Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was smaller than I had imagined him. Dressed in an immaculate dinner jacket, set off stylishly by a wing collared dress shirt and a perfectly knotted bow tie, his glassy blue eyes seemed to narrow as he stared through my inquisitive gaze, as if I had just interrupted an agreeable dinner party with urgent matters of state.
Security had been tight, even to secure an audience with Ataturk’s waxwork, with airport-style x-ray machines and a guard of soldiers blocking the road up to Anitkabir – the vast mausoleum and museum built in honour of the founder of modern Turkey on an Ankara hillside where thousands will gather on Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of his death in 1938.
And not without good reason; as a soldier rifled through my rucksack, a moustachioed man behind me lazily pulled a large handgun from somewhere between his belly and the top of his jeans and placed it on the desk for inspection. Without comment, a soldier quickly placed the weapon in a locker and casually handed the man a cloakroom ticket.
As a monument to the father of Turkish secularism, a visit to Anitkabir is strangely akin to a religious experience. The museum contains a bizarre range of Ataturk memorabilia – his rowing machine, a pair of nail clippers and even some leftovers on a plate from which he once dined – all presented with the reverence usually afforded to the relics of a holy saint.
Dramatic dioramas recall his greatest battles while a cinema tells the story of Ataturk’s life in the sweeping, grandiose style of a Cecil B.
“He was born as a genius, grew up as an idealist, and lived as a heroic leader… He devoted his life to his people… from the ruins of an empire he managed to build a victorious nation .. He did not get tired or weak… his success was enough to make him happy…”
The mausoleum itself, meanwhile, is a vast neo-paganistic temple approached down a wide boulevard flanked by statues of lions and Hittite goddesses. The travel writer Robert Kaplan memorably described it as the kind of tomb Adolf Hitler would have had if he’d died a natural death.
With a statue in every town square, not to mention portraits and busts in every public building and school, to the visitor it can sometimes feel as if Turkey is trapped under the influence of a particularly virulent personality cult.
In a fiercely nationalistic country, Ataturk’s greatness is a statement of fact, enshrined in law, rather than opinion. Many of those now demanding military action against the PKK in northern Iraq see the struggle against Kurdish separatism as a continuation of the same battle waged by Ataturk in the 1920s against those who would threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity.
As his country’s outstanding soldier-statesman, who had saved Turkey from extinction by resisting Allied attempts to partition the country at the end of the First World War and then rebuilt a new nation from the shattered remnants of the Ottoman state, Ataturk was Turkey’s Monty, Churchill and Attlee all rolled into one.
Through willpower and force of personality, he created a new written Turkish alphabet, introduced surnames and outlawed traditional Arabic-style dress such as the fez in favour of European-style fashions – all measures he considered necessary in transforming Turkey into a “modern” western country. Most importantly, he laid the secular foundations that remain at the heart of Turkey’s “Kemalist” state ideology to this day.
And yet, perhaps more than at any time since his death, there are signs that growing numbers of Turks feel Ataturk should be consigned to the past.
This year’s parliamentary elections were seen as a litmus test by many of the enduring strength of Kemalism after secularists massed in their hundreds of thousands in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir to protest against the supposed Islamist leanings of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan’s nomination of his foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, to the Turkish presidency – an office traditionally dominated by the Kemalist establishment – had prompted particular angst owing to the fact that his wife wore a headscarf.
Yet on voting day, it was the AKP who triumphed across the country, confirming their status as the dominant force in modern Turkish politics and providing Gul with the political leverage to install himself – and his wife – in Ataturk’s former palace.
While visiting an AKP official during the campaign, I had been surprised to see a portrait of Ataturk behind his desk. “It is compulsory,” he told me. “But governments are for the people and rules can change if people want them to change. The Kemalists will try to stop it but the people won’t let them.”
Suat Kiniklioglu, a newly-elected MP and now a government spokesman on foreign affairs, told me that the AKP was not opposed to secularism but favoured a “user-friendly secularism” that would not force a woman to choose between a university education and her right to wear a headscarf, and which embraced Turkey’s unique position as a bridge between eastern and western culture over a narrow nationalism.
“I’m one of those people who does not believe that the divide in Turkey is between secularist and Islamist but between those who want the old order to continue and those who want the old order to change,”
Oddly, the forward-thinking Ataturk would perhaps not have disapproved of such sentiments. A profoundly pragmatic politician and diplomat, as comfortable cutting deals with Circassian warlords as playing the European gentleman, his secularism and pro-western sentiments were practical tools, forged from his recognition that Turkey had to act and think like a modern nation if it was to avoid the fate of the former Ottoman lands and other territories to the east and south that had suffered the indignities of partition and colonisation.
In a more democratic age, he would surely also have recognised the need for the Turkish people to decide their own future for themselves – without the interference of history. Perhaps the final word can be left to Ataturk himself. As you climb the steps towards his mausoleum, the words of one of his most famous quotations inscribed into the stonework read: “Sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the nation.”