On June 12 the public prosecutor in the Istanbul neighborhood of Beyoglu initiated a criminal investigation of two young women wearing head scarves who had told the host of a popular television program that they did not like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. Under Turkish Law No. 5816 of 1951 it is a crime to denigrate Ataturk’s memory. If the case is taken to court and the two women are found guilty, they could face prison sentences of up to four and a half years.
In the years following his death, the Turkish state built a personality cult around Ataturk’s memory; much of which is reminiscent of a fully-fledged religion. The doctrines and principles of the radical reform program he implemented during the 1920s and 1930s, most importantly secularism and the territorial integrity of a mono-ethnic state, have been consolidated into the official ideology of Kemalism, which is enshrined in the country’s constitution as the unchangeable foundation of the modern Turkish state. Ataturk’s mausoleum, the Anitkabir in Ankara, has assumed the status of a shrine and a place of pilgrimage for his followers, particularly when they feel his legacy is under threat. Courses in his life, teachings and reforms are compulsory at every level of the Turkish educational system. His speeches and comments on a huge range of subjects are quoted as if they were holy writ, and Law No. 5816 is effectively a law against blasphemy.
Yet, even if Law No. 5816 has made them reluctant to express their reservations publicly, many devout Turkish Muslims have often been less than enthusiastic about Ataturk’s legacy, particularly given his relentless efforts to purge Islam from the public sphere in his new republic. Not only did Ataturk remove all references to Islamic Shari’a law from the Turkish statute book and abolish religious education in schools, he also outlawed the popular Sufi religious brotherhoods known as tariqah.
On June 9 Kevser Cakir and Nuray Bezirgan appeared on a popular chat show “Teke Tek” (“One to One”) on the Channel 1 television, hosted by Fatih Altayli. When Bezirgan was asked what she thought of Ataturk, she asked: “Do I have the right not to like Ataturk? Provided that I am not going to get into trouble as a result, I don’t like Ataturk. His ideas are not compatible with mine” (Vatan, Milliyet, Radikal, NTV, June 13).
Cakir expressed a preference for the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran (1902-1989), even though she is a Sunni Muslim and Khomeini was a Shiite. “I like Khomeini,” said Cakir. “What is important for me is that he was pious” (Vatan, Milliyet, Radikal, NTV, June 13).
Official Turkish historiography presents Turkey’s 1919-1922 War of Liberation as an anti-imperialist struggle in which a Turkish nationalist army led by Ataturk expelled the voracious European powers from Anatolia. Nearly all of the fighting was, in fact, between the Muslims of Anatolia and an invading Greek army, encouraged by Britain, which at the time was occupying Istanbul to oversee the implementation of the peace treaty that had ended World War I. Following the Greek defeat, the British occupation forces withdrew rather than confront Ataturk’s victorious forces.
In a reference to Ataturk’s expulsion of the British from Istanbul, Bezirgan bluntly declared that she would probably have enjoyed greater freedom of expression if the British had stayed (Vatan, Milliyet, June 13).
Her statement drew a predictably furious reaction from Turkish nationalists.
“Imperialism supports Shari’a-based regimes,” trumpeted the excitable Reha Muhtar in the daily Vatan. “Our enemies are not the same as the enemy in that girl’s head. We think as a nation and are against British imperialism” (Vatan, June 13).
Bezirgan appears to have been stunned by the fury her statements have provoked. The Turkish media have reported that the public prosecutor has already discovered where the two women live and is preparing to issue them with a summons to explain their statements.
“But I am not against Ataturk,” protested a clearly frightened Bezirgan a few days later in an interview with the conservative Hilal television channel. “Some fanatics may now try to hurt me, but I wasn’t disrespectful” (Hilal TV, June 12).
It is currently unclear whether Bezirgan will eventually be prosecuted, but there is little doubt that the reaction in the Turkish media and the decision by the public prosecutor to initiate a criminal investigation will serve to intimidate many others who have reservations about the Ataturk personality cult.
Many hard-line secularists regard Kemalism as providing an ideological bulwark against what they believe is the long-term goal of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) to erode secularism (see EDM, March 17). Even though some restrictions on freedom of expression have been eased in recent years, questioning Ataturk and his legacy remain a last taboo.
On May 5 the First Petty Crimes Court in Ankara once again outlawed the popular YouTube video-sharing site, after what are believed to be Greek nationalists posted some videos claiming that Ataturk was homosexual. All access to YouTube from inside Turkey has been forbidden ever since.