On October 29, 1923, Mustafa Kamal (later called "Ataturk," father of the Turks) proclaimed the Republic of Turkey as a pure nation-state for the Turks by abolishing the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. Kamal introduced a form of secular fundamentalism, wrenching Turkey from its Islamic roots. Kamalism has since replaced Islam as Turkey's state religion, enforced by its high priests, the generals of the military.
Imagine President Clinton announcing the following today: "From this moment, all Americans must read in Chinese instead of in Latin letters, dress in Buddhist or Arabian clothing, use the Iranian calendar instead of the Western one and never speak a language without the approval from the White House." As Howard University Professor Sulayman Nyang once noted, this is exactly what Mustafa Kamal announced and enforced for the people of Turkey 75 years ago.
To Westernize Turkey, Kamal introduced, among other things, laws that replaced the traditional fez with European-style hats, laws that denied Muslim women their right to wear modest Islamic-style clothing and laws that replaced the lunar Islamic calendar with the Gregorian one. Like Stalin in the Soviet Union, Kamal ruthlessly suppressed the expression of Islamic faith or practice in Turkey for two decades while promulgating his rhetoric of modernization saying that the Turkish republic would be a "modern, secular democracy" and that sovereignty would belong "unconditionally to the people."
Yet Kamal's legacy is in fact a mockery of democracy and the sovereignty of the people. During his lifetime, Kamal maintained an iron-fist autocratic rule. After his death in 1938, his generals continued to influence politics and control the flow of power whenever they willed. And four times in the last four decades, the military has toppled popularly elected governments.
Under the influence of this Kamalism, the Turkish republic has tallied one of the worst human rights records of the 20th century. Mazlumdar, a Turkish human rights organization, has recorded numerous violations of fundamental human rights by Turkish authorities. According to Mazlumdar, in 1997 alone, the Turkish authorities took 145 journalists into custody for what was deemed "wrong" reporting, arrested 114 men for wearing turbans and detained another 58 men for praying in assembly. In that same year, Mazlumdar says that Turkish generals ordered raids on 508 private schools that offer courses in Koranic study, shut down 312 Koran courses, dismissed 15 people from government jobs for being seen praying, raided 201 press offices, and closed/banned 149 publications.
In 1999, the military's push to ensure the predominance of a secular society has continued. Most recently, the Kamalist generals have focused their sights on Merve Kavakci, who was restricted from taking her parliamentary oath because she refused to remove her headscarf in the chambers of parliament. Turkish authorities have vowed to prosecute Kavakci on charges of inciting religious hatred. They are seeking to unseat Kavakci from her elected position and jail her for three years.
But despite the repression and press censorship of past and present, the Kamalist zealots have not been able to erase Turkey's Islamic identity. In the 1950s, for example, the Turkish people voted for a prime minister who had some sympathy for Islam; but watched him toppled and executed by the military in 1960. They watched the repeated banning of political parties that upheld their preferences for a modest return of Islamic values.
Now the Turkish people have once again shown their popular support for a politician who is unafraid to show her Islamic identity. And once again the Kamalists are stepping in to meddle in the affairs of state, calling Merve Kavakci's headscarf a "political statement."
Yes, Kavakci's headscarf is a political statement for Islam, which is the religion of preference for the people who elected her. The support that Kavakci has received from Muslim women throughout Turkey is making this statement loud and clear. The Kamalist elite can choke this voice but cannot erase it from the heart of the people. Nor can they control the minds of their fellow Turks.
Kavakci's resistance and the public's support for her, represent a testament to the reawakening that the Turkish people have been experiencing over recent years. It's a reawakening from the trauma into which the Kamalist revolution shocked them 75 years ago.
It's high time for humanity worldwide to respond positively to this reawakening. It is time for the United States to tell the Turkish ruling elite, their allies in "democracy," to respect the people's electoral choice. And it is time for people to realize that Kamalism is one of the last remaining dinosaurs of the autocratic breed of ideologies. It is time for Kamalism to go.
Mr. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department Communication Studies, CSU, Los Angeles