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Nicholas Birch: 11/12/08

Can Dundar, a prominent filmmaker and journalist, is a darling of Turkey's secularists. ... Or rather, he used to be before the release of his new documentary about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the soldier-statesman who founded secular, modern Turkey.

The first Turkish film to emphasize the private side of the man whose stern features preside over public buildings throughout the country, Mustafa generally says nothing Turks don't already know.

But in a country whose official ideology presents Ataturk as a larger-than-life figure, its portrait of a melancholic, hard-drinking man has sparked outrage among the secularists who see themselves as his ideological heirs. "The film is wrong to imply that the Republic devoured its leaders, betrayed them," the staunchly secularist chief opposition leader Deniz Baykal told reporters after the film's gala presentation.

One of Ataturk's adopted daughters, Ulku Adatepe, also expressed her displeasure over the film, which was released October 29. "Ataturk was never lonely," she said. "He had people behind him, people full of love for him."

Some radical secularists were more intemperate, seeing the film as part of a western-backed plot to weaken Turkey's Kemalist army, the chief obstacle to alleged plans to replace secularism with "enlightened Islam."

The United States "treated our soldiers like common criminals in Iraq", says Yigit Bulut, a popular columnist in the secularist daily Vatan, referring to the 2003 arrest of Turkish soldiers that came close to dynamiting Turkish-US relations. "This film about their Commander-in-Chief is part of the same strategy."

Bulut concluded his October 31 column by begging readers: "do not watch this documentary, dissuade others from watching it, but above all do not allow it to plant seeds belittling Ataturk in your children's minds."

But Can Dundar thinks his critics have missed the point. "My son is now reciting the same poems about Ataturk that I and my father recited when we were in school", he said in a telephone interview. "The younger generation has reached a saturation point. For young people, Ataturk has become a source of derision."

If the film has harmed anyone, he adds, it is not Ataturk, but those who "have turned his ideas into dogmas, in blatant disregard for everything he stood for."

He cites secularist claims that he depicted Ataturk as an atheist in his film. "They appear to have been upset by a 1937 speech he gave when he said his political principles were based on lived experience rather than on books handed down from heaven," Dundar says. "That isn't atheism, it is a definition of secularism."

Every November 10 at 9.05 a.m., traffic around Turkey grinds to a halt as drivers heed air raid sirens, get out of their cars and stand to attention to commemorate the moment of Ataturk's death.

This November 10, the 70th anniversary of Ataturk's death, two doctors announced they were filing a lawsuit against the makers of the documentary for including footage depicting Ataturk smoking. Describing the film as "the biggest advert for cigarettes in Turkey's history", Ahmet Ercan and Orhan Kural told reporters outside an Istanbul court that it could "corrupt national values, divide Turkey and weaken national security."

Such attacks seem to be having some effect. Watching Dundar's last Ataturk film has become a rite of passage for Turkish primary school children since it was brought out in 1993. While schoolchildren make up a significant proportion of the 470,000 people who watched Mustafa in its first five days in cinemas, teachers appear to be more wary of taking their charges to it.

"My son's class was supposed to go on Monday", says Rusen Cakir, a prominent journalist. "The parents-teachers association cancelled the trip."

Turkey's leading mobile phone group, Turkcell, also got cold feet, withdrawing its sponsorship at the last moment amid concerns it might lose customers.

In a country where secularist radicalism is rising as Kemalists' traditional hold over state institutions slips, the furor around Mustafa is unsurprising.

The creation of a 1980 junta that, in the words of historian Ayhan Aktar, "used Ataturk as a stick to beat the Turkish people with," the country's current constitution honors Kemalism as the country's official ideology. A law on higher education passed by the junta requires university students to be raised "devoted to Ataturk's nationalism .... revolutionary reforms and principles."
Opinion remains divided as to how the Mustafa effect will pan out. Some think Dundar's prestige among secularist Turks may have imbued his personal vision of Ataturk with the force to begin a proper debate.

"Kemalism was running out of breath", comments Nuh Gonultas, a columnist for the daily Bugun. "Dundar's 'human Ataturk' has given it the kiss of life."
But in a country where Ataturk continues to be referred to as the "supreme leader," others think the angry reactions of leading secularists are just the latest symptom of a mindset that is too far gone to be saved.

"These people have lost all connection to reality," says Nabi Yagci, a former head of Turkey's Communist Party. "They trust the protective magic of a statue more than they do themselves. They are like children unaware they have grown up. Until they do, Mustafa Kemal will continue to be Ataturk."

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Frank Kitman