Atatürk, Teachers, and Turkey’s Image Abroad

That’s Istanbul

Turkey features a lot these days in the international news media, for reasons good and bad. For better or worse, Istanbul is once again taking its place as a world city and a hot tourist destination. Two recent mega movies locate at least some of their action in this ‘city of the world’s desire.’ The 50th anniversary offering from the Ian Fleming franchise ‘Skyfall’ has motorcycle-mounted Bond James Bond/Daniel Craig pursuing his foe over the rooftops of the five hundred year-old Grand Bazaar. ‘Taken 2’, an action pic involving ex-CIA man Liam Neeson saving his family from a gang of evil Albanians (they get a bad press too, don’t they!), spends more time in the city, but tends to focus, naturally enough, on the more oriental atmospheric parts of town.
While celebrity wisdom holds that any publicity is good publicity, there has been some criticism locally that the films pander to Western stereotypes of a culturally backward nation remarkable for little but its historical quaintness. The producers make no apology. Their purpose was not to advertise Turkey as a tourist destination, they said – and true enough. If you want to impart your own spin it’ll cost you. Free publicity comes with another price.
So I was heartened to see a report in our local newspaper quoting Turkey’s Minister of Culture and Tourism on the subject. The films may not have shown the whole Turkey, but what they did show is indisputably there. A democratic country doesn’t control what visitors see. If we don’t want visitors to see the decay and the backwardness, the solution, said Mr Günay, is in our own hands. Good for you, I thought. It seems to me also that the Minister’s government is prepared to put its money where its mouth is. Witness its work on restoring historical sites, developing public transport infrastructure and pushing ahead with urban renewal.
Undoubtedly much remains to be done, and clearly the Minister is as aware of that as I am. Residents of Western European cities often have a stereotypical picture of Turks based on the ones they see around them – down-trodden women and bearded men isolating themselves in cultural enclaves, stubbornly adhering to their own language and traditions. Europeanised Turks in their own cities sometimes have a similar view, resentful of the flood of immigrants from the small towns and villages of Anatolia who have altered the cultural landscape of Istanbul and other coastal cities in the last forty years.
Well, we have had a feast of republican fervour in recent weeks, as Turks, quite rightly, celebrated the foundation of their secular democratic state, and commemorated the passing of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This Saturday, schools around the country will pay tribute to the work of their educators, for whom the great man set aside that date, 24 November, as Teachers’ Day. In every public square and building in every corner of Turkey, you will see statues, busts, paintings and photographs of the nation’s first president. Yet he himself was adamant that to remember his physical appearance was not enough[1]. Building a great country required an understanding of his philosophy – and foremost in this was his assertion that the future of the republic lay in education[2]. The new generations that would follow in his footsteps would be moulded by the nation’s teachers – hence Teachers’ Day.
Unfortunately, it is easier to pay homage to portraits and statues than to find money for schools and hospitals, teachers and doctors and nurses. It is easier to criticise and belittle the backward and uneducated than to take responsibility for educating them and raising their living standards. The dominant contemporary economic wisdom insists that the market is the best organizer; and private enterprise the best provider. It doesn’t require a Harvard MBA, however, to understand that bottom-line accounting will inevitably focus on short-term profits at the expense of less tangible long-term goals – the very antithesis of what is required in the education and health sectors.
Sadly, vested business interests pull influential strings. ‘Tax cuts for the wealthy’ is another axiom of free market proponents – but until every individual or corporate entity in the country bears an equal burden of taxation, Atatürk’s dream of raising the entire nation to a state of modernity will remain just a dream. ‘Our new nation has no place for rigid social classes,’ he said. ‘The high class individual is the one who serves his or her nation.’[3]What follows from that is the understanding that merit, measured by service to the nation, will be rewarded. From my observation of private enterprise at work in the field of education, that is rarely the case. I am hopeful that lip-service to the memory of Atatürk is gradually being replaced by a genuine desire to work towards realizing his dream of greater equality for all in a civilized modern democratic republic, and I applaud the Minister of Culture and Tourism for his timely reminder.


[1] Beni görmek demek, mutlaka yüzümü görmek demek degildir. Benim fikirlerimi, benim duygularimi anliyorsaniz ve hissediyorsanız, bu yeterlidir.
[2] Öğretmenler, yeni nesil sizin eseriniz olacaktır.
[3] Millete efendilik yoktur. Ona hizmet etmek vardır. Bu millete hizmet eden onun efendisi olur.

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