As promised, a post about Turkey, considering that's how this blog was originally intended to be.
Back in 1999, just before the earthquake struck that flattened the region round Izmit, and officially killed 20,000 (although the real figure was almost certainly double that - however, 20,000 was the limit beyond which disaster funds would have had to be released by the government to assist, and they had no intention of doing that), that earthquake where the death figure was so high because government cronies, cowboy builders, get-rich quick merchants and generally crooked scum had built buildings out of sub-standard materials, back then, one of my better classes asked me what I thought of Ataturk. His picture stared down at me, as it does in every classroom, office, and workplace in the Turkish Republic: This particular one was of him with careworn blue eyes, moustached, looking off to the left, wearing what is called an English Jacket in Turkey, his face pensive, almost as if he was trying to work out the same question that my students had asked me.
I paused before I gave my answer. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, General, Leader, Teacher, Father, is a revered figure, even though he had died in 1938. He is a ubiquitous presence, a reminder of what was won, carved out of the wreckage that was the Ottoman Empire under its bloated, vain, witless leaders, of the hard bargains done, and a promise of what can be.
'I believe', I said, 'that Ataturk was a great leader.'
The atmosphere in the room eased. I'd given the answer they wanted to hear.
'However,' I continued, 'I'm not sure he was a good politician'.
It went very, very silent after that. I carried on.
'He was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. He was a brilliant military commander, and he commanded affection and loyalty. He led, and others followed happily. He, and he alone, created the Turkish Republic. He made the ENTIRE country learn to use the Latin script in six months flat, increasing literacy by 90%, and that meant that your grandparents and parents could study, go on to university, and make a richer, better country. He gave women the vote. He separated the state from religion, and he created a judicial code that ensured, in theory, equality before the law. For all these things, yes, he was a great leader.'
The class waited, silent.
'But, a good politician? I don't think so - why? Because he wasn't a man who liked to compromise: His word was the law, and he wasn't that interested in many other people's opinions. He was a military man, a man used to being obeyed, and that doesn't always make for good politicians, because a politician has to be able to compromise, negotiate, be flexible. Ataturk would have seen that as being weak-spirited.
The other thing, the greatest tragedy, was that he drank himself to death, in effect - and that was a tragedy for him personally, for all of Turkey, and, I think, for the whole Middle East.'
I'm not sure how well that last bit went down, nor, to be honest, how my Turksih friends and colleagues will react to seeing it written here, but that was how I thought at the time, and, a few gaps in my knowledge that have been filled since then notwithstanding, not far from how I feel today.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was, without doubt, the Búyúk Ónder (Great Leader) and, I believe, thoroughly deserves the honorific of Father of the Country (despite that appellation being previously used by, among others, Gaius Julius Caesar). However, I can't help but feel that he was not the best of politicians, and unfortunately, this problem of Leadership and Politician still pervades Turkish politics today.
Turkey loves Strong Male Leaders - even Tansu Ciller, the first female prime minister and throughly rotten, corrupt leader, played up the Strong Man Role. The current incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has arguably taken this attitiude to ever more absurd levels, to the points that certain commentators accuse him of wishing to become a new Ottoman Padishah, and indeed, he has talked about the rise of a new Ottoman Empire. Erdogan is leader of the AKP, a 'mildly' Islamist party that has become increasingly authoritarian over the past ten years, imprisoning more journalists and writers than any other country, and resurrecting the war against the PKK and the Kurds in the southeast. This is a party that has placed internet filters meaning that school children cannot access controversial things such as Charles Darwin, for example. This is a party that has outlawed abortion. This is a party that sees conspiracy everywhere, and which has become increasingly, hysterically, antisemitic, and has passed the contagion of Conspiracy Theory to every corner of the land.
When I look at my Turkish friends' and colleagues' threads on Facebook, I can't help but see that political and religious opinion have become incredibly fiercely divided, perhaps worse than it was in the late 70's, and I can't help but think that it is squarely the fault of the AKP and their decade-long rule. And a phrase I see again and again is this:
'Where is Ataturk?'
I understand this sentiment - the need for the hero to rise and save the day: After all, it's universal - the cowboy in the white hat, King Arthur rising from his slumber of centuries, William Tell appearing with his crossbow - but the problem with this kind of yearning is that it ignores the obvious answer.
What is that answer?
Well, it very much depends on whether you want 'Great' or if you want 'Good'.
'Great' is for a short time: Someone comes in a time of crisis, leads, and seeks to solve the problems faced by a country or a society, or a group of people. The problem with this is that Greatness is addictive, both for those who wish to be great and for those who seek someone Great to lead them. It is not always the correct way to govern, as a Great Leader is someone who expects to be obeyed in all things political, religious, etihical and moral, just as Erdogan and the AKP have styled themselves.
'Good', by contrast, is for the long term - it may be hesitant; it may ponder; it may be conservative (with a small 'c'), for fear of causing more harm than good; but ultimately, good governance is all about considering the needs of society as a whole rather than the whims, religion, ethics or morality of a tiny ruling elite, no matter how egalitarian they try to make themselves seen.
And going back to what I said to my students about Ataturk, I said something else:
'I believe that he did everything he did for the sake of his countrymen - not for Turkey, but for Turks. He did what he did for people: the great shame for this Great Leader is that he never gave himself the opportunity to be Good, if you see what I mean.'
And there's the answer to the question - 'Where is Ataturk?' He was the father; It's the children's job to carry on where he left off, and be the Good Politicians, each and every one - so, my Turkish friends and colleagues, you yourselves are the answer to the question - it's up to you to make it happen. Turkey needs and deserves good leadership, not men who want to be Great.