In Turkey Atatürk is everywhere. Streets, airports, public spaces and institutions are named after the man himself, an atheist and alleged Dönmeh who abolished the Ottoman Empire & sought to replace Islam with his militant secularism in post-WWI Turkey.
Imams defying Atatürk were executed, as were countless laymen. Atatürk scorned Islam as a “political instrument” that must bend to his will. Up to 250,000 civilians were killed in the Sheikh Said rebellion after a mere 15,000 rebels challenged Atatürk’s regime.
Forced into the darkness, Turkey’s sincere Muslims never accepted Atatürk’s changes, but were hamstrung even after his death due to successive military coups by the secular military. Dissent seethed below the surface. Hijab was banned, western dress codes introduced and religious courts abolished.
With the emergence of the AK party, Muslim consciousness has been pushed from the shadows. The AKP is secular, but has evoked Turkey’s Islamic history in its rhetoric and thus helped to foster a renewed sense of faith in a country that frowned upon expressions of piety for so long.
The AKP contains an umbrella of factions; some hostile to Atatürk and some not. While neither Erdoğan nor the party can be called Muslim (from promoting secularism to collaborating with Russia and Israel) the outward professions of faith have been heartening for the faithful.
Erdoğan’s party generally stays in Atatürk’s lane – but the newfound confidence has seen Turkish Muslims vent their anger at decades of repression on symbols of Atatürk’s cult.
This frustration has culminated in repeated destruction of statues of Atatürk and other monuments; there have been least seven since the April referendum, a step that many hailed as the beginning of a “new” Turkey.
On 22 May, a man took to an Atatürk memorial with an axe in Adapazari. A crowd gathered and tried to lynch him before he was saved – by police arresting him.
On July 30 street vendor named Mehmet Malbora damaged an Atatürk statue in Sanliurfa, defiantly telling people “there is no idolatry in our religion” before police arrested him. Criticising Atatürk is still illegal in Turkey; implying he isn’t infallible can lead to problems.
On 11 August a man identified as Mehmet T dismantled a bust of Atatürk in a primary school courtyard. He was arrested and confined to a mental hospital. A week later, several people damaged a depiction of a girl handing flowers to Atatürk in a park in Zonguldak.
On 24 August an unnamed 48-year-old man decapitated a bust of Atatürk in a hospital forecourt in Mersin. As he was led away he raised his right index finger defiantly – the Muslim symbol of there being no God but Allah, which also signifies rejection of idolatry.
On August 25 a statue of Atatürk was placed outside the Fine Arts faculty at the Anadolu university in Eskisehir, reading: “My only spiritual legacy is science and logic.”
A day later, a 50-year-old man upset by the display of nihilism calmly painted over the words and walked away.
On 29 August a bust of Atatürk’s mother Zubeyde Hanim disappeared from a park near the Golden Horn Metro Bridge. Atatürk’s family is often depicted in the cult, leading many to cynically note that he replaced the sultan and his family with his own.
Perhaps sick of him themselves, the Istanbul municipality merely stated it would “look into the matter” and went back to work.
The pushback against Atatürk has not been limited to attacks on statues. In 2016 parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman challenged Ataturk’s inferiority complex by calling for secularism to be removed from a new constitution.
Turkey, however, still has a long way to go. In 2015 an AKP MP likened Atatürk’s Turkish republic to a mere “commercial break”; she was then dropped from the electoral list. Westerners and Turkish secularists still use the “Islamist” buzzword to defame the devout.