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Making sense out of Kemal Ataturk life

Great thinker-cum-author Said Nursi, somewhere in the Seedbed of The Light treatises, refers to human beings as usually susceptible to shedding positive knowledge as they go down the learning lane. Instead, we pick and treasure meaningless and sometimes wrong convictions, which eventually lead us astray.

This discourse content clicked live as I read through my popular daily newspaper column on “Birthdays” and “Other Events … it happened on this day.” This time round, the day (date?) is September 4, 2019 – a Wednesday.  I read: “1919 … Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Republic of Turkey, gathers a congress in Sivas to make decisions as to the future of Anatolia and Thrace.”

It occurs to me that this must be a very important day to the people of Turkey. But I wonder: “How many of them remember this – knowing let alone?” I take refuge to “History Today” on the Internet searching for the man; but not in the cynic style of Greek Philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (c.404-323 BC).

In broad daylight, Diogenes would walk around with a lit lantern or candle looking for a (clean) man in society! Where do you find one? Natura humana ad mala inclinatur – human nature is inclined to do bad things. That is why we don’t need any effort to hate one another.

I am greeted with a Getty Image captioned: “Father of the Nation: Kemal Ataturk’s coffin passes through the streets of Ankara, November 21st, 1938.”  A corresponding headline reads: “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dies in Istanbul.” Stitching space, time and events spanning the period between his death and funeral reads a little bit involving.  In any case this is not the subject matter here.

Writer Richard Cavendish saves my day. He refers to Kemal as “the key figure in the creation of modern Turkey … born in 1881 in Salonika in the Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki in Greece) to a Turkish Muslim family in modest circumstances.”

That does not strike me. All great people were born in modest circumstances. Otherwise, how do they make the difference in their life later on? Born condemned, Moses was recovered from the River Nile reeds, where he had been hidden in a waterproof basket by his mother to save him from the hand of Pharaoh’s men. He went on to be the miracle maker for the Israelites. He is greatly honored by Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Jesus was born in a manger to a family headed by a carpenter working from negligible village Nazareth, where nothing worthwhile could come from. He made big miracles and sacrificed his life for humanity on the cross. Both Christianity and Islam believe he will preside over the day of the last judgment.  

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in a pious family belonging to a famous tribe in Makkah. His father died before he was born. His mother died when she was taking him to pay homage to his late father’s grave. It was this orphan who becomes God’s messenger – the last among prophets—through whom the book of the Holy Quran is handed over to man.

So, what did strike me over Kemal? It was the year in which he was born — 1881. Why?  Using the sixth (extra) sense, East, West, North or South, the year reads the same. With excuse, it is like the figure 69 of the VAT Whisky.

Give a dog a bad name. History has it that a teacher gave little Mustafa a nickname of Kemal –the perfect one. He keeps it. Later as an army officer, he turns into a First World War national hero.  Kemal becomes the most effective leader of Turkish resistance.

He and his supporters establish a new Turkish government and capital at Ankara in 1920. Under his leadership, a national assembly meets and abolishes the Ottoman sultanate. Greek forces are driven out and the Republic of Turkey comes into formal existence. This is in 1923, with him as its president.

But then, look at him thereafter. What does he do? “The Perfect One” wants the country going western and secularized. He transcends the border of virtue. To him, “in medio stat virtus – virtue stands in the middle — principle no longer holds water.  Among others, he goes for the Latin alphabet, abandoning the Arabic script. The western calendar replaces the Muslim one. Traditional Islamic religious schools and courts are abolished. 

Turkey’s age-old political unity based on religion, he declares, should be replaced by one based on nationality. The fez, a symbol of faithfulness to Islam, becomes a sign of backwardness and ignorance.  

He is quoted as saying: “If we will be a civilized people, we must wear civilized international clothes.” To walk the talk, his attire becomes a Panama hat and suit. The assembly passes the Hat Law, criminalizing the fez. To avoid punishment, men in one village wear women’s summer hats complete with ribbons and feathers!

The salaam greeting gets outlawed. It’s time for the gentleman’s handshake.  Come 1934, surnames are introduced, and the assembly gives him a name sole of Ataturk (‘Father of the Turks’).

It’s fine. Even at home in Tanzania, we have the Father of the Nation in Julius Nyerere. My nephew, baptized Julius Nyerere in his honor, had to find an alternative at the time of being commissioned as an army officer. Julius Nyerere was the Head of State, the ex-officio Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Two bulls do not stay in one cow shed; we say in Africa.

Back to Kemal, the Opposition is subsequently suppressed. His regime is run by trusted ministers as he grows more reserved, solitary and remote. He moves into the Sultan’s Palace in body and spirit, leading a luxurious life until his death at 57 years on November 10 at 9.05 am, when his bedroom clock was also stopped. 

The people are faithful. His body is moved to Ankara, where a magnificent mausoleum is erected. A museum takes about ten years to build and is being visited by millions of people to the present day.  His statues and portraits abound in town squares and homes. He appears on Turkish banknotes and postage stamps.

On the face value one can argue that Mustafa has not been forgotten. He is both Kemal and Ataturk. I am not a Turk. Even if I wanted, I don’t think that it would be wise to take that risk. Not now. Why? According to authentic reports, about a quarter of the country’s population wish it was possible for them to live somewhere else.

Come 2023, the Republic of Turkey will be a centenarian. Definitely, there is a lot that has been done to build democracy in the country.  Oh! Yes. But why is it showing signs of retrogressing back into the circumstances of 100 years ago?

While education is the most effective and common tongue for relations with others, how does one visualize closure of schools, sending down teachers and destroying books for no other reason than because they have overtones of an unwanted person?

Good governance demands clear cut lines between the judiciary, legislature and government pillars. How much of it remains under conditions where judges, prosecutors and other civil servants are sacked or imprisoned at will? It is held that the media constitutes the Fourth Estate in democratic governance. What should we say when outlets are closed, and journalists turned into endangered species?

Events that followed the September 4 occasion in 1919, after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk gathered a congress to decide the future of Anatolia and Thrace, need to be revisited for charting a delivering way forward on the Turkey’s democracy road. From Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, contemporary Turkish leaders and their people need to pick his virtues. And because he was human, his pitfalls they should shed. They should not adopt a vice versa approach. Said Nursi’s is the formula for making sense out of the life of Mustafa –the ‘Perfect One’ and ‘Father of the Turks’.  

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Felix Kaiza is a Tanzanian journalist with more than 50 years of experience currently working as an independent media consultant. Learned in agriculture, journalism, political science and international relations, his main fields of consultancy, besides the media, are good governance, nature conservation, tourism and investment. He was the first Tanzanian Chief Sub-Editor of an English daily newspaper in 1970, he has been behind the establishment and growth of the national independent media since the early 1990s. He is UNFAO Fellow Journalist since 1975 and has wide experience on regional integration. He worked on the Information Directorate of the original East African Community on whose ashes survive the current one. His ambition is to brand Tanzania in the inbound market with made-in-Tanzania brands, including information, almost all of which is currently foreign brewed.


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