Rant Number 328 20 November 2008
Peering at the glittering treasures in the darkly Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, a realisation struck the priest. Two Turks terminated that civilisation. The first, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, sacked Constantinople in 1453. The second Turk, Mustafa Kemal, later immortalised as Ataturk – father of the Turks – five centuries later ensured the ghost of Byzantium never arose from the grave.
Landing in Smyrna in 1921, King Constantine of Greece doubtless fancied himself an avenger. Constantine XIII, his namesake and the last emperor of Byzantium, had fallen heroically defending his capital. Now a deal between British PM Lloyd George and the Greek leader Venizelos plotted Byzantium’s resurgence. Ottoman Turkey was to be dismembered and the Greeks restored. Actually, they had reckoned without General Ataturk. He rallied his people, smashed the invading Greek armies and threw them into the sea, setting fire to ‘infidel Smyrna’ into the bargains. Thus the Byzantines stayed museum material, while modern Turkey was born.
Muslims worldwide rejoiced at Ataturk’s victories. ‘May the great Allah grant victory to the armies of Conqueror Mustafa Kemal and save Turkey from her enemies and the enemies of Islam’ a Caliphate committee in Bombay exulted. If only they had known! They had cheered a viper. Triumphant Ataturk would dethrone Allah’s rule, no less. Worse, for many besotted Turks, their leader had become the deity himself. Lord Kinross relates that when Kemal asked a soldier in Anatolia: ‘Who is God and where does He live?’ the answer came: ‘God is Ataturk. He lives in Ankara.’
The rest is history. The new god deposed the Sultan-Caliph, proclaimed a republic after European models, adopted the Swiss legal code, shut down Islamic schools, emancipated women and made polygamy illegal. Oh, yes, he also hammered the Kurds. Jolly fellow called Said, a Naqshibandi sheikh, led a religious revolt in the East. He raised the green banner of Islam and declared his mission to restore sharia. Alas, the ill-luck of the Kurds dogged the Sheik. His forces killed or scattered, he ended up hanged as a traitor in Diyarbakir’s main square. ‘I do not hate you’ Said briskly told the hanging judge, ‘but we’ll settle accounts at the Last Judgment’. I wish I knew the upshot of that.
When I was chaplain to the Galatians in Ankara, years ago, the Ataturk cult gave no sign of relenting. Far from me to hurt my dear, much-loved Turkish friends back then (Alper, Enver, Halit, Dicle, Figuen… I pray life is smiling on you), but amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas. Truth comes first. Ataturk’s gaunt, Dracula-like features were too ubiquitous for comfort. Public offices, banks, street billboards, banknotes, TV…you could not escape that gloomy, sinister face staring. ‘It was like that in Hitler’s Germany’, an elderly Teuton confessed to me. Government buildings in Ankara, Ataturk’s newly-built capital, scream their fascist iconography at you. The Ataturk Mausoleum, in particular, is a prime example of totalitarian brutalism. When an Iranian Foreign Minister refused to pay homage to the secularist dictator, a ritual imposed on many foreign leaders, it caused a rumpus. How peculiar. You wouldn’t require the Pope to extol Lenin’s virtues, would you?
To question Ataturk’s heritage is tricky. A current Turkish movie that dares show him dancing, ‘liquoring up’ and getting lonely and depressed is angering secularists. They consider it an affront, an attack on their cultus. (The film could have done worse: Turkish Islamists tell ribald jokes about Kemal’s taste for soft lads.) It betrays their insecurity. After all, Mustafa Kemal’s place in history is assured. He saved his country from foreign invasion and, by sheer act of will, forged a new nation and a new culture. No question, he was smart. Unlike fools like Mussolini, he eschewed military adventures abroad and died peacefully in his bed. The sobriquet ‘Father of the Turks’ is well-deserved.
Hmmm…is it? Professor Huntington, he of Clash of Civilisations fame, writes that Kemal effectively turned Turkey into a ‘torn country’. Torn between two worlds. A society Muslim in its religion, ethos and history but ‘with a ruling elite determined to make it…at one with the West’. Ataturk partly succeeded in dragging Turks into modernity but, at what cost? Take the change from Arabic to Latin script. A fatal reform. It made it easier for people to learn European languages. It might have helped with literacy. Unfortunately, it also cut off Turkish people from their traditional literature, their culture, their past. As if Cromwell has gone mad and forced the change from the Roman alphabet to Cyrillic: imagine that! Shakespeare would be a closed book to contemporary Brits. Cultural genocide, what else?
Genocide, huh! An ugly word and also a dangerous one in Turkey. During WWI the Young Turks regime had a million and a half Armenians deported to the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. In the caravans, men were separated from others, and murdered outright. Gendarmes, bandits and wild tribesmen harassed and raped the distraught, starving survivors. To escape the torments, abused women and children often flung themselves into rivers and chasms. Of the survivors who made it to the Arab provinces, many, naked and sick, died of starvations, exposure and epidemics. In this way the biblical land of Ararat, for 3000 years, the homeland of the Armenians, was robbed of its ancient people. Ataturk was not directly involved in that crime but he never acknowledged it either. Nor does, even today, the state he founded. The Turkish penal code makes it a crime even to mention it. (A remarkable democratic legal system: it used to criminalise anyone who said that Turkey isn’t a democracy.) Nobel prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk got prosecuted for merely alluding to it and Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was gunned down for the same reason. Grim.
Some years ago I got a card from the mother of Tamer. An Ankara friend. We’d drink coffee together in the Maltepe district, discuss the Alevi heresy and admire the occasional pretty face passing by. Sad news. Tamer was dead. An Army officer, he was shot while fighting the Kurdish insurgency in the East. I remember how he’d joke about one of the most famous of Ataturk’s slogans, plastered all over the place. Ne mutlu turkum diyene - How happy it is to be a Turk!
‘Nonsense, Frank’ he confided. ‘If we were really so happy, why do we have to be always reminded of it?’
Revd Frank Gelli