TO the thousands of Australians eagerly anticipating attending the Gallipoli centenary commemoration next year, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk remains a potent historical figure. Not so, however, for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who not only is attempting to write the reformist Young Turk out of history but also openly supports the terrorist organisation Hamas.
Though it’s not in the tourist brochures, this is the reality confronting those who are now visiting Turkey and facing those proposing to make the trip in 2015.
Ataturk, until recently, was credited with dragging his nation out of the mediaevalist Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of WWI and placing it firmly on the path to become a modern secular nation.
Though best-known to Australians for his leadership of the Turkish forces at Gallipoli and his moving words of comfort and reconciliation offered to the mothers of the foreign soldiers lost in battle, he pushed the mullahs firmly into the background, gave his nation the Roman alphabet and promoted equality of opportunity for women.
Cleverly, he thwarted the imams who were concerned he would ban the burqa.
After giving a group of Islamic scholars assurance that he would do no such thing, he announced that henceforth all prostitutes must wear the concealing veil whenever they appeared in public.
Not only is the burqa making a comeback in Erdogan’s Turkey, so is fundamentalist Islam.
Reliant on the votes of rural Muslims, Erdogan is taking Turkey away from the West, straining its relationship with the NATO alliance of democracies and pushing it into the Sino-Russian Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
Eric Trager from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the Turkish leader is trying to use ties to the Muslim Brotherhood to bolster his Islamist credentials at home.
The Brotherhood and Hamas enjoy the support of just three nations — Turkey, Iran and Qatar.
Writing recently in The New York Times, not a newspaper given to widespread coverage of Australian culture and history, reporter Tim Arango explained the importance of Gallipoli to both Australia and Turkey, noting that the evacuation took place after nine months of horrific trench warfare in which more than 40,000 British military personnel were killed, along with nearly 8000 Australians and more than 60,000 Turks.
The legacy of Gallipoli, he noted, now transcends the military and for “Turks and the Australians, the Gallipoli campaign has taken on an out-size importance as the bloody event that became the foundation of a modern national identity.
“The campaign also proved crucial in the careers of two of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen: Winston Churchill, who was demoted for his role in the military disaster, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, then a young Turkish officer, whose battlefield success at Gallipoli propelled him to fame, which he built on to become the founder of the modern Turkish republic.
“Also taking his place in history was a young Australian newspaperman named Keith Arthur Murdoch, whose role in the Gallipoli story presaged, many decades later, the global rise of another Murdoch newsman, his son, Rupert.”
The NYT reporter said “in defeat, the Australians gained what many historians have described as the first embers of a national consciousness, apart from their British colonial legacy.
A view supported by Rupert Murdoch who told Arango: “(Gallipoli) is certainly seen today as the beginning of a real Australian self-identity.”
But in recent years, the reporter said, Turks have been engaged in an ideological contest over Gallipoli’s legacy. With the rise of the country’s Islamist government under Prime Minister Erdogan have come efforts to diminish the role of Ataturk, who established Turkey under secular principles.
The military, which once enjoyed a predominant role over politics in Turkey, has also been pushed aside under Mr Erdogan.
As a result, he wrote, the Gallipoli campaign is being recast as a holy war and has become one more element in the polarisation of Turkey, split between the secular and the religious.
“The Islamists say, ‘We defeated the infidels,’” said Kenan Celik, a longtime tour guide of Gallipoli’s battlefields. “The Kemalists say the imperialists. It’s two different interpretations.”
Many conservative Turkish municipal governments have been organising free battlefield tours, with a message pushed by guides, Celik told the newspaper, of “how great Islam is.”
“They come from central Anatolia,” Celik said of the flocks of religious tourists in recent years, with a measure of disgust. “They don’t have much education. They’ll believe in anything.”
Recently, two acquaintances confirmed the thrust of the NYT report in conversations with me.
Both had visited Turkey and hired guides to take them to the Gallipoli national park and both, unprompted, told me how their guides, both of whom were historians, had told them that the government was actively dissuading guides from mentioning Ataturk’s role in the Dardanelles campaign.
Both said their guides had said the government preferred a different version of history which credited the Turkish victory to the power of Islam.
This is revisionism on a scale equal to that practised by the former USSR and Communist China.
Modern Turkey has welcomed Australian visitors making the trek to the sandy ravines where many of the best of a generation of young Australians died.
The consoling words of the victor, Ataturk, which make no mention of Islam or Allah, mean as much to mankind today as they did when they were written nearly a century ago.
In dousing the beacon of the Ataturk enlightenment, the current Turkish leaders are dragging their nation backward into the burqaed past of slaves and caliphates, believers and infidels.
It is a tribute to our liberal democracy that we honour Ataturk with a statue in Canberra while Turkey’s current rulers try to devalue his contribution and denigrate his memory.