Some dates and names are grafted onto the national consciousness. They are essential ingredients of the colective memory!
If you are an American, the 4th of July means something to you. It is Independence Day, when “in the course of human events”, as Thomas Jefferson put it, the people of the American colonies decided to severe political bonds with Britain. It is an important date for every U.S. citizen, even for those who have later joined the American family.
Likewise Valley Forge, Alamo (there is an expression “Remember the Alamo”), Gettysburg (Lincoln’s address is required reading at schools), Pearl Harbor (F.D.R.’s “Day of Infamy”) Iwo Jima (a powerful sculpture in Washington celebrates it), and even Vietnam and the World Trade Centre- tragic occurences that nevertheless bolster the sense of nationhood!
Every Frenchman and Frenchwoman knows Quatorze Juillet, Bastille is a symbol of oppression, as well of rising against such oppression, that resonates in every French heart. The “Lions of Belfort” are celebrated with a monumental stone lion- in Belfort. The French Resistance enjoys almost mythic status.
The British are proud of their victory in Waterloo (they named a railway terminal after it), of their heroism in defeat at Dunkirk, of their foolhardiness in the Crimea (Tennyson’s “Light Brigade”), their victory over the “Invincible Armada” in 1588, and the RAF’s courageous stand against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain (Chuchill’s speech: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”). All Russians are aware of what it cost to stop Napoleon in Moscow and, later on, Hitler in Stalingrad.
The Australians and New Zealanders trace the forging of their national identities to the Gallipoli Campaign (against the Turks).
Even the Germans, whose great defeat in World War II is compounded with shame, would be loathe to forget their own trials in the conflict. I am a witness to the pride with which they resurrected the devastated city of of Dresden.
And you would be hard pressed to find anybody in these countries foolish enough to suggest the removal of these resonant names and dates from the national consciousness.
Now, about May 19th. Every Turkish schoolboy and schoolgirl knows that date. Along with the three other national holidays: 23rd of April, 30th of August, and 29th of October.
We are at present ruled by a democratically elected goverrment- assuming the elections were not rigged- that is sytematically undermining its own national celebrations. First prime minister Erdoğan managed to be “otherwise engaged” during celebrations, then in the last year the 30th of August and the 29th of October were cancelled, the pretext for the former being the earthquake in Van, the latter the killing of a number of Turkish soldiers by PKK insurgents. The public took the banner and, in areas unsympathetic to the government, celebrated anyway. As for the 23rd of April, observed as a children’s holiday, that was celebrated in a sort of “sanitized” fashion.
The Ministry of Education recently decreed the annulment of all but the barest commemorations of May 19th. Reaction was swift, some areas- notably Izmir- annonced full scale celebrations for a week. Some citizens took the initiative so far as to take the decree to court, and happily, the court overruled it. Full scale celebrations are now allowed, and the government’s opponents seem determined to rub in their legal victory with a big turnup.
One outcome of our government’s latest faux pas was to get me to start this blog.
What happened on May 19, 1919?
Turkey, then still the Ottoman Empire, was allied to Germany- the losing side- during the First World War. You may be familiar with the Versailles treaty that imposed heavy conditions on defeated Germany; it is mentioned in Western media a lot because it is believed the resultant bitterness gave rise to Nazism. Less known in the Western popular media, but very much part of the national consciousness in Turkey, was the similarly damning treaty of Sèvres (August 10th, 1920) imposed on the Ottoman state, bringing partition and turning the Sultan into a powerless figurehead in the occupied capital of a truncated country with hardly a pretence of independence.
The occupation and partition was in full swing well before the signing of the treaty. A general named Mustafa Kemal, with an impressive military record that even then brought him hero status, decided on resistance. He and a group of like-minded comrades set out for Anatolia on ship and set foot at the Black Sea port of Samsun on May 19th, 1919 (the first national holiday).
That “one small step” is considered the start of the Turkish struggle for independence. Mustafa Kemal later said he considered that day “his birthday”, so it is (was) also celebrated as a day for remembering him .
By 1920 Mustafa Kemal managed to create a united front centered in Ankara and independent of the Sultan’s puppet government in occupied Istanbul. On 23rd of April, 1920 (the second national holiday), a Grand National Assembly was created as a kind of government in exile in the Turkish hinterland.
The new assembly in Ankara created an organized army, bolstered by volunteers fleeing from Istanbul. The war was fought on many fronts, but the decisive victory was won over the Greeks at Dumlupınar in central Anatolia on August 30th, 1922 (the third national holiday), after which the Turks moved swiftly to the Aegean coast.
It was Mustafa Kemal’s new government in Ankara, and not the Sultan’s government in Istanbul, that negotiated the ensuing peace treaty and wrested full indepence from the Western powers (Lausanne, Juıy 24th1923).
Mustafa Kemal and supporters passed a motion to abolish the ineffectual Sultanate and declared the founding of the new Turkish Republic on October 29th, 1923 (the fourth national holiday). The Sultan retained only his spiritual powers as Caliph- something like a Muslim Pope, a hereditary office Ottoman sultans have claimed since Selim I acquired it by force in 1517. The Caliphate was in turn abolished (March 3rd, 1924), and the Turkish constitution declared the young republic to be a “secular”, i.e. no longer a theocracy, no longer subject to the “Sharia”, or Islamic law. Faith was henceforth left to the individualal conscience.
Mustafa Kemal was given the surname “Atatürk”- “father of the Turks”- by the Grand National Assembly on November 24th, 1934. It is by that name that the world knows him.
For all-round information on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his importance, you can check out:
Now, given the meanings of the national holidays, which have been regularly celebrated for close to a century,
Given the essentially fundamentalist Islamist viewpoint of the ruling party, and their voters,
Why do you think the present Turkish Government would be taking such pains to remove these milestones of the history of the Turkish Republic from the nation’s consciousness?
Many people are sceptical of conspiracy theories, and rightly so! But in my country, you can’t avoid them; either you believe the government, which claims to have unveiled several wide-ranging conspiracies against itself, and has been conducting a string of razzias for the last four years, or you believe the suspects who claim they are victims of an intricate frame-up! First vast stockpiles of hidden arms were unearthed, allegedly in preperation of a great armed insurrection against the government, attributed to a terrorist organization called Ergenekon. After four years of inconclusive trials no one has admitted to being member of such an organization, which has no terrorist act to its name and is apparently a fictitious organization dreamed up to bring a sizeable chunk of intelligent resistance behind bars, and intimidate the rest. The detainees, whose numbers reach the hundreds, are composed of the secular elite; journalists, academicians, and officers- both retired and active, compose the bulk. They are of different backgrounds and convinctions, united only in their opposition to the fundamentalist Islamic slant of the government. The trials are inconclusive and drag on an on! The Silivri prison outside Istanbul has become notorious as the oubliette where these people are incarcerated. Hasdal is the first of a steadily increasing number of prisons for military men.
Then in 2010, a pro-government newspaper claimed to have unearthed a military plot to undermine the government (allegedly dating from 2003), a covert operation called Balyoz (“Sledgehammer”). This served as the excuse for a fresh string of arrests- this time concentrating more intensely on the military. The latest news holds the figure at 364 officers, including generals and admirals. 250 of which have been detained for close on 15 months without verdict. (This does not include officers held for various other alleged conspiracies!)
These are the biggest “conspiracy trials”, but the governments’ arrests are by no means restricted to these. Being an animator, I have my own frame of reference! Do you remember the trial scene in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland?” (“Sentence first, verdict afterwards!”)
Dr. Mehmet Haberal, one high-profile victim
On April 13th, 2009, in a fresh Ergenekon roundup, Dr. Mehmet Haberal, a transplant surgeon, founder and rector of the Başkent university in Ankara, was arrested. As yet, he has not been charged with anything definite.
By then I was already full of the frustration and anger from the farce of supposed justice going on around me. I hung up a flag outside our window- the same one that accompanied me during my professional life abroad. (Was beside me on my desk through my Disney years!) I said “I won’t take this down until they release this man!” I figured on a few weeks, months at most. It has been more than three years! Dr. Haberal still does not know what he is in for.
What is it all in aid of?
The present ruling party is dismantling Atatürk’s secular republic by slow, hypnotizingly slow, yet terribly efficient steps. The discrediting of the Republican era, its founders and ideals, and the glorification of the Ottoman past point in one direction: the resurrection of a theocratic Turkey ruled by the Sharia. Recent "reforms" in education have been, to my eyes, the most dangerous of all blows, the target now being the impressionable young minds that are our most precious reserve for the future.
People more intelligent than I (some of whom have been arrested as “Ergenekon" members) have pointed the finger at a Turkish Islamic guru named Fethullah Gülen living in the United States (Saylorsburgh, Pennsylvania) whose sect has slowly, almost imperceptibly infiltrated the Turkish police and judicial system. With the discrediting and eventual paralyzing of the Turkish military, traditional “guardians of the secular Republic”, a fundamentalist Islamist government holding parliamentary majority has all the power it needs to effect a full transformation of the state.
The same intelligent people also see the United States as the protector of this Islamic sect, and see the whole setup as a part of the America’s new Middle East project. It apparently all boils down to this : NATO ally Turkey may have been useful as secular state with Western pretensions when the great threat was the Soviets, but with the cold war over and political Islam a new danger, a “moderate Islamic” model at the beck and call of the U.S. would be more preferable as a role model to bring the other Muslim countries in line. If they can reinstate the Caliph as well, so much the better The big fuss Time magazine made over Prime Minister Erdoğan’s enthusiastic reception in Egypt seems to confirm this view of U.S. strategy. To me it appears no more sound a tactic as supporting Hitler against the Communists, or the Taliban against the Russians. If there is truth to these allegations, I wish the U.S would re-evaluate this policy and desist from throwing the secular Turkish republic to the wolves.