A heretical idea: Atatürk is no god

Since its release on the anniversary of the Turkish Republic, Oct. 29, Turkey’s pundits have been hotly debating “Mustafa,” a documentary by Can Dündar, columnist for daily Milliyet and popular voice of the moderate left. The Mustafa in question is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founder, the film intends to show his “human side,” often neglected or even hidden in modern Turkey.

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If you know a little bit about this country, you can sense that Dündar’s idea was ambitious. Here, Atatürk is treated not as a man, but as a God. His cult personality, paralleled only in North Korea, is depicted as an all-knowing, all-encompassing leader whose supra-human intellect left behind a flawless blueprint for the nation to follow. “O mighty Atatürk who has given us this day, I will relentlessly walk down your path,” Turkish students are made to swear in every school every week. Poets describe him as “the Sun who enlightened the nation,” and “the God who stepped in to Samsun [to start the war of liberation].”

Unveiling historical Atatürk
Behind this curtain of deification there lies, of course, a historical Atatürk, who, like all of us, was not just a man of virtue and wisdom, but he also sinned and made mistakes. And Can Dündar’s “Mustafa” sheds light on some, only some, of the latter. The film shows that the “Supreme Leader” had many moments of ambition, anger and arrogance. He was a borderline alcoholic in later years. When he abolished the Caliphate in 1924, he was taking revenge for the beating he took from his madrasah teacher when he was a child.

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According to Yılmaz Özdil, a columnist for Hürriyet, the film not only documented all of the above, but also showed Atatürk as a “cold, heartless, ruthless, egoistic, hedonistic, womanizing, megalomaniac.”

You can guess what followed. In just a week Can Dündar and his film turned into a scapegoat. Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition People’s Republican Party, or CHP, declared that he despised the documentary and criticized Dündar for being influenced by “the Ergenekon trial.” Many secularist commentators joined in. One of them, Yiğit Bulut of Vatan, even argued for a counter-campaign, “Do not watch this film, and dissuade others from watching it,” he suggested in his column. “Especially do not allow your children to see it and have their minds corrupted by seeds that belittle Atatürk.”

The reaction to Dündar goes on, and what makes all this remarkable is that he is no Islamist, Kurd, or even a liberal that makes him a standard “internal enemy” from the Kemalist perspective. He is actually a fan of Atatürk and his stance has been pretty firm on that. He is just not as fact-blind as other Kemalists and believes that respect of the Supreme Leader should not blind people from seeing his “human side.”

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But just like the Bolsheviks who thought their “revisionist” comrades were in fact traitors, die-hard Kemalists think more realist Atatürk-admirers, are defectors. Hence Can Dündar is accused not of being naïve, but of being malicious. According to Yiğit Bulut, he turned out to be a pawn of “the imperialist powers who are carrying out a psychological operation in order to devalue Atatürk in the eyes of the Turkish nation and render the Turkish Armed Forces powerless.”

What is curious in all this mania is the lack of any factual basis. None of the Kemalists who chided Dündar tried to show that he portrayed Atatürk in a historically inaccurate way. The film was a documentary and as this definition implies, Dündar prepared it by reviewing documents in Turkish archives. A rational person would challenge him by referring to other documents, or by showing his inferences as untruthful. But I have not seen even one such empirical argument. Rather, what the Kemalists assert is the historical “Mustafa” Dündar unearthed is in conflict with the mythical Atatürk in their minds.

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Against all facts
A rational person, again, would look at this dichotomy and conclude that mythical Atatürk needs to be questioned, even deconstructed, according to the historical, i.e. real, one. Yet irrationality is simply the rule here. When facts do not fit the myth, Kemalists abhor the facts and campaign against those who reveal them.

There is a good reason for all this, besides intellectual poverty. For Kemalists, the mythical Atatürk is a source of spiritual strength and well-being. Ayşe Özgün, a commentator who used to write for the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in the distant past, in a column for the paper in November 2006, put it this way:

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“You ask where we get our inspiration and energy from. I will tell you. We get it from the one and only founder and leader of this nation, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.”

In other words, the founder needs to continue to be seen as the supra-human, flawless Supreme Leader to give “inspiration and energy” to his disciples. Even if the god-like Atatürk does not exist, as Voltaire would have said, he needs to be invented.

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