- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2008

ISTANBUL |Turks venerate Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and architect of arguably the most successful social modernization program of the 20th century.

That helps explain the furor that continues to resonate following the late-October release of a documentary on his life.

Directed by Can Dundar, “Mustafa” is the first Turkish film to emphasize the private side of the man whose stern features preside over public buildings across the country more than 80 years after he established the modern Turkish state.

While it breaks no taboos, it presents Ataturk as a hard-living, hard-drinking and ultimately rather melancholy man who felt increasingly detached from the country he created.

“All those statues, busts and flags have created a chief devoid of human qualities,” Mr. Dundar said in a telephone interview. “I wanted to present Mustafa Kemal in a more intimate, affectionate light.”

Watched by 150,000 people in its first day in cinemas, his film has been widely praised. But it has also attracted furious criticism in a nation torn between the militant secular tradition of Ataturk and its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots.

“The film is wrong to imply that the Republic devoured its leaders, betrayed them,” chief secular opposition leader Deniz Baykal told reporters after the film’s gala presentation.

Yigit Bulut, a popular columnist in the secularist daily Vatan, urged readers of his recent column: “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.”

Such reactions are not surprising. Kemalism is Turkey’s official ideology, protected under the constitution. Three generations of coup leaders have cited it to justify their interventions. Insulting Ataturk is a criminal offense.

Mr. Dundar thinks critics are missing the point.

“My son is now reciting the same poems about Ataturk that I and my father recited when we were at school,” he said. “The younger generation has reached saturation point. For young people, Ataturk has become an object of derision.”

“The aim of the 1980 coup was to use Ataturk as a club to beat Turks with,” said Ayhan Aktar, a historian. “Dundar’s documentary has given Kemalism the kiss of life.”

The Turkish military, which views itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s secular government, has overthrown four civilian governments since the modern nation was founded. In the most recent coup in 1997, the army booted the government claiming it was leading Turkey toward Islamist rule.

Opinion is divided as to how “Mustafa” will pan out.

Some think Mr. Dundar’s prestige among secularist Turks may have imbued his personal vision of Ataturk with the force to begin a proper debate.

Like Mr. Dundar, they think the time has come to publish the diaries and letters kept out of public view in military and civilian archives since Ataturk’s death.

“It is a crime not to let people know how Mustafa Kemal explained himself,” said Ipek Calislar, who was acquitted in 2006 of insulting Ataturk in the biography she wrote about his wife. “Loving people when you have no means of understanding them is very stupid.”

But she expressed deep concern at the way debates are developing over the documentary. “People are so angry, it’s frightening,” she says. “This is not an atmosphere conducive to reasoned debate.”

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