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Ataturk statue
Ataturk statue. Photo: flickr/Kıvanç

"Kemal, I'm sure was the most brilliant man in his milieu at the time he lived. A brilliant strategist, a very good soldier, and a very ardent westernizer. Present-day Kemalism has almost nothing to do with Kemalism as it was. []They are hostile to the United States; they are hostile to the European Union; they are hostile to Western democratic ideals."

(Murat Belge)

Mustafa Kemal Pasha led the War of Independence (1919-1922), founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and served as its first president until his death in 1938. When in 1934 surnames were introduced, the Turkish parliament gave Mustafa Kemal the surname "Ataturk" ("father of the Turks"). Ataturk's political system was based on six principles, called the six arrows: Republicanism, Populism, Secularism, Progressiveness, Nationalism and Statism. His policies were oriented towards the West, with many new laws and legislation imported from European states. Ataturk was a child of his time, however, and – democracy being in short supply in the 20s and 30s – Republican Turkey became a one-party system, authoritarian and hostile to diversity.

Ataturk's reforms sought to create a strong state with a unitary nation, a state capable of catching up with – and modelled after – the most developed countries of the West. Although Ataturk himself opposed the creation of an ideology, believing this would hinder further development, his followers – in political parties, the armed forces and the bureaucracy – created and helped propagate a vision of the 1920s (and the system then in place) as a golden age that had to be preserved for posterity. As a result, today's Kemalism is a conservative ideology, opposed to political and societal change and often used by its followers to challenge the Kurds' pursuit of cultural rights or conservative Muslims' struggle for greater religious freedoms. The cult of Ataturk is omnipresent. Any criticism of Ataturk himself, or of the 1920s, is virtually inadmissible in the public sphere. Kemalism is also politically and socially linked to the old state elites – its biggest stronghold being the Armed Forces – and to large parts of the bureaucracy. The political party representing present day Kemalism is the Republican People's Party (CHP), originally founded by Ataturk. In the media, Cumhuriyet is seen as orthodox Kemalist, but centre-right papers like Hurriyet also form part of the Kemalist camp. Kemalist NGOs like the Ataturkist Thought Association also play a powerful role. Three military coups (in 1960, 1971 and 1980), one "post-modern coup" (in 1997) and an attempted "e-coup" (in 2007) have been carried out, all of them in the name of defending Kemalism from "reactionary" forces.

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Murat Belge on the Cult of Ataturk. © 2008 pre tv. All rights reserved.

Kemalism plays an important role in all aspects of public life. In the Turkish education system, schoolchildren recite the saying by Ataturk "Ne mutlu Türküm diyene" ("How happy is he who calls himself a Turk''), learn poems about the "father of the Turks" and read about his heroic deeds and the honour of Turkish soldiers in general.

Although secularism is one of Kemalism's founding principles, it has less to do with the separation of state and religion than with the control of religion – especially Sunni Islam – by the state. . Present-day Kemalists, seeking to preserve this arrangement, are wary of developing a truly secular system, one where the state keeps an equal distance from the different religions and denominations. Such an understanding of secularism is used as an argument to justify a ban on women wearing headscarves in public universities and other public buildings.

Kemalism is not a clear-cut ideology, however, and thus enjoys is a broad spectrum of followers – from Western-style social democrats in favour of EU accession to hard core nationalists opposed to Europe and the US. Whichever wing is dominant depends on the political climate and the leadership of the Armed Forces and the CHP. Today, it is the nationalist group which appears to hold sway, ready to defend Kemalist principles even at the cost of democracy and human rights.

October 2008

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