A scarf bearing the stylish signature of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk covers the face of the mannequin and a white T-shirt with a portrait of a smiling Ataturk completes the unusual attire.
Ismail Saymaz, the shining investigative reporter of Turkish daily Radikal, took the photo on Nov. 15 in front of a boutique in Izmir, the Kemalist stronghold on Turkey’s west coast.
“This is anarcho-Kemalism,” political scientist Fatih Yasli replied to the tweet by Saymaz that showcased this new street fashion of urban guerillas. “These are Kemalist SAs [referring to the Nazi paramilitary organization Sturmabteilung]. They are very dangerous when they’re crowded,” @durmance6470 replied, and @hasavrat tweeted right afterward, “Always found it so interesting that tattoo of Ataturk’s signature is anti-establishment symbol.”
“The cult of Ataturk” has been widely analyzed by international media. Most recently on Nov. 10, when over 1 million Turks visited Ataturk’s mausoleum, breaking a record in the 75 years since his death. However, one dynamic aspect of this popular mythology remains under-reported: the surprising change in Kemalism’s public perception, which is a recent phenomenon in post-Gezi Turkey.
The first time that I ran into these “anarcho-Kemalists” was when I went to Istanbul’s Taksim Square to photograph the Gezi Park protests one chaotic night in June. Under the blinding light of flares, standing shoulder to shoulder with football fans, five or maybe six young men with face masks and Ataturk T-shirts were chanting anti-government slogans away from the tear gas of the police who had recently retreated from Taksim Square.
Right next to them stood the “Carsi” (Market) group, die-hard fans of Besiktas football club. Their logo, the word “Carsi” written with the anarchy symbol for the letter “a,” had never changed. But their well-known motto, “Carsi is against everything,” had a new addendum those days, “except Ataturk.”
The police finally returned to Taksim Square with appalling force, dispersing the protesters. Twenty-two Carsi members were arrested on June 16. Since then, I had not seen any anarchist symbol with an Ataturk image, until I stumbled upon the photo tweeted by Saymaz in November.
How come Kemalism, a dogmatic state ideology based on a personality cult, is combined with anarchism, a political ideal based on absence of government and nonrecognition of authority?
Ataturk was a pragmatic politician who positioned himself in a smart manner according to changing conditions. He ultimately sowed the seeds of a multi-party democracy and a market economy, but when needed, he winked at all ideologies from communism to Islamism, from capitalism to fascism. For instance, in 1920, he uttered the following words — reconciling three opposing ideologies in the same sentence — and succesfully attracted Soviet support against the Western occupiers in Turkey:
“Especially because we are Muslims, we believe in Ummahism [pan-Islamism], which transforms the limited circle of our nationalism into a limitless field. From this point of view, our way could be the way of Bolshevism.”
Ataturk’s “Bursa speech” was this kind of “historical source” for the revolutionary youth now. In 1933, he allegedly advised the Turkish youth in Bursa to defend the republic with “their hands, stones, clubs or guns” if needed, even in spite of the police, the army and the courts. Hence, the text was banned for decades on the grounds that it encouraged anarchism.
In August, pro-government media reported that the Bursa speech was back in circulation on social media in parallel with the Gezi Park protests. In May and June, the speech was googled by a record number of Internet users in Turkey. Still, historians are not unanimous on the issue of the authenticity of the speech.
The first public debate around so-called anarcho-Kemalism actually started when Austrian artist Michael Blum created a pseudo-historic personality, an anarchist woman called Safiye Behar, as “Ataturk’s secret lover” for the ninth Istanbul Biennial in 2005.
Graffiti on the ground in front of an Ataturk memorial reads Ahmet Atakan, a man who died during Gezi Park protests. Photo by: Emre Kizilkaya
As life imitates art, fiction would turn into reality soon. A blog called “Ruh Tipasi” (Soul Plug) published the first manifesto of anarcho-Kemalists in 2010. After the first anarcho-Kemalists recently appeared in the streets, I got back to Michael Blum. “As you can imagine, Safiye would have been very supportive of and active in the Gezi movement had she lived in 2013. I’m very happy that Ataturk is finding this new lease of life in a post-Gezi context,” he said.
Guenter Lewy, the American professor emeritus who wrote The Ataturk Revolution in Turkey, is also optimistic about movements such as anarcho-Kemalists. “A secular liberal group strikes me as welcome and a good antidote to the current regime’s autocratic tendencies,” he argued.
Associate Professor Mehmet Alkan from Istanbul University, on the other hand, thinks that the concept lacks intellectual consistency. “Anarcho-syndicalism has a short-term goal to replace the state to destroy it, while anarcho-Kemalists want to reinforce it,” Alkan said.
While many scholars are cautious, a new breed of Kemalists say that they are ready to take to the streets again, if needed. Several have reservations about iconizing Ataturk the way it was done by the now-main-opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) decades ago. Omre Akyuz, 19, a university student who participated in the protests, is one of the empathic figures of the movement.
“Of course, we all admire Ataturk for leaving us the republic. However, throughout and in the aftermath of the protests, my friends had concerns about using his image. They thought that it could alienate some protesters who perceived Kemalism as something against Islam,” Akyuz said.
In short, the Gezi Park protests not only shook the government and triggered a tremor in the ruling coalition, but also challenged the archaic features of “Kemalism 1.0.”
“Kemalism 2.0” in the making seems to have the potential to be more pluralistic and liberal, so much that it now welcomes even the potentially self-destructive fringe movements related to anarchism.
Even political Islam, which now stagnates throughout the region, might need such a dynamism that breaks the dogmas of the past. It is not easy to transform progressively when you hold the power. As Blum explains:
“In 2005, Kemalism was an old, worn-out ideology, with a lot of progressive aspects but belonging to the past. After a decade of AKP [Justice and Development Party] rule, people are naturally enrolling Ataturk as an ally against the government — and Ataturk was way more progressive than the current government. The day we will see a Kemalist authoritarian regime again, there might be people turning to anarcho-Islamism, who knows?”