Statue with feet of clay? Every November 10th, at 9.05am precisely, sirens wail, the traffic stops and pedestrians stand in silence to pay their respects to Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, who died at that time in 1938. A military hero who rescued Turkey at the end of the first world war, Ataturk invented a new identity from the old Ottoman empire. It was Ataturk’s embrace of rigid secularism and Western reforms that underlay Turkey’s recovery.
But at what cost? A personality cult that carpets the country with busts and portraits of the great man was nurtured by Turkey’s generals, who have used his name to topple four governments, hang a prime minister and attack “enemies of the republic”. The generals also imposed a law making it a criminal offence to criticise Ataturk publicly. (There were 48 convictions last year alone.)
Many secular Turks fret that the Ataturk myth is unravelling under the mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party, which has been in power since 2002. A series of reforms have reduced the generals’ powers, as has a wave of arrests in the ongoing Ergenekon trial of alleged coup-plotters: even a former chief of the general staff, Ilker Basbug, is being held in jail. Private schools are no longer required to feature “Ataturk corners”. “National security” lessons drummed into children by officers and an Ataturk army unit stationed in parliament have been scrapped.
Hard-core Islamists despise Ataturk for abolishing the caliphate in 1924 and expunging piety from the public space. They feed rumours that he was a womaniser, a drunk, even a crypto-Jew. Yet none of this reduces the esteem in which he is held by most Turks—especially women, whom he enfranchised. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK prime minister, markets the Turkish model in the Arab world, he stresses secularism.
A politician from Ataturk’s own Republican People’s Party (CHP) has caused another shock. Huseyin Aygun says thousands of civilians were killed in his home province of Tunceli in a 1938 attack on Ataturk’s watch. Uncensored debate about Ataturk ensued, with one pro-AK columnist even likening him to Hitler. Nobody was jailed.
Andrew Mango, a biographer of Ataturk, thinks secularists’ worries are overblown. “Talk of hidden agendas is part of the conspiracy theories which entertain the Turkish chattering classes,” he says. Even if the founder’s cult has less potency now, “the figure of Ataturk will continue to symbolise modern Turkey, rather like Marianne in France.”