Tuesday 27 May 2008

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

You have no idea just how carefully I'm going to have to tread in this post. The Turks love of this man is absolute and one false move here could land me water hotter than Hell's Hamam.

It's been proved too. YouTube is still banned here. Why? Because someone in Greece posted a video allegedly disrespecting Ataturk. A comment made in public could have you beaten more severely than a ginger step-child. In fact, it's against the law to say anything negative about him but the chances are you'd not survive long enough to see the inside of a courtroom.

So why do the Turks hold this man in such high regard? Why did Mustafa Kemal receive the name Ataturk (meaning 'father of the Turks')? I'm not going to recite his biography; I'll leave that to those more knowledgeable than myself. I will only explain what I see and hear day to day.

Time Magazine ran a poll to find the top 100 most influential people of the 20th Century. Eventually, they had to put a hold on the internet casting because of the flood of votes for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. My question is why, if by their own admission it was a landslide, did he come second?

This man is adored. Every shop, every school, every public building has a picture or a bust. Even homes have a picture as though he were family member. Ask any Turk and they can tell you the date and time of his birth, his death and the names of his family members. Here's a test for you. Forget the time or date, what year was Churchill born? What year was the queen born? no, me neither.

When I first arrived in Turkey, I found this devotion a little strange. But then, coming from England, who do I have in my cultural heritage who made the impact of Ataturk? Who single-handedly freed the nation of a multitude of occupiers (including England, France, Italy, Russia and Greece) even though his army was outnumbered at least 4 to 1? Who threw out the Ottoman Empire and formed an entire republic moving the capital from Istanbul to Ankara (yes people, Ankara is the capital of Turkey)? Who changed a language and alphabet in a single day? Who gave women the vote before anyone else in Europe? Who brought about secularism? Who brought about democracy? I know what your thinking. But Ken Livingstone's public transport reforms just don't compare.

David Lloyd George (who was fighting against him by the way) called him "the genius of our century - centuries rarely produce a genius. Look at this bad luck of ours, that great genius of our era was granted to the Turkish nation".

Even Churchill, who received the biggest shoeing of his life at the boot of Ataturk in Gallipoli said about his death:

"Ataturk's death is not only a loss for the country, but for Europe is the greatest loss, he who saved Turkey in the war and who revived a new the Turkish nation after the war. The sincere tears shed after him by all classes of people is nothing other than an appropriate manifestation to this great hero and modern Turkey's Ata."

Currently, the ruling party here is being prosecuted. Some of their policies are deemed anti-republic (therefore anti-Ataturk). Turkey has safe guards in place to make sure that Ataturk's word is followed to the letter. The army is one. Before politics, they follow Mustafa Kemal. This is also the reason Turkey has seen so many military coups in the past century. Democracy, it seems, is something that takes time to learn.

But if you're in power here and you do something that goes against the public's understanding of Ataturk's vision. This happens:

Even I was there...

These protests happened all over the country. The nation hit the streets with Turkish flags and pictures of Ataturk to make a clear statement that democracy and secularism is something they will protect with relentless determination. And so they should. The stories handed down from father to son about what Ataturk achieved are stories of victory despite impossible odds. These are the stories that drive people onto the streets to make sure Turkey will never step back into an Islamic ideology.

I don't think I'll ever be able to fully appreciate the sincere love and gratitude the Turkish nation has for this man. I can just watch from the sidelines and listen to the legends told over glasses of tea. OK, so I have to take the flack for being British occasionally and sit quietly while they point fingers and laugh at me when the subject of Canakkale arises. The only time I've had more abuse was meeting a couple of Aussies on the beach who'd just returned from a pilgrimage to Gallipoli. Being the child of both nations, I was reminded that the Brits sent the Aussies in and the Turks finished them off. We didn't chat for long.

Well, I hope I haven't offended anyone. I've tried to steer clear of the fact that Ataturk abolished the fez (it's just too painful for me). If there are no more updates to this blog, you'll know something was misconstrued. Wish me luck as I press the button marked 'publish post'.