Secular Democracy and Turkey

With the United States Capitol Building, symbolic of secular independence standing as a beacon of democracy in the background, a crowd of approximately one thousand — Turks, Turkish Americans and Turkophiles — walked in solidarity with the young protestors occupying Gezi Park in Istanbul.

June 2013 was not a good month for secular democracy in Turkey!

The United States was founded 237 years ago by group genius, by the likes of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison… all children of the Enlightenment, along with one military hero who became the symbolic “Father of the Nation.” In distinction the modern Turkish Republic was established 90 years ago, resurrected from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, by a single genius, Kemal Ataturk. After proving himself invincible as a military tactician, Ataturk launched a plethora of Western-style reforms, including the equality of genders and secular governance. In psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig’s monumental book, King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership, he stands at the pinnacle of all the national leaders of the 20th century. For most Turkish Nationals, Ataturk incorporated all the assets of the gifted group that had created the United States. In the closing days of the 20th century, when the editors of Time Magazine asked its readers to nominate the “Individual of the 20th century,” they were so inundated by Ataturk nominations that they had to close off the nomination process. (The choice of the editors was Albert Einstein, a symbol for the “Century of Science.”)

An unfortunate, but necessary provision in the constitution that Ataturk authored was the charge to the Army with having to serve as the guarantor of the constitution and of the secular nature of the nation. The series of blogs I’ve written for National Geographic Newswatch, include the following about Ataturk:

“Einstein’s Letter to Ataturk’s Turkey”
“Einstein and Ataturk (Part I)”
“Remembering Gallipoli I: Anzac Day 2011”

Although it was an imperfect democracy, Ataturk’s secular and Western-leaning Republic of Turkey represented a system infinitely superior to the one that has followed it in the past eleven years. Beginning in 2002 the newly elected AK Party immediately began the systematic dismantling of Ataturk’s reforms. Initially, Europe and America both saw Prime Minister Erdogan as a fresh face, a moderate Islamic leader in the sea of fundamentalists threatening to take power in the Middle East and North Africa. Western media and Western politicians have given Erdogan a pass that has allowed him greater room to maneuver. They failed to heed his words: “The 21st Century will see the Islamic Nation gain its premier position in the world.” In the last 2-3 years Mr. Erdogan’s Counter-Reformation has been accelerating. Speculations that he is establishing an Iranian-style Islamic Government, however, are only partially correct. The Parliament that he controls is on course to convert the Parliamentary System to a Presidency, not unlike the Russian-style Presidency à la Putin. Many, however, speculate that he ultimately seeks to reconstitute the ancient Ottoman Empire, a caliphate ruled by Sharia Law—and to crown himself the next Sultan.

On May 31, 2013 Turkish youth occupied Gezi Park next to Taksim Square. The government had announced plans to demolish the park and in its place to build an Ottoman Era Army Barracks and Museum, an adjoining shopping mall, and a mosque. To the young people this was the last straw. They were there not just to protest the bulldozing of a park. The destruction of a park in the urban center of Istanbul, after all, was no more significant than the bulldozing of Central Park in New York to create additional commercial property. Mr. Erdogan and his government were guilty of the systematic destruction of secular democracy.

Changing Planet

Bulent Atalay, a scientist, artist and author, has been described by NPR, PBS and the Washington Post as a “Modern Renaissance Man.” He is the author of two successful books on the intersection of art, science and mathematics, with Leonardo, the pre-eminent Renaissance man, serving as the foil. His best selling book, "Math and the Mona Lisa," (Smithsonian Books, 2004) has appeared in 13 languages. Professor Atalay's academic background is in theoretical physics. He travels around the world lecturing at academic institutions and on cruise ships on the "A-subjects," art, archaeology, astrophysics, atomic physics and Ataturk, confessing that he knows much less about the "B-subjects," business, banking, biology and botany... He is the President of the Ataturk Society of America (ASA), dedicated to promoting Ataturk's ideals of science and reason over dogma and superstition, of a secular state with full equality of genders. For more details click on Bulent Atalay