Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What Would Ataturk Do?

Turkey is literally the bridge between Asia and Europe. It is also a figurative crossroads between Islam and Christianity. Its historical place is a mixed one: home of the Caliphate, the old Ottoman Empire, it was made a secular state by its modern founder, Ataturk.

Warnings of the demise of Ataturk's legacy have been around almost since he died 70 years ago. A relentless modernizer, hearty drinker and fan of the fox trot, the founder of the Turkish Republic – his name means "father of the Turks" – had issues with Islam. He shut down Islamic schools, banned Islamic garb and opened a German brewery in his new capital, Ankara. His was hardly the path of least resistance in a land that is 99% Muslim, once ruled Mecca and was for centuries home to the Caliph, Islam's supreme leader. Yet Ataturk's way prevailed for decades.

He is venerated the way Washington, Martí and Bolívar are: founders, beacons, idols.

One thing is clear: Ataturk worship, the world's most enduring personality cult, still holds this increasingly prosperous nation of more than 70 million people in its thrall. Ataturk shows scant sign of going the way of his contemporaries. Vladimir Lenin lies in Red Square but is barely mentioned in Russia now, except as a butt of jokes. Even Mao Zedong, embalmed in Tiananmen Square, has slipped from his pedestal: The Chinese Communist Party's official view of him is 70% good, 30% bad.

GW is highly respected, but he is a distant figure. Lincoln is less diatant, yet his veneration is also a somewhat distant one.

Ataturk, revered for defeating invading British, French and Greek forces, is untouchable. His mausoleum in Ankara drew more than 12 million visitors last year, up by four million from 2006. The constitution bans all deviation from the "reforms and principles" of "the immortal leader and the unrivalled hero." It is illegal in Turkey to publicly curse him. Virtually nobody, including members of the AK Party, disses him, at least not in public. One young, headscarf-wearing woman recently said on TV, "I do not like him." She is being investigated by prosecutors.

Defeated British, French and Greek forces?

Secularism a la Ataturk is not a simple formula. Unlike America's founding fathers, who separated church and state, Ataturk did not so much split Islam from the state as subordinate it to the state. He abolished the post of Caliph and placed all mosques and Muslim clerics under a government department. At the same time, he purged religion from other state agencies.

One way to do it is this way.

Ataturk, a very stylish dresser himself, clearly didn't like traditional Islamic garb, viewing it as an emblem of backwardness. His best-known comments on the dress question came in 1925 when he declared "international" – that is, Western – dress as "very important and appropriate for our nation. We shall wear it."

He even decreed what Turks would wear; that's control.

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