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Questioning Ataturk lands liberal academic in trouble

Monday 8 January 2007, by Suzan Frazer

Source : AP, 4-01-2007

When Atilla Yayla, a professor of political science, questioned the legacy of the revered founder of modern Turkey, nationalists called him a traitor and his university suspended him. He could not eat or sleep for days.

“There was a lynching campaign against me,” he recalled recently in his office surrounded by books on liberal thought.

Yayla said he was punished for shattering a taboo: daring to criticize Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a leader so loved and idolized that his portraits hang in all government offices, his statues adorn parks and squares, and his ideas are still the republic’s most sacred principles 68 years after his death.

As an academic, I must be free to think, to search and share findings,” Yayla, 50, said in an interview at the Ankara-based Association for Liberal Thinking, an organization he co-founded in 1994. “If Turkey wants to be a civilized country, academics must be able to scientifically criticize and evaluate Atatürk’s ideas.

But his ordeal shows how Turkish universities, most of them state-controlled, are not always places where ideas float freely. Anyone deviating from the set of principles — including a strict interpretation of secularism — inspired by Atatürk and closely guarded by the military, the bureaucracy and judiciary, is chastised and in some cases, sacked.

His troubles are a reminder of how Turkey, despite aspiring to join the European Union, is still grappling with basic freedoms — one of the main problems it must address if it wants to realize its European ambitions.

Novelist Orhan Pamuk, before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, was forced to stand trial after a group of ultranationalist lawyers accused him of “insulting Turkishness” for telling a Swiss newspaper that one million Armenians were killed on Turkish territory — a historical detail disputed by many Turks.

The trial was dropped on a technicality.

Another writer, Ipek Çalislar, also went on trial and was acquitted in December of charges that he insulted Atatürk by claiming in a biography of Atatürk’s estranged wife that the leader fled an assassination attempt dressed in women’s clothing.

Atatürk was a soldier and statesman who founded secular and Westward-looking Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 after emerging as a national hero for his efforts to save the country from occupying powers.

He set about on a series of secular reforms that imposed Western laws, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned Islamic dress and granted women the right to vote. The country he founded frequently is touted as an example that a democracy can exist in a predominantly Muslim country.

Regulations require that his portraits hang in government offices and schools, but Turks’ affection for him is so great that many also have his picture in their homes, shops and offices.

Life stops for a minute every year at 9:05 a.m. on Nov. 10 — the time of his death — with sirens wailing, motorists honking their horns and people standing in silence to mourn Atatürk.

Yayla insisted he was not insulting Atatürk but questioning his legacy, as well as the rigid way some followers interpret his principles to oppose liberal reforms and impose strict secular laws such as the ban on headscarves at universities.

Some people have created a cult of Atatürk, but by doing this what they want to do is not to revere Atatürk but rather to ... give themselves an undisputed position in political life,” he said. “That is what I cannot accept.

Yayla said in his Nov. 18 speech that the era of one-party rule under Ataturk, from 1925 to 1945, was not as progressive as the official ideology would have Turks believe but was “regressive in some respects.”

He criticized the statues and pictures of Atatürk, saying Europeans would be baffled to see the portraits of just one man on the walls.

Ankara’s Gazi University was inundated with fax messages accusing Yayla of treason and demanding that he be sacked after the speech, delivered at a panel discussion organized by the youth wing of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo»an’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Aegean port of Izmir.

Gazi’s chancellor, Kadri Yamaç, bowed to the pressure and temporarily removed Yayla from his teaching post pending the outcome of an investigation, saying a professor “does not have to like Atatürk but I cannot allow a person who is opposed to the republic’s main principles to educate students.

We are ashamed of ... the so-called scientist to whom insulting Atatürk is freedom of speech,” Lale Sivgin, a columnist for the nationalist Yeniçag newspaper, wrote in November.

In separate commentary in December, she accused the professor of forgetting an allegiance some academics make to Atatürk when receiving their diplomas.

Since (he is) preoccupied with the Atatürk pictures that hang on walls instead of serving the country, it is obvious that (he has) forgotten his pledge,” Sivgin wrote.

The professor also has his supporters. A group of protesters wearing masks bearing Yayla’s image sent the university chancellor a parcel containing sticky tape — to “gag professors.”

Academics signed a petition to have him reinstated and to counter petitions, mostly by nationalists, who say Yayla should not be allowed to teach.

Nevertheless, the professor said he was so upset that he was rushed to hospital with high blood pressure.

I couldn’t sleep for four nights and I couldn’t eat for five days, and in the end my body collapsed,” Yayla said. “They didn’t defend my academic freedom; instead, they wanted to execute me without a trial.

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