Turkey's Modern Deity

Have the profound changes that Ataturk introduced to Turkey stood the rest of time?

Secular God 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Secular God 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
ISRAELIS AND OTHER TOURISTS to Turkey usually head for the resorts on Antalya’s Mediterranean coastline. They are also attracted to Istanbul which, like other capitals of past great empires, is rich in palaces, museums and historical buildings. And there are spectacular views in Eastern Turkey, too, in the mountainous regions that stretch south from Mt. Ararat to the Syrian and Iraqi borders.
But there are few visitors to Ankara. “It’s just a large village that grew after it became the capital of modern Turkey,” a friend told me before I left.
I’d like to take the opportunity to describe one single, particular site that made a deep impression on me and gave rise to a few thoughts. I’d like to write about the shrine and mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal – or, as the Turkish Assembly named him in 1937, Ataturk (“father of the Turks”) – the founder and first president of modern Turkey.
Ataturk died at the relatively young age of 57, after serving as head of Turkey for 15 years. In the wake of the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, he led the country from 1923 until his death in 1938.
The profound changes that Ataturk introduced to Turkey and its governance are well known. He put an end to the Islamic caliphates and set about establishing a secular republic. He transferred the capital to Ankara, in the Central Anatolia region. He transformed the army into a central power. He brought about land reform. He replaced the Arabic script with a Latin alphabet (based on German characters). His purpose was clear: to liberate Turkey from what he perceived as the shackles of the failed, traditional Muslim East and to remold Turkey as a Western-styled state.
Today, the Turks accord Mustafa Kemal the reverence due to a deity. Statues, photos and portraits of him adorn every corner, in town squares and offices, on banknotes, coins and postage stamps.
The grounds housing Ataturk’s shrine are huge – 75 dunams (18.5 acres), replete with boulevards of columns and statues, and squares for assemblies and parades. A museum with dozens of halls exhibits every facet of Ataturk’s life, from his rich military career through his social and political achievements. All of Ataturk’s personal belongings can be viewed here, from his firearms, cars and official yacht, to his books and clothes, to the furnishings from his home and office – and right down to his personal bathing equipment and shaving brush.
The highpoint of the shrine is, of course, the mausoleum. It is a massive construction, with its large hall and the tomb, a building of mammoth proportions ringed by columns; its lavish interior houses the tomb. In ancient times, rulers like the pharaohs of Egypt were entombed in impressive structures like the pyramids, and in modern times, too, one can find similarly extravagant shrines. But I doubt if there is anything that is quite as large as this memorial complex for Ataturk.
The first thing that struck me was the large number of visitors. I was there over a weekend, when students and workers have the day off, and the museum was packed. There were hardly any tourists, only Turks, and I was surprised by the large numbers of people who appeared to be religious, judging by the women who wore traditional Muslim head coverings. At Turkish universities, women are forbidden to cover their faces with veils or to cover their heads like this. Yet here, at the tomb of the Middle East’s quintessential secularist, throngs of traditionalist families were paying their respects.
I NOTICED THE DRESS OF THE visitors because I also noticed Ataturk’s elegant attire. In dozens of photographs and portraits, he is wearing either his military uniform or splendid European suits. Not only does he sport colorful neckties, but bow ties, too, and even white tuxedos.
It’s hard to know how much we can deduce from these clothes. In today’s world, you can learn a lot from what leaders wear. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, is never seen wearing a tie. This is not only to signal his defiance of the West (where suits and ties originated), but also – so we are told – because the Iranian president dislikes ties, which call the Christian cross to mind. Many leaders across Africa and Asia prefer their own traditional dress, which shows respect for the values of the past, which are ostensibly in conflict with Western culture. Some insist on quasi-military clothes – the heads of Communist China, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat. Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis and others from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community don’t wear ties and that is not a coincidence, either – they, too, have no interest in anything that recalls the Christian West.
As for the Palestinians, an observer will immediately notice the Western apparel of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues in government in Ramallah -- in contrast to the simple type of garment favored by the Hamas leadership. Hamas leaders often reject ties and other such trappings, as a protest against the overdressed West, just like the Israeli activists and cabinet ministers who were members of kibbutzim once did.
A topic of even greater interest is the change from Arabic script to a Latin one. In this reformation, Ataturk achieved complete success. Nowhere in Turkey, except in a museum, perhaps, will you see any of the Arabic script that was in use for centuries in the Ottoman Empire. It’s hard to describe the audacity of changing – in fact, erasing – such an age-old tradition. It is far more significant than doing away with the fez and robes worn by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, which, in its golden era, held sway from Yemen to Vienna, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf. Changing the alphabet means the loss of entire libraries, archives, cultural treasures.
In our own ancient tradition, during the Return to Zion led by Ezra the Scribe and the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Babylonian exiles brought their geometrically- shaped Assyrian writing with them and managed to do away with the ancient lettering, which is identical to the Phoenician script thought to be the origin of the alphabet. I sometimes ask students in my university courses if they’ve ever heard of this ancient script, in which the word “yahad” is engraved on today’s shekel coin. I’ve never met a student who knew this, even though we all handle shekel coins all the time.
Once it was commonly thought that Ezra wanted to mold the Jewish people anew, to erase the culture of multiple deities and banish gentile women. So he introduced the new lettering, the geometrical Assyrian script, which was then used in the first Torah scrolls. Today, historians express doubt about this version of events.
Either way, in recent times, too, there have been attempts – which failed, obviously – to get rid of the square Hebrew letters and replace them with Latin script, just as Ataturk did. Two of the people who suggested the change, some 80 years back, were Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of Eliezer Ben- Yehuda who revived and modernized the Hebrew we speak today. They, too, wanted to bring the revived Hebrew language closer to European language and culture. Today, that episode is all but forgotten.
DURING MY VISIT TO THE memorial site in Ankara, I struck up a casual conversation in the cafeteria with two brothers of Kurdish descent. Some 17 million of Turkey’s 72 million citizens are Kurds; they are concentrated in the east and speak Arabic or Kurdish, which is similar to ancient Aramaic, and live mostly in the eastern part of the country. The two brothers are carpet dealers and they were in Ankara on business. Because they speak English and mentioned they regularly watch CNN, I decided to put them through what some social researchers refer to as the “Seinfeld test.”
Here is the test: Ask someone, “Do you watch and enjoy the American sitcom ‘Seinfeld’ about the escapades of Jerry Seinfeld and his friends?” In traditionally structured societies, people don’t like the show and treat it to a form of voluntary censorship. Just like the censorship of movies about air disasters and crashing planes, which are never shown inflight. After all, no one wants to see a movie about these kinds of disasters while sitting in an airplane wobbling through the air.
In the same way, in traditional societies they don’t want to watch as family values crash. All the heroes on Seinfeld are single and they change partners every minute. They are disrespectful to their parents and ridicule them. They don’t like children – and, of course, they don’t have any either. There is no better example of the breakdown of family values than Seinfeld. That’s why people in the Arab states, and many of the Palestinians that I know, don’t like it. Seinfeld doesn’t amuse them.
Seinfeld doesn’t amuse the two Kurdish brothers that I met in the cafeteria under the mausoleum of the father of modern secular Turkey, either. One of them had seen the show several times and thought it was boring. They spoke bitterly about the European states that have humiliated their country by refusing to admit Turkey into the European Union. They know that the Europeans are afraid of the millions of Turkish Muslims that will sweep across their continent if they open the gates to them. The Europeans fear that the Turkish traditional way of life will bother them.
The brothers didn’t particularly care when they found out that I am an Israeli. They asked about the carpet trade in Israel; I didn’t know what to answer. The conversation was broken up by the announcement of the changing of the guard at the entrance to the mausoleum. We went to see the soldiers in their colorful uniforms, goose-stepping and saluting the huge statue of Ataturk with their flags.
Ataturk had tried to create a secular, Western-oriented Islam. It remains to be seen if he succeeded.