Turkey's Tattoo Politics

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Every year on November 10, at exactly 9:05 a.m., Europe's biggest city comes to a halt. Air raid sirens begin to blare. Pedestrians freeze in their tracks. Schools, factories, and government offices suspend work to observe two minutes of silence. On Istanbul's massive thoroughfares, cars, buses and trucks screech to a stop, their drivers and passengers spilling out onto the street, many of them teary eyed, to stand to attention.

Only a handful of world leaders are said to be able to stop traffic while in town. The founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk--for it is his memory that Turks honor each November--continues to do so more than 70 years after his death.

With a résumé like his, small wonder. It was Ataturk who stopped the Western powers from carving the Ottoman Empire into pieces after the end of the First World War. Triumphant, endowed with near absolute power, and convinced that Turkey would have to adapt or die, it was also he who engineered its transformation from a crumbling Islamic empire to a secular republic. In the process, Ataturk did away with the 1,292-year-old caliphate, traded the Arabic alphabet for the Latin one, and ensured that Turkish women would earn the right to vote well before many of their counterparts in the West. Conservative Turks might privately resent Ataturk's imposition of a system that relegated religion exclusively to the private sphere and made it not separate from but subservient to the state--a brand of secularism even harsher than France's--but they still worship him as their country's hero and savior.

For Emre Aribulan, an employee at Shadows--a tattoo parlor near Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's main pedestrian drag--Ataturk has begun to translate into a business opportunity. Young Turks are flooding shops like his to have Ataturk's likeness--or his signature--permanently inked onto their chests, shoulders, or forearms. Emre, himself a self-avowed Kemalist (as Ataturk's devotees call themselves), is delighted. "Just last week I had four people come in for an Ataturk tattoo," he says.

"I had mine done when I lived in Berlin," says Gurcan, age 23. "I wanted my friends in Germany to ask me why I got it, what it means, to ask me about Ataturk. I could talk to them about it for hours." Gurcan waxes lyrical about his hero. "For Turks, Ataturk opened the way to modernity. There has never been a man like him, and there probably never will be."

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The growing popularity of tattoos like the one that adorns Gurcan's forearm is only one sign of Ataturk's reemergence as a weapon in Turkey's increasingly vicious culture wars. Many Turks perceive a "creeping Islamization" under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and as the backlash grows, Ataturk's image has become omnipresent at anti-government demonstrations. The threat posed to his legacy by Prime Minister Taiypp Erdogan and the religiously conservative AKP has become one of the secular opposition's main rallying cries. The Ataturk cult has sometimes evolved in unexpected ways. At a lingerie shop in Nisantasi, Istanbul's pricey shopping district, the owner has hung a picture of Ataturk--captioned with a quote of his that reads, "Know that the Turkish republic cannot be a country of sheiks, dervishes, and disciples"--directly above a set of push-up bras.

"We love Ataturk," says Ayse, her left forearm bearing Ataturk's trademark signature, "but the tattoo is also a symbol and a protest against Erdogan and his ilk, the Islamists."

"These people want to want to divide Turkey," adds one of her friends. "That's because they're Jewish agents."

The young woman's casual anti-Semitism points to a peculiar paradox of modern Turkey.  Conspiracy theories are the Turks' daily bread, but they have acquired a particular stronghold over a part of society that considers itself Turkey's enlightened vanguard. While Ataturk's devotees have adopted the Western lifestyle, they have been slow--at least slower than the new Muslim elites--to adopt the Western discourse on issues like pluralism, minority rights, and religious freedom.

The AKP government has increasingly catered to the interests of its conservative base, yet it has done more for Turkish democracy than any of its predecessors. It has banned the death penalty, eased restrictions on freedom of speech, expanded cultural rights for the Kurdish minority, and opened negotiations for Turkish membership in the European Union. Throughout it all, the Kemalists have more often than not appeared as a brake on the country's democratization. "They are now the most isolationist, anti-democratic force in society," says Murat Belge, a professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University.

He has a point. Turkey's powerful military, the self-appointed guardian of Ataturk's legacy, has taken part in four coups d'état during the last half-century. Each time around, it has done so with Ataturk's name on its lips. Portraits and murals of Ataturk--his hair slicked back, his face hard and stern, his cheeks sunken, his gaze indomitable under a pair of raised Bela Lugosi eyebrows--adorn just about every public building, university, post office, and sports facility. His picture appears in restaurants, barber shops, and cafes all over the country. It is featured on all Turkish banknotes. And according to a 1951 law forbidding crimes against Ataturk, those who dare tarnish his good name are liable to face prison terms ranging from one to three years.

In 2008, a Turkish academic received a suspended prison sentence of 15 months for suggesting, during an academic discussion, that the early Turkish republic was not as progressive as portrayed in official books. Even YouTube has fallen foul of the Ataturk law. In early 2007, a group of Greek Internet users posted several videos on YouTube in which they depicted Ataturk as a homosexual. Turkish civilians were outraged, an unsurprising response given local attitudes. But what was less expected was the response by the Turkish judiciary. Rather than negotiate the removal of the material or simply put up with it, a Turkish court decided to ban access to YouTube altogether. (On October 31 of this year, access to YouTube was finally restored after the offending videos were removed. Seventy-two hours later, it was blocked once again.)

Given the YouTube ban, one could surmise that Turks' love for Ataturk and everything he stood for is not a matter of choice but of compulsion. But don't tell that to the young man who posted a ghastly YouTube video of himself painting a portrait of Ataturk with his own blood. And don't tell it to any of the tattooed Kemalists. Their commitment to Ataturk, they will tell you, is a matter of responsibility--not even to Ataturk himself, but to a secular Turkey that, in their eyes, is slipping away.

Back in his tattoo shop, Emre points to a design of Ataturk's signature. "Usually, a tattoo of this kind would cost 250 to 300 lira ($180-$215)," he says. "We charge only 150 to 200. If it were up to me, as opposed to the boss, we'd be doing them for free."

Photos by the author

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Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer for Time, Foreign Policy, and Polityka.

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