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International Herald Tribune Commentary Article “What happened when I criticized Ataturk”
December 13, 2006—No. 88 (202) 785-8430

International Herald Tribune Commentary Article
“What happened when I criticized Ataturk”

by Atilla Yayla

Washington, DC—Below please find an article appearing in the Editorial & Commentary section of the December 7, 2006 edition of theInternational Herald Tribune regarding the lack of freedom of expression in Turkey, titled, “What happened when I criticized Ataturk” by Atilla Yayla.

“I bring this significant article to the attention of our members and friends highlighting Turkey’s continued lack of progress in truly being a democratic nation,” said AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis.

Freedom of expression in Turkey

By Atilla Yayla

ANKARA: What is the defining line between a civilized and uncivilized country? In my own experience in Turkey since Nov. 19, it is freedom of expression: I have been accused of treason in the press and suspended from my university for defending the common values of civilization and re-evaluating Turkey's history.

I am an academic, a university professor, studying politics, political philosophy and political economy. On Nov. 18, I spoke on a panel in the western coastal city of Izmir organized by the local branch of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

I explained a definition I call the "common civilization paradigm": it requires private property, free exchange, limited and responsible accountable government, freedom of expression, religious freedom including minorities and non-believers, the absence of political crimes in law, political opposition, the rule of law and freedom of association, leading to horizontal instead of vertical leadership and cooperation.

Applying it to Turkey, I said that despite widespread official propaganda, the single-party era between 1925-1945, led mainly by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was not as progressive as it is claimed and was, in some respects, backward.

There were only 37 participants in the panel, including a local journalist. She asked whether she had misheard my statement that Kemalism was somehow backward. I replied that she had not misunderstood me, and said we needed to discuss these such issues calmly and without animosity.

Turkey's application to join the European Union can only push these issues to the fore, I added. Europeans who see the ubiquitous representations of Ataturk here will ask: "Why are the same man's pictures and statues everywhere?"

Finally, I said I would like a reasoned debate on my views with Kemalists, but feared it was unlikely. I would be proved right the following day.

I expected a bad headline in her newspaper, Yeni Asir, but it surpassed my expectations: I was declared a traitor who "swore at and insulted Ataturk." This was the beginning of a press and TV campaign along the same lines.

Gazi University, instead of defending academic freedom, suspended me for my statements—and for leaving the city limits of the university without official permission. An investigation is sure also to uncover evidence of failing "to educate Turkish students in accordance with Ataturk's principles and revolutions," the legal basis of education here.

The secretary general of the Turkish Youth Association, Osman Yilmaz, has called on the Higher Education Board to dismiss me from public office and the academic profession, saying I had taken up "the campaign of lies and slander of U.S. and EU authorities against Ataturk and the Republic of Turkey."

"Nobody can hide behind freedom of expression to promote hostility against Ataturk," Yilmaz added.

After my fear and panic in the first few days, I think I now understand why this is happening.

I am a well-known classical liberal. I openly defend human rights for everybody. That naturally includes the rights of Kurds and conservative Muslims.

The Kemalists hate my attitude, but they are not able to challenge and refute my ideas. Their opportunity came with this event and they turned my criticism of Kemalism into an insult against Ataturk.

But Turkish journalists, cartoonists, writers and academics face more than just state ideology and trial by media. Law 5816 prohibits publicly "insulting Ataturk's memory." Just to be sure, Article 301 of the penal code stipulates prison for "public denigration of Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey" or "the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security structures."

Now, I am not a politician, addressing the masses in their thousands. I usually speak in academic circles. In the panel, I made an analysis and it is true that it was critical of Kemalism.

But I am an academic: To doubt, to criticize and to evaluate is my job. Nobody can play god or hold eternal truth in his hands. What mankind in general and Turkey in particular need is free competition in ideas and paradigms.

Freedom of expression is important for everybody, but for academics it is our very life. Until my ideas are refuted rationally I stand by them—because I love Turkey and I want it to be a civilized country.

Atilla Yayla, professor of political theory and economy at Gazi University in Ankara, is president of the Association for Liberal Thinking.


For additional information, please contact Georgia Economou at (202) 785-8430 or For general information regarding the activities of AHI, please view our Web site at