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Atatürk Youth At Work

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
In Turkey, we keep discussing the most current of the current affairs – such as the prime minister’s “crazy project,” the opposition’s effort for renewal, or the mess on university exams. But it would also be helpful to stop for a minute, take a breath, and remember where we are coming from.
I had a sobering experience about that a few weeks ago, when I wrote a piece in Turkish titled, “The Address to the Youth should be abandoned as well.” The “address” to which I was referring was from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. It is a 1933 text presented in every textbook and classroom wall, and is memorized by all students. Enemies within The reason why I thought the text should be abandoned was its content. There is simply no mention of democratic values in Atatürk’s address, I explained, such as liberty, rule of law, tolerance, or respect to diversity. There are rather a bunch of illiberal themes. First of all, I noted, the address begins by saying: “O the Turkish Youth, your first duty is to preserve Turkish Independence and the Turkish Republic forever. This is the only basis of your future and your existence.” The problem here, as I explained, is an authoritarian mentality that defines the “first duty” of every Turkish citizen. In a free country, though, citizens should be able to decide that for themselves. They can perhaps be really that patriotic, or see their “first duty” in serving their religion or their philosophy. “They can even think that taking care of street cats is the most honorable thing to do,” I noted. It is our right to identify the meaning of our lives, not Atatürk’s. Yet that was the least of the problems in Atatürk’s Address to the Youth. The rest of the text tells Turkish youngsters that their country might be attacked anytime by “enemies from within and without.” It also warns that “those who are in power” might be the collaborators of the imperialists who want to enslave the Turkish nation. Then it tells the “Turkish youth” to act against those in power by all means necessary. “This is the root of the mentality that defines certain social segments in Turkey as internal enemies,” I said in my piece. “It also gives a blank check to those Kemalists who want to topple elected governments via military coups.” Finally, I noted, the bottom line of the address is pretty disturbing: “The power you need,” it says to the Turkish Youth, “is in the noble blood in your veins.” This concept of a “noble blood,” which reflects the biological racism of the 1930s, I argued, does not fit into the democratic definition of the citizenship we need. Now, I don’t know how these arguments sound to you, but they sounded quite maddening to thousands of readers. The website for which I wrote this piece received more than three hundred comments in two days, most of which were furious. I got blamed for insulting Atatürk, insulting the Turkish nation, helping the “enemies without,” and being one of the “enemies within.” Dozens of commentators passionately argued that “traitors” like me should be put in prison, or simply be executed. I also got emails threatening me and reminding me that “your days are numbered.” Elephant in the room In the eyes of these hard-core Kemalists, I was the very confirmation of Atatürk’s warning on “internal enemies.” In my eyes, they were the very confirmation of what I have been arguing: Kemalist indoctrination has bred a quite intolerant and aggressive nationalism in this country. Its apparatchiks, who proudly call themselves “the Atatürk Youth,” are relics from the fascist age of Europe, which heavily influenced the make up of the Kemalist ideology. (Just translate “the Atatürk Youth” into German, and see what it recalls.) And the elders of the same ideology keep on being the main obstacles to democratization in Turkey. This is the elephant in the Turkish room, which not everybody wants to name. Even some among us who speak about the need for democratization do not get the problem right. Many on the left, for example, get it totally wrong. They see the problem as “Turkey’s entry to the NATO, and the subsequent Gladio organization.” Then they obsess about the “deep state.” But Turkey’s entry into the NATO, and the free world in general, actually helped the situation at home, by forcing the Kemalist single-party regime to accept free and fair elections. And while the “deep state” is indeed criminal, its ideology on the surface is tyrannical enough to lead to those crimes. Even some of the liberals who see Turkey’s main problem as “military tutelage” get it wrong. Yes, our military has been an arrogant and condescending institution, but they are just one of the several tools of the Kemalist authoritarianism that is at the core of the republic. The way out is not just “civilian control,” which is a step forward, but a new political structure, and in fact a political culture, which will cherish liberty and pluralism – values that we can find in neither the Address to the Youth nor any other Kemalist credo.
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