Izmir and its Discontents

This article, Encountering Fascism, by Beril Dedeoglu, reminded me of some of the more depressing aspects of my time in my beloved Izmir, where I spent a year before moving to Istanbul.

In some quarters, Izmir is know as the "Kemalist castle" as its populace is still fiercely loyal to the state apparatus, the founding regime and the personality cult of Mustafa Kemal. In this year's elections for example, where Turkey gave the AKP a record landslide of more than 50%, Izmir was one of only seven counties to vote for the CHP. When I asked their verdict on the results, most of my friends simply declared that the country was full of "uneducated" people dragging the country to an Islamic Republic, much like the woman featured in the report.

Criticism of the current government is by no means without reason, but in Izmir it is fueled by a fanaticism for the state unheard of elsewhere in Turkey. I have seen people cry at pictures of Ataturk, present on every wall and public space, I have been to Republic day ceremonies that overcrowd the largest stadiums and include hour and a hour speeches by the founder, accompanied by constant standing ovation. I have been faced with bewilderment by young students who assume my not loving the ex-dictator must only owe to my country's corrupt history books, and nothing to do with my stance of general criticism for public figures.

This is all rooted in recent history, and the nature of a populace whom, like many parts of western Anatolia, cannot trace their roots to the city back more than 80 years. Most of those living there are descendants of those Greek and Balkan Muslims who were transported across the Aegean during the tumultuous population exchange legitimised by the Lausanne treaty.

From my observations, the population exchange demonstrates the city's loyalty to the state for three reasons, 1) the people's links to their homelands were severed instantly and finally, making the nationalisation policies successful as the only means of forming an identity, 2) despite much racial/religious tolerance in the former Ottoman territories, the threat of ethnic violence was real and made reversion to former identities impossible, 3) due to much interaction with other religions/communities in their former lands, the in-coming Muslims were much less strict in their new Anatolian neighbours and, 4) due to point 2, Ataturk's image as a saviour of the nation was very literal and personal in connotations, and due to point 3, there was not much challenge to his aggressive challenges to religious practices and cultural heritage.

Although parts of the city, like my old stomping ground of Bornova, have developed into booming clubbing districts in the last ten years, for most Izmirians "istisnalar kaideyi bozmaz"; new regulations like those governing internet usage and age of consumption, reveal the government's sinister Islamist plot in spite of a relaxed drinking culture.

At least Izmir's citizens are better informed than most on the downsides to socially conservative reforms made to appease the distinctly non-Kemalist AKP's Anatolian base, but because any and every government move is instantly repelled, the nature of the attacks inevitably tend towards hypocrisy. Any notion that Izmir's 'European' way of life should not come under attack from government, fails to translate to empathy for those ways of life transgressed by Kemalist regimes (namely ethnic minority rights and religious/women's rights).

Another more frequent example comes in the exploitation of idolation of Mustafa Kemal, when posited against the criticisms lodged towards those who blindly vote for religious parties. One example I will give is when I was sitting in the staff room of my old school whilst another teacher was reading the newspaper.

It was the spring of 2010, and Izmir's public enemy number one - Prime Minister Erdogan - was due to appear in Argentina for trade talks. In line with the visit, Erdogan was to unveil a statue of Ataturk erected in Buenos Aries. However, due to pressure from the Armenian community, hostile to all things Turkish, the project was cancelled and so, in a display of faux-autrage, the whole visit was cancelled and relations were momentarily put on ice.

My colleague, having read the story aloud, then emphatically exclaimed "afferin sana" - go you! It should be emphasised that this was 1) a teacher, and 2) an Izmirian. She was thus making the point that this was a splendid and logical move, despite striking many (me included) as rather false.

In the Izmirian view, the crass use of religion for political purposes can be identified from a mile off, however it is a given fact that the attachment for Ataturk is always a genuinely emotive one. If someone exploits the fetishisation of Ataturk for political purposes they can go on undetected. Who would doubt their commitment to the dear leader?


  1. Interesting article but I am not sure if your point is clear. Ataturk is idolized (and idealized) by large segments of the population, not merely Izmirians. And a study of his life and works is an impressive list of accomplishments, especially at a time when Turkish people were in abject despair, occupied by foreign armies that had effectively carved out their own little colonies. Taking that back, and establishing a new nation based on secular principles probably deserves some sense of gratitude. You may call it a fetish and overblown but it should not on the other hand be underrated either.

    Kemal's emphasis on secularism came at a cost to Turkish society, that is, a certain dependence on the military to safeguard its continued existence. Did the military eventually misuse this trust? Undoubtedly. Did it deserve to be brought down? Probably.
    Still it is important to note, the story continues and when one fetish is replaced by a new one, then a healthy sense of skepticism about what leaders are doing today and their possible agenda is not such a bad thing.

    By the way, hypocrasy = A comic misspelling of "hypocrisy" as defined by butthurt forum-goers trying to insult other members. Can be the source of multiple lulz and simultaneous embarrassment by the user trying to appear smart for using a four-syllable word. :)

  2. Thank you for pointing out the grammatical error. Twice... No need to rub it in though :-)

    Perhaps I take it as a given that defending Anatolia from occupation was splendid. We shall have to agree to disagree on whether this merits being given such vast post-war power. Especially the abject pain furthered as a result.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Sorry about sounding waspish. I was only teasing about the spelling error. If I didn't have spell-check to help me along, my posts would all look like graffiti! That definition came from the Urban dictionary, by the way. I live in my own glass house, rest assured.

    Re Kemal:
    If it had only been defending Anatolia then I would agree more. But his views toward women's rights are expressed in this remark:

    "Women must have the right to vote and to be elected; because democracy dictates that, because there are interests that women must defend, and because there are social duties that women must perform."

    The revolutionary idea of separating the religion from the rule of law and the government administration. In fact he believed that politics polluted religion according this remark to the national assembly in 1924:

    "the religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past."

    I admire his strong emphasis on education too.
    "Teachers" he said, "are the one and only people who save nations."

    (Not to mention the introduction of the Latin alphabet.)

    Kemal's words are not merely artifacts of a past age. Consider the difference between the Iraqi invasion and the Arab spring and then his quote:
    "Sovereignty is not given, it is taken."

    All of these things are, or should be sources of pride, whether they live in Izmir or elsewhere. It is perfectly right. I can't imagine a modern Turkey without the existence of Mustafa Kemal. I am not even sure it would have survived as a nation at all.

    I found the Ataturk worship a bit excessive at times, of course. But then, as with so many observations about Turkish culture, it made me pause to reflect. Why, for example, there is so little appreciation of past leaders in my own culture. I am not speaking of adoration but simple respect. You can't think of Kennedy, for example, without thinking of sexual peccadillo and Marilyn Monroe. Which is sort of a shame when you go back and read some of his speeches.

    If idolization is, at times, dangerous, then forgetting the achievements of the past and the inspirational acts and words of leaders can be a dangerous thing too. It limits our vision about what can be achieved, I think.

    For instance, Teddy Roosevelt is largely forgotten today but his war with monopolies and big corporations provides us with some important models today.

    Franklin Roosevelt's use of some aspects of socialism to relieve the suffering of the poor during the Great Depression is another example of history that should be remembered and respected. (That is, if you believe history as a field of study is important at all.)

    Lots of examples in Western culture of this kind of hero demolition, which gives us "nothing to backward to with pride and nothing to follow to with hope."

    In fact, I don't disagree with much of what you wrote. There is no ONE truth about about Turkey and its culture, both of which look simple and straightforward on the surface but hide a more interesting complexity just below the appearances.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts and your observations.