The War of Mothers‎: The Struggle over Atatürk’‎‎s Legacy

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak analyzes the social media campaign to "convert ‎Old Turkey‎‎ into Erdoğan‎’‎‎s New Turkey."
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Turkish President Erdoğan with his mother in a picture that was part of the “Praise to mothers who gave birth to heros” campaign

Turkish President Erdoğan with his mother in a picture that was part of the “Praise to mothers who gave birth to heros” campaign. 

As discourse on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum victory and subsequent accusations of fraud has subsided, Turkish social networking sites’ (SNS) focus has returned to tension between the secular and Islamic publics. This tension was reflected in SNS users’ responses to Deep History,‎‎ a Turkish television program about the love life of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. From many Turks’ perspective, the program crossed a red line with its unprecedented portrayal of Atatürk’‎‎s personal life. Meanwhile, International Mother’‎‎s Day provided Erdoğan’s conservative supporters with another opportunity to challenge Atatürk‎’‎‎s legacy, attempting to replace Atatürk‎’‎‎s mother with Erdoğan‎’‎‎s mother as Turkey’‎‎s national mother.‎‎ The war of mothers‎‎ represents a further attempt to convert ‎Old Turkey‎‎ into Erdoğan‎’‎‎s New Turkey,‎‎ shifting the monopolies and shapes of major symbols of the past. This exemplifies the profound changes all areas of Turkish life have undergone during the past 15 years.

Producers of Deep History, which was broadcast on May 8 on TVNET, a Turkish television channel identified with the Erdoğan‎ administration, said that the program was intended to shed light on Atatürk’s undisclosed history. Deep History featured public figures oppositional to Atatürk, who made claims about his “‎‎gallery of lovers.”‎‎ For example, historian Süleyman Yeşilyurt claimed that Atatürk‎ had forbidden relations with his adopted daughter, the well-known historian Afet İnan, whom Yeşilyurt called “‎‎the undeclared wife of the president.”‎‎ To support this claim, the program’s participants used, inter alia, the proximity of their respective bedrooms as evidence. The program became the focus of considerable attention on SNS. Many secular users claimed that Deep History was defamatory, dishonoring the founder of the republic. In response, users added Atatürk’‎‎s picture to their Facebook profile pictures - a common sign of identification on SNS. Users called for a boycott of the magazine distributed by the program. Using the hashtag “‎Lawyers for the task‎,”[1]‎ users also called on pro-Atatürk attorneys to take legal action against the program. The Atatürk‎ Memory Protection Act, passed in 1951, provides for punitive measures in cases of physical or verbal violence against Atatürk‎’‎‎s legacy. The law, opposed by Turkish Islamists, received international attention in 2007, after the Turkish judiciary blocked national access to YouTube because a video posted on the site desecrated Atatürk’s legacy by portraying the republic’s founder as a dog. In order for the court order to be cancelled, reopening Turkish access to the popular site, Turkish companies were forced to acquire the rights to the video and remove it. Indeed, the secular public’s uproar in response to Deep History led to Yeşilyurt’s arrest.[2]

SNS discourse about slights to Atatürk‎’‎s legacy was reignited on International Mother’‎s Day, on May 14. Reflecting an integral element of the ‎Kemalist‎ secular heritage, many secular users posted pictures of Atatürk’s mother, Zübeyde Hanım, with captions like “‎Mothers can change the world,” and messages congratulating her for successfully raising a son destined to save the homeland from foreign occupiers. For many years, the image of Zübeyde Hanım has been embedded in the Turkish educational system. Zübeyde Hanım is presented as a role model for young mothers, considering her struggle to raise little Mustafa on her own after the death of her husband Ali Rıza. For Turks, Zübeyde Hanım carries deep symbolic significance, with many buildings in Turkey bearing her name. However, while secular users marked Mother’‎s Day with tributes to Atatürk‎’‎s mother, supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) instead praised Erdoğan‎'s mother, Tenzile Erdoğan, using the slogan “‎Praise mothers who gave birth to heroes.”‎ This campaign to unseat Zübeyde Hanım as mother of the nation, in favor of Tenzile Erdoğan, reflected an attempt to reorder Turkish society, coronating President Erdoğan‎ as founder of the ‎New Turkey.

Meanwhile, in addition to secular and Islamist users, other camps joined the war of mothers. Left-wing users praised the mothers of journalist Uğur Mumcu, poet Nâzım Hikmet, and fighter Deniz Gezmiş, each representing a different sector in the leftist bloc. While Mumcu, who was assassinated by Islamists 1993, underscores secular and republican values, Marxist fighter Gezmiş, executed by the Turkish government in 1972, and Communist poet Hikmet, who died in exile in Russia in 1963, symbolize the diversity of the Turkish left. Conversely, right-wing users shared images of mothers who had lost their sons in the struggle against the Kurdish underground (PKK) and the recent Turkish military operation against ISIS in northern Syria. Supporters of the Turkish government mounted a campaign to sanctify the image of Ömer Halisdemir, a soldier who was killed after he shot a Turkish officer participating in the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, and praised his mother.[3]

Kurdish users also joined the discourse, praising the heroism and sacrifice of Kurdish mothers. Additionally, they recalled the Kurds who have been missing since the skirmishes between the Turkish army and PKK began in the 1990s. Kurdish users expressed hope that Kurdish and Turkish mothers would no longer need to mourn their children, and called for peace between the two sides.[4]

Despite the relative immunity that Atatürk‎ still enjoys in Turkish symbolic and political space, the present discourse includes voices seeking to establish Erdoğan‎ as the new founder of the Turkish state, overriding Atatürk’‎s iconic legacy. The ‎war of mothers‎ that developed on SNS is indicative of the segmentation dividing the public in Erdoğan‎’‎s New Turkey.‎ For each camp, a different mother of the nation represents the ideal sociopolitical model for Turkish society.


[1] #SavcılarGöreve  #DerinTarih

[2] Atatürk’‎e hakaret eden Süleyman Yeşilyurt tutuklandı: İşte ilk ifadesi, Cumhuriyet, May 12, 2017ürk‎_e_hakaret_eden_Suleyman_Yesilyurt_tutuklandi__iste_ilk_ifadesi.html [Accessed: May 15, 2017]

[3] #annesenbirtanesin, #AnnelerGünüKutluOlsun, kahraman şehitlerimizin anneleri, #mothersday

[4] Kürt Anneler