Saturday, November 10, 2012

Atatürk'ün askerleri

They'd been out on the street near Taksim Square all week, passing out leaflets calling for "1 million Atatürks" to don masks of the revered figure's visage and assemble outside Dolmabahçe Palace for the 74th anniversary of the Turkish leader's death.

"We will be at Dolmabahçe at 9:05 with our Atatürk masks on 10 November to show that Atatürk did not die and will not die," their flyers read. "We are all Atatürk!"

With the "one million [fill in the blank]" concept overused to the point of absurdity, I half-expected just a handful of stalwart Kemalists milling around forlornly in their cardboard masks. But it was actually a fairly impressive (though of course far-short-of-goal) crowd that gathered to mark the moment of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's passing outside the Ottoman-era palace where the first president of the Republic spent his final days.

Bedecked in Atatürk pins, scarfs, armbands, headbands, T-shirts, and flags, the crowd chanted "We are Atatürk's soldiers!" and booed every mention of the ruling AKP with gusto, then fell completely still and silent when -- as is the custom across Turkey each year -- an air-raid siren sounded at exactly 9:05 a.m., bringing traffic on the typically busy nearby streets to a halt.

I've been fascinated by the Atatürk phenomenon since first coming to Turkey, and while I have a great deal of respect for his accomplishments (and no love for the current government), I've often felt that much of the recent talk about Turkey "becoming another Iran" is the hand-wringing of an old elite bemoaning its fall from long-held power.

But in the wake of Tuesday's U.S. presidential election, I thought I could see in the assembled crowd what some Republicans are apparently feeling following Barack Obama's victory, and what many Democrats felt in 2004 -- genuine fear (whether justified or not) for the future of their country. While some of Atatürk's, shall we say, top-down methods would not pass muster in today's world, he created a unified country out of the tattered remains of an empire. With tensions rising in the Kurdish conflict, over "urban renewal" in Istanbul, and between the government and the secular opposition, it's easier to understand the fervent longing for someone to rise to the challenge of uniting Turkey once again.