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Culture : Legacy of Turkey's 'Immortal' Ataturk Slowly Starts to Fade : Mustafa Kemal Ataturk built the modern republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. His rigid philosophy is called Kemalism, and it has been the glue that has held the country together for over 50 years.

January 15, 1991|HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey — "Remember me," said the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Turks have obliged, and his face still stares sternly down on nearly every town square, schoolyard and workplace in the country.

In the 52 years since Ataturk's death, his successors have carved an infallible image of the driving ruler who built the republic on the post-World War I ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkish museums keep special showcases of Ataturk's finely tailored clothes and even his carefully creased pajamas. But although Ataturk is lauded as "immortal" in the 1982 constitution, time has ceased to stand still for the republic.

Turkey's borders are now bracketed between regions that have been in upheaval for more than a year: the Balkans, the southern Soviet republics and the Middle East. At home, the country is buffeted by Islamic fundamentalism, Kurdish separatism and the effects of a decade of great socioeconomic change.

Now cracks have started to appear in Kemalism, as the rigid ideology named after Ataturk is known here. A survivor of the great, secular and highly centralized political systems of the 1920s and 1930s (communism and fascism are two others), Kemalism is the main glue that has bound this diverse nation of 57 million Muslims together.

For some Turks, the prospect of change is a relief from a virtual cult that ultimately sought more obedience than debate. For others, it is cause for grave alarm and another threat to Turkey's progress toward Western parliamentary democracy.

Whereas in the 1970s and early 1980s Turkish society was deeply divided between liberal and conservative wings of what remained an essentially Kemalist leadership, today the main fault line is between defenders of Ataturk-style secularism and resurgent Islam.

"The monster of (Islamic) reaction is reawakening, its seven heads corrupting the foundations of the republic," 72 Turkish professors warned in a joint November statement before staging a protest march to Ataturk's mausoleum.

Such marches to the temple-like structure dominating the capital, Ankara, have become increasingly common. But they are not the only show of force.

Four prominent secularists have been murdered by suspected Islamic terrorists this year. The first victim, lawyer Muammer Aksoy, was chairman of a society formed to protect Ataturk's ideals.

The last to die, Bahriye Ucok, was an outspoken critic of the Islamic veil for women and had been preparing a report on secularism for the opposition Social Democratic Populist Party, the linear descendant of Ataturk's single-party state.

On the October day designated to mark Ataturk's founding of the republic in 1923, 15,000 members of the Nurcu Islamic sect gathered at an Ankara mosque to remember their own leader. And on the eve of the hallowed Nov. 10 anniversary of Ataturk's death, hundreds of members of another powerful sect, the Nakshibendis, held a seminar in an old Byzantine cathedral in central Istanbul.

The aging but still powerful Kemalist elite accuses Turkish President Turgut Ozal and his family of encouraging the reappearance of the Islamic sects, conservative, Masonic-like societies banned by Ataturk more than 60 years ago.

Ozal, 64, makes no secret that he wants to break the stiff mold of Kemalism. He has steadily downgraded the role of the army, the main guardian of the ideology, and has even inspected troops while wearing a T-shirt. Like many others, he invokes Ataturk's name when it suits him but distances himself from those who have almost set Ataturk up as a god.

"I am no stereotyped Ataturkist. . . . Ataturk did good things, and he made mistakes. The only faultless being is God," Ozal said in Konya, the chief religious city of Turkey, before attending the annual mystic ceremony of Turkey's whirling dervishes.

Ozal noted that he had put an end to arcane ceremonies such as one on Turkey's Black Sea coast that annually had men struggling through the waves carrying a bronze bust of Ataturk in honor of his arrival in 1919 at the start of the war of independence.

At 9:05 every Nov. 10, the anniversary of Ataturk's death in 1938, whistles and sirens blow all over the country. Many Turks still stand respectfully at attention for a minute's silence, even by their cars in the middle of highways.

But in 1988, Ozal relaxed the severe code of mourning that shut all restaurants and bars for the day, and observance of the ceremony seems to be waning. Some who do not necessarily approve of Ozal agree with such liberalization.

"Society has been condemned to adolescence because of this all-powerful father figure," said leftist writer Murat Belge, adding that Ataturk was exploited by his successors to create an elite that could rule unquestioned over a closed-off country.

Belge identified the elite as an alliance of officers, senior bureaucrats and academics. Turkish politics was "like a school pillow fight, waiting for the army to sound its prefect's whistle," he said.

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