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.
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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.
"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.