The shadow on the hill: Mustafa Kemal & the Kurds / Atatürk Patron of the Kurds ?

02 January 2014, Thursday / KAYA GENÇ, NOVELIST, Turkish Review – The image of the founder of modern Turkey has been used by such a wide-ranging group of politicians and for such varied political ends that one can’t help but wonder at the protean quality of his character. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was not one thing but many: He was always a figure whose policies politicians had difficulty in pigeonholing, but that never prevented them from trying… But patron saint of Kurds? That is a new role.

Since the day he rose to prominence to become a successful career soldier in the Ottoman military during the first decade of the 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s image has been used by such a wide-ranging group of politicians and for such varied political ends that one can’t help but wonder at the protean quality of his character. Mustafa Kemal was not one thing but many: He was always a figure whose policies politicians had difficulty in pigeonholing. And yet there was almost never a time when he was not pigeonholed. He has been represented, by his supporters or foes, as a nationalist leader, a racist, a communist, an Islamist, a freemason, a British spy, the man who brought the British to their knees, a Westernizer, the instigator of anti-Western movements in Asia and Africa, a dictator, a model democrat, a feminist, a patriarch, an emancipator of women, a great indoctrinator, a lover of culture and books, a soldier with little interest in cultural nuances, a man born to lead the Turkish nation. But patron saint of Kurds? That is a new role.

And it is assigned to Mustafa Kemal by none other than Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose political career seems divided into two Mustafa Kemal-shaped halves. In one (which covers the first part of his political career and ends in the year 2010) he was accused of being an ardent anti-Kemalist and an underminer of his reforms; the second half, newly begun with the start of this decade, however has seen the accusation take a different shape. Now, some have begun to see Erdoğan as an increasingly authoritarian leader whose ambitions and vision, they argue, resemble those of Mustafa Kemal.

Having started a peace process initiative with Kurds (which some hope, and others fear, has the potential to end in partial autonomy) Erdoğan changed his discourse on the subject and quoted in November one of Mustafa Kemal’s speeches with an eye to reassuring the public that his proposed solution to the Kurdish question will by no means undermine the unity of the country. “[Opposition deputies] can go and read the first assembly of the Turkish Republic’s parliamentary records,” he said, implying that the first generation of modern Turkey’s politicians had acknowledged the existence of the Kurdish identity and that he was simply following their example. “They will see the word ‘Kurdistan’ in those minutes, and if they go back in history, they will see the Ottoman Empire’s east and southeastern parts called ‘Kurdistan’.”

Use of the word Kurdistan had hitherto been considered somewhat sacrilegious by the majority of Turkish politicians, but there we were, listening to Erdoğan as he confidently used the word in Parliament. This author began reading Prof. George W. Gawrych’s new book, “The Young Atatürk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey” with this new image of Mustafa Kemal in the back of their mind. What did this extraordinary Ottoman soldier and Turkish statesman, make of Kurds? Prof. Şükrü Hanioğlu, who sits on the editorial board of Turkish Review, blurbed the book and called it “the best study on the subject.” Hanioğlu’s own “Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography” is perhaps the best study on another subject — Mustafa Kemal’s intellectual formation — and offers insights into the statesman’s relationship with Kurds. Thus it was a natural choice of reading matter after “The Young Atatürk.”  Gawrych has taught for almost two decades at the US Army Command and General Staff College. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he focuses more on Mustafa Kemal’s military strategies. He frequently quotes the writings of military theorists like Carl von Clauswitz and San Tzu, in an attempt to penetrate Mustafa Kemal’s mind with reference to their works. Hanioğlu, on the other hand, focuses more on the philosophical makings of Ataturk, although he doesn’t fail to draw a picture of the great politician’s military education at the Mekteb-i Harbiye (now known as the Kara Harp Okulu, or Military Academy) in Ottoman İstanbul. According to both authors, the real Mustafa Kemal — if such a thing can be said to exist — was a combination of the intellectual and the military strategist. This is also how one should approach Mustafa Kemal’s take on the Kurdish question. He often considered military and philosophical matters as battles that he needed to effectively fight and win. The Kurdish question was no different. In 1917, when Mustafa Kemal was assigned to participate in the Yıldırım plan (named after and executed by the so-called Yıldırım Grubu — Lightning Group — a Turkish-German army formation that planned to capture Baghdad), he went to Diyarbekir (modern-day Diyarbakır), the city in which the headquarters of his Second Army was located. Gawrych describes the Diyarbekir of the time as a “provincial capital that had much more to offer intellectually and culturally than Silvan.” He writes:

While conducting conferences and training exercises for his officers, Mustafa Kemal used the time not only to meet regularly with senior local officials, including governors and heads of sub-provinces, but also to develop relations with other prominent figures in Diyarbekir and the surrounding area. His dining area functioned like a salon for the local who’s who. Conversations covered many diverse topics. […] Mustafa Kemal clearly used his time in Diyarbekir carefully and wisely for self-improvement and networking.

At this stage in his career (he was 36 in 1917), Mustafa Kemal must have seen Diyarbekir’s Kurdish tribes as future partners with whom he could collaborate during the war against the imperialists. But once Kurds started demanding their own rights — as happened when a group of prominent Kurds travelled to Versailles “seeking recognition of their national rights at the Peace Conference” — their partnership became more problematic. The military leaders of the resistance movement showed no appetite for internal troublemakers and Gawrych mentions how, “despite the fragmented nature of Kurdish society, there was the potential for ‘Young Kurds’ to turn local agitation and unrest into a military struggle, however brief, for national rights and autonomy.” Apparently, the rise of Kurdish nationalism had been troubling for Kemal and his followers, whose struggle to form a unified, militaristic nation left little room for Kurdish local autonomy.

Kemal’s vision of Kurds was unsurprisingly the vision of a career soldier who wanted to mobilize as great a portion of the society as possible. During this era of resistance formation Kemal’s use of the word millet was inclusive of all Muslims in the Ottoman Empire and it was “the vocabulary of Muslim nationalism” that had become the common denominator of the resistance movement, rather than that of Turkish nationalism. But it is difficult to imagine Kemal urging his fellow Kurds to take advantage of Wilson’s Fourteen Points and go their own way: Kemal’s understanding of the millet concept made Kurds an irreplaceable part of Turkey’s Muslim society.

Hanioğlu, who gives a similarly balanced account of Kemal’s approach to Kurds — he pictures him neither as a pure pan-Turkist nor a Kurdish liberator — mentions the carefully calculated nature of the politician, noting that “the appeal to religious sentiment sought to mobilize the force of Islam in a struggle against the Allies and the non-Muslim Ottoman groups they supported. A narrower Turkish nationalist or pan-Turkist message would have engendered the vital support of the Kurds, especially in the southeastern parts of Anatolia” — it was this calculated, strategic approach that more than anything defined Kemal’s take on Kurds.

In his later career, at a time when the resistance movement reached its objectives, Kemal showed another side of his character, which Gawrych portrays as “callousness and ruthlessness.” Not only did he revise his religion-centered rhetoric of millet to a more Turkic one, but he also allowed illegal army operatives to powerfully trample Kurdish dissent. Gawrych writes:

An end justified the means when, for example, he readily gave Nureddin [Pasha] a free hand to squash Ottoman Greek and Kurdish unrest, or enlisted the likes of Topal Osman, or authorized the mass deportation of the Pontian Greeks. He accepted the loss of innocence civilian lives as a common feature in warfare. There were, therefore, two sides to Atatürk’s character, as poignantly noted by Grace Ellison, a British-feminist journalist and frequent visitor to Turkey: “sometimes those eyes seemed to be the deepest blue, sometimes the deepest grey; at one moment kind almost to excess, at another cruel.” Ruthless, rather than cruel, would be a better word to describe Atatürk, who was, to some degree, a product of the horrors and cruelty of war.

Hanioğlu reminds us that some of the ruthless practices came from right-wing Kemalists rather than Kemal himself. One of the main ideologues of Kemalism, Mehmet Recep Peker, “was deeply impressed by Germany’s Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and Italy’s Partito Nazionale Fascista” and by 1934 the kind of right-wing Kemalism he advocated wished to model the Kemalist party on those two fascist organizations. Turkey’s first justice minister, Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, infamously boasted about it only right that Kurds be the “servants and slaves of Turks”; while the republican female role model Sabiha Gökçen, a combat pilot and Kemal’s adapted daughter, had “bombarded Kurdish rebels from the air wearing a Turkish military uniform.”

It is undoubtedly anachronistic to expect Mustafa Kemal to be some from of ideal, perfect multiculturalist political leader, and treat him as if he was born in a peaceful country in a peaceful time. Nevertheless, as the historian Prof. Taner Akçam wrote in a recent newspaper column, Kemal continues to resemble Karl Marx in that both figures have an alchemic quality for politicians who use them to win political arguments. In the opening chapter of “Atatürk,” Hanioğlu recounts a bizarre story about the eastern Turkish providence of Ardahan where, decades after a young shepherd had seen a shadow on a hill and had decided that it resembled Kemal’s profile, the place became a kind of holy site in which a shepherd’s grazing of his animals could be considered “highly disrespectful, an act of treason” by a parliamentarian. In our attempts to instrumentalize political figures from earlier ages for modern policy making, we perhaps resemble the shepherd who attributed his dream to a shadow. And yet the exercise is healthier than treating the shadow as a sacred and untouchable thing.

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