Ataturk: Turkey wrestles with how to remember its founder

A wave of biopics about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stirs hot debate over modern Turkey's identity.

By , Correspondent

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    Schoolchildren visited Ataturk’s grave during a national sovereignty celebration day, April 23.
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    A poster advertises the biographical film ‘Veda,’ one of several about Ataturk recently released or in production. Films that question his stature or legitimacy are often seen to be questioning Turkey’s.
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It's easy to mistake Muratoglu Kirtasiye, a tidy Istanbul stationery store, for perhaps a small museum dedicated to the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder.

Located in a bustling district filled with print shops near the heart of Istanbul's Old City, Muratoglu specializes in providing schools with Ataturk paraphernalia and is stocked floor to ceiling with items bearing his image. There are gold-colored busts, clocks with his picture on them, and framed photographs and paintings that seem suited for every conceivable setting: Ataturk riding victoriously in uniform on horseback, gazing pensively skyward, surrounded by children with a kind smile on his face, looking gentlemanly while sitting in a wicker chair and dressed in a smoking jacket.

"He's the world's biggest man. There's no one else like him," says Fadil Karali, the store's manager, scanning the numerous pictures of Ataturk, who died in 1938, lining the walls.

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"He was the kind of person that, unfortunately, only comes once every 100 years," Mr. Karali adds. "He died a long time ago, but we haven't forgotten him."

But the question that seems to be increasingly facing Turks is which Ataturk to remember? Like the multitude of images in Karali's store, there now appear to be competing, if not conflicting, takes on just who Ataturk was.

One place where the battle over how to define Ataturk and his legacy can be clearly seen these days is on the big screen in Turkey. In the past two years, three new films about the legendary leader have been released: a controversial documentary that, despite its efforts to humanize Ataturk, was criticized for insulting his memory, and two biopics that were in turn criticized for glossing over certain difficult details and for overly romanticizing the life of a complicated figure.

Turkey is currently going through a period of deep political polarization, much of it over two unresolved issues left over since the time of Ataturk: What role should religion play in the public square, and what role should the powerful state play in private life? In many ways, it appears that the battle over how to portray Ataturk is very much at the heart of Turkey's ongoing struggle over how to define itself.

"What is in contention in Turkey is not Ataturk's legacy. The fight is not about the past; it is about our future," says Faruk Logoglu, formerly Turkey's ambassador to Washington and undersecretary of the country's ministry of foreign affairs.

Ataturk, a military officer-turned-statesman who led the fight to rebuild modern Turkey out of the ashes of the failed Ottoman Empire, is a ubiquitous presence in the country. His image hangs in every public office and almost every private one. Parliamentarians take an oath to follow his principles, while schoolchildren start learning about his life and exploits in kindergarten.

"Insulting Ataturk," meanwhile, is a punishable offense. Access to YouTube, for example, has been blocked in Turkey by court order for the last few years because of the presence of video clips posted by Greek users that were seen as mocking Ataturk.

But despite being ever present, the real Ataturk remains something of a mystery, says Tibet Kaan Demirtas, producer of "Veda," a biographical film about the leader that was released this year.

"I don't think that people know a lot about him. People know what's been told to them, but if you look very deep into Ataturk, he's the most talked-about person in Turkey, but still the least understood. There's a lot more to know about him," says Mr. Demirtas, whose film was accused by some critics as further "mythologizing" Ataturk. "Ataturk is a legend. He's not just a character. That's why it's so hard and risky to do a film about him."

That was certainly the lesson learned by Can Dundar, a famous Turkish journalist whose 2008 documentary, "Mustafa," tried to bring Ataturk down to earth.

Mr. Dundar's version of the nation's hero, that of a smoker and heavy drinker who ultimately died a lonely man, was at odds with the official narrative and provoked a serious backlash. Columnists told readers to boycott the film and a legal case was opened against Dundar for insulting Ataturk (it was ultimately stopped).

"Now I know what it means to confront taboos," Dundar told the Turkish daily Hurriyet after his film was released.

"There is a mythical vision of him as an individual, and there is a problem in creating a more human vision of him as an individual, with human deficiencies," says Rifat Bali, an independent historian based in Istanbul who, like other researchers, has found it easier to access archival material about Ataturk outside Turkey than inside the country. "The Kemalists" – as Ataturk's ideological heirs are known – "made Ataturk into a taboo subject, one that you cannot discuss in a scholarly way."

For many Turks, the effort to "humanize" Ataturk is nothing more than an attempt to chip away at Turkey's foundations. Many look at Ataturk as the bond that holds the country together; questioning Ataturk's stature or legitimacy is tantamount to questioning the nation's legitimacy.

"What happens when you alter the image of Ataturk? Ataturk is like the main glue that keeps Turkey together as a country beyond race and ethnic differences," says Bedri Baykam, an artist and writer who is one of the Kemalist movement's leading voices.

"If you take out this glue or dilute it, then you will find Turkey in a thousand pieces," he says, speaking on the phone from Paris, where he is in the process of setting up an exhibition.

"Normally, a historical character like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk should have worldwide, universal recognition," adds Mr. Baykam, who says he has contemplated making his own film about Ataturk. "He left a great legacy for the world, a model of the whole world."

Still, while the subject of Ataturk remains perhaps Turkey's last great taboo, observers say that talking about his legacy has become easier, part of a wider democratization trend in Turkey that has seen the space widen for discussion on other previously no-go subjects, such as the Kurdish and Armenian issues.

"In the past five or six years, articles, books, and TV programs that are directly critical of Ataturk have come to the surface. You can see them now. Some of the episodes that happened during Ataturk's rule that couldn't be talked about before are now being talked about," says Mustafa Akyol, a liberal Islamic columnist with the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. "We can speak about him right now in a way that we couldn't before. And people who think he made important mistakes or misconstrued the country can say this now."

But as the reception given to the recent Ataturk films shows, the debate about how and who gets to define his legacy is one that is most likely to continue.

Back at the Ataturk memorabilia-filled stationery store, manager Karali says he believes the icon is as relevant as ever.

"He created our republic and won our independence. We now live a good life and owe it to him," he says. "He did good for us."

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