramadan got under way. Observant Muslims don’t eat or drink during the day, and then feast at sundown. We witnessed a sizeable protest in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, south of Taksim, that used Islamic principles against Islamic political power.

Where previous demonstrations had followed classic street march tactics, this one adopted what I call the Ramadan Picnic approach. At sundown all the protesters filed into the streets with their Ramazan picnics and signs and banners and sat down (Ramazan, the common Turkish word for Ramadan, is derived from Persian).

Can a pro-Islamic régime maintain its religiously righteous mantle and be seen lobbing tear gas canisters at people celebrating the holy month of Ramadan? Nope. So the protesters succeed in getting their message out, having a nice meal, and being filmed while surrounded by ineffectual and unnecessary riot police.

Do I commend and congratulate these students? Of course, their demonstration used an inspired tactic. And still I worry. They could repeat the tactic every day for the month of Ramadan, but that’s less than one-twelfth of the year. Can they be equally effective during the other months?

Those who favor secular democracy over theocracy can hope.

Did every portrait and statue of Ataturk give the tiniest hint of a smile?

Those who favor animism over immutable matter can hope.

In support of imagery and action,


Author’s note:

While writing this piece, the term-limited Turkish Prime Minister, Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced he would seek the Presidency, in a move designed at least in part to keep the country moving away from Ataturk’s secular, modernist vision. The New York Times is one place to follow the story.

A Wikipedia article was helpful in sorting out the details of Ataturk’s death: