chapter  2
The Kemalist legacy: cult, ideology and political practice
Pages 18

It could be argued that Turkey’s evolution over the past few decades has been the story of a tussle between on the one hand the controlling and autarkic inclinations of the republican system established in 1923, and on the other the encroachment of forces unleashed by the pressures of globalization and transnationalism. Thus, in order to assess the impact of globalization on the politics, society and external relations of modern Turkey, we need first to appreciate the republic’s starting point. In fact, it has been claimed that ‘in the course of the last one hundred and fifty years a clear continuity in social, political and ideological terms can be discerned’ in Turkey (Jung and Piccoli 2001: 5). There were indeed numerous continuities between the late Ottoman era and the early decades of the republic, and traces of these early formative influences continue to leave their mark on today’s Turkey. The distance between state and people, the top-down and elitist approach to governance and reform, the key roles played by the military and the bureaucracy in the preservation of the system and their almost complete identification with it, the commitment to a version of modernity that involved emulation of European practice and a secularization of the state’s legal basis, and even the inclination to blur the distinction between foreign enemies and internal opposition – these were features of Turkish political life before 1923 and have been in evidence ever since. On the other hand, it is an exaggeration to regard the Kemalist revolution

as no more than a ‘myth’ (Jung and Piccoli 2001: 5). The changes wrought were considerable. Yet, in seeking to impose from above ‘a cultural revolution without a social revolution, something historically very rare’, the post-1923 regime arguably accentuated still further the legacy of elitism and statism carried over from the Ottoman past (Anderson 2008: 8). Certainly, ‘the structure of society, the rules of property, the pattern of class relations remained unaltered’ by the formation of the republic (Anderson 2008: 5). However, the Kemalist regime quickly evolved into a strong, corporatist and ideological state, which sought to intrude into the lives of its citizens in ways and to an extent that had no Ottoman-era parallels. The new Turkey that emerged arguably mirrored the authoritarian, even totalitarian, states to be found elsewhere in Europe and beyond more than it did Ottomanism.

Indeed, the Turkey that existed in the 1930s has been not inaccurately described as ‘an authoritarian statist polity with strong corporatist aspects akin to national socialism’ (Poulton 1997: 112). Furthermore, the new regime aspired to engineer not so much a new economic and social order as a new type of individual, one who would be nationalistically Turkish, secular, literate and altogether ‘modern’. Turkey’s citizens were arguably the world’s first Islamic population to be subjected to a determined modernization project (Yavuz and Esposito 2003: xviii), but they were not invariably the receptive guinea pigs of the endeavour. In any case, the tension between continuities and change will be noted throughout this volume. How, though, are we to characterize the Kemalist system and the body of

ideas that underpinned it? The Kemalist system has taken the name of its founder, Mustapha Kemal ‘Ataturk’ – ‘father of the Turks’, the surname he gave himself alongside his insistence that all Turks adopt surnames. Yet ‘although Kemalism has been transformed into a strict ideology since his death, Ataturk himself was no ideologue’ (Rouleau 2006: 104). However, it is also not enough to regard Ataturk as a mere pragmatist (Kinross 1995; Mango 1999). He did make speeches that might be seen as laying the republic’s ideological foundations, most notably the address he delivered over six days in October 1927, known as ‘Nutuk’ (Alaranta 2008). Based in large measure on the content of this speech, Kemalism went on to evolve as a kind of ‘political religion’ with its ‘dogmas, myths, ethics, and liturgy’ (Mateescu 2006: 229). Many of his ideas, such as his sponsorship of an entirely fanciful version of the history of the Turkish people, were quite odd and extraordinarily doctrinaire. Yet there was also an element of impulsiveness at play in the way at which he arrived at some of his policies. Many of the reforms that have since been enshrined as central tenets of Kemalism were discussed and decided by him with no more than a handful of close associates. Events triggered instant reactions from him that have had enduring and far-reaching ramifications, or could prompt the articulation of ideas of which he may hitherto have given little indication. Ataturk could tolerate neither dissent against the regime’s autocratic ten-

dencies nor any questioning of his own authority. He was a personal as well as a political autocrat, and a great deal of his personality has permeated the system that has taken his name. As an ideology, Kemalism has reified the man in the form of a personality cult that placed him above personal or political criticism of any kind, built a mausoleum in his honour, proliferated millions of statues and portraits of him and bestowed on him the titles of the Eternal Leader, the Great Reformer and Gazi (a warrior, or one who struggles). It has also reified his ideas, which are constantly rehearsed, cited, chanted and taught, and, like the man, are for many Turks above criticism. One observer, confronted with a national campaign to promote Ataturk’s greatness on the Time magazine website, not unreasonably likened Turkey’s personality cult to that found in North Korea surrounding Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (Morris 2005: 32). It is a moot point whether this cult should be

laid primarily at his door, or at the door of those who have since governed in his name. Many ‘Kemalist’ principles only truly saw the light of day in the wake of his demise. In so far as the policies he introduced represent expressions of a philosophy or ideology, this typically only really took shape and concrete form after the event, and sometimes only subsequent to his death. Indeed, Kemalism can be seen as ‘a mere set of political practices’ (Mateescu 2006: 231) that emerged adaptively and that have since evolved adaptively, in which the imprint of Ataturk himself is relatively light. Even so, the Kemalist phenomenon is a curious feature for a country that has been so desperate to join the advanced West, and can be seen as sometimes functioning as a barrier to the penetration of ideas from the world beyond the country’s borders. In any case, when Ataturk died in 1938, Kemalism and Turkey were ‘nei-

ther democratic nor liberal but authoritarian, elitist, and ideological’ (Yavuz and Esposito 2003: xx1). Over time, the ideological foundation of the Turkish state hardened into a particular interpretation of the Kemalist legacy – most notably, that secularism equates to state control over and regulation of religious practice and symbolism, and that national unity prohibits accommodation to Kurdish distinctiveness. Adherence to these ideological rigidities remains deeply rooted in large swathes of Turkish civil society as well as in its military hierarchy and state bureaucracy, and the state’s attachment to them has served to curtail the growth of a more spontaneous bottom-up democracy – ‘for the people, despite the people’, as the 1920s Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP) slogan expressed it. Indeed, the relationship of the CHP, Turkey’s oldest political party, to the Kemalist state and the assumptions upon which the party are built are particularly interesting. The CHP can trace its origins back to Ataturk himself. It was the dominant party during the more or less exclusively one-party period up until 1950, and from its foundation up to this day it has been ardently Kemalist and central to Turkey’s political, social and economic evolution. Yet it has never emerged victorious in its own right in a free election. The other institution most usually associated with the Kemalist order is the

Turkish General Staff (Turk Silhali Kuvvetleri – TSK) (Jenkins 2001). Under Kemal Ataturk and up until 1960, the military’s influence was informal and largely explained by the easy relationship between its civilian rulers, most of whom were former military officers who had been obliged to resign their commissions before they could take up political office, and a military leadership equally committed to the Kemalist revolution. Since 1960, the military’s political role has been more overt, although it has varied in degree and form. This more explicit political engagement has coincided with the advent in Turkey of multiparty democracy, beginning with the elections of 1950. The military sees itself as nonpartisan, as representing something akin to a national general will, and as the guardian of the official ideology of Kemalism. The significance of this self-appointed ‘guardianship’ role should not be underestimated, and it underpinned and helped legitimize the

emergence in the 1990s in particular of a ‘national security regime’ (Cizre 2003) as well as the coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, the so-called ‘postmodern coup’ of 1997 and countless lower-profile and continuous interventions in the country’s politics. A representative statement of the military’s thinking, especially since the 1960s, came in the form of a written statement, issued by the TSK in the wake of comments by the then prime minister, Mesut Yilmaz, in March 1998, critical of the military’s leading role in Turkey’s struggle with Islamists. The statement declared that ‘no matter what position or task is represented, no one, for the sake of his personal interest or aspiration, can display an attitude or make any suggestions or comment that will discourage, confuse, weaken or overshadow the determination of the Turkish armed forces to struggle against separatist or fundamentalist activities that target the country’s security’ (Kramer 2000: 31). In more recent times, the constitutional court has emerged more strongly as a pre-eminent guardian of the system and of what is presumed to be Ataturk’s legacy. What follows in this chapter is an articulation of that set of political prac-

tices, or of ideas, that give Kemalism its unique flavour and that have found themselves in increasing confrontation and conflict with the challenge from forces, both inside and outside Turkey, that are crashing against its defences or eroding its foundations.