Living in Kemalist Turkey is instructive in how a country can nourish a Great Leader cult and still veer short of dictatorship. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Idi Amin’s Uganda and Pol Pot’s Cambodia make for a roll-call of 20th century totalitarianism. But Turkey – and its controversial Law 5816 banning the denigration of Ataturk or his memory – proves that even semi-democracies can be obsessed with their Great Leaders.
After four years when I lived in Iran and visited North Korea and Iraq, my tour of the three totalitarian regimes lumped by the Bush Administration into the ‘Axis of Evil’ appropriately ended in the world’s foremost secular Muslim democracy.
Turkey may be a democracy, but it is also a militaristic society transformed from an ethnic mosaic to a largely homogenous population over the course of the 20th century. The secular Turkish republic’s politicians are both condescending and fearful of neighbours Iran and Iraq. In turn, Turkey’s Arab and Persian neighbours are scornful but furtive admirers of Ataturk’s creation.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The region’s difficult engagement with modernity is to blame for this bewildering state of affairs. Under the guiding influence of various strongmen, Turkey, Iran and Iraq all engaged with modernity.
Ataturk banned the Arabic alphabet and forced Turks to adopt Latin characters, a Christian weekend and a strict separation of church and state.
Iran’s Reza Shah followed the example of his Turkish idol by banning the chador and turban, and building the infrastructure of a modern state. But his son, Mohammad Reza, mistook modernisation for Westernisation and was overthrown in a traditionalist revolution with religious overtones led by an arch neo-traditionalist, Khomeini.
Iraq, the Arab World’s least religious nation, steered a secular Arab nationalist path after liberating itself from the Ottoman Empire, but promptly regressed after the overthrow of its strongman par excellence, Saddam Hussein, to a tribal state with secessionist tendencies and aspirations towards becoming an Islamic Republic.
Across the Bosphorus to Turkey’s Asian hinterland and all the way across that vast continent is North Korea. Pyongyang strongman Kim Jong Il is the centre of an extraordinary personality cult not content merely with papering portraits over public buildings. Kim Il Sung, the founder of the post-war state and father of the current president, refashioned the entire capital following the Korean War into a tribute to the world’s first Communist dynasty. Gargantuan public spaces were shaped from the rubble, designed to host memorials, mausolea, statues and all the paraphernalia required of a really good leader cult.
But by the time I visited North Korea in early August last year, Kim Jong Il had fallen off the face of the earth, presumed incapacitated. Nevertheless, I was keen to attend the Arirang Games in my quest to comprehend totalitarianism.
A regime creation, Arirang appropriates the aesthetic of totalitarianism and twins it with a vaudeville-style Korean-language musical. Thousands of sexy majorettes, muscular acrobats, militaristic children and fresh-faced soldiers are fielded in a show of total uniformity. Conceit, another characteristic of totalitarianism, prompted the North Koreans to reschedule the first night of their spectacle to pre-empt the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony by a few nights in a bid to steal Chinese thunder.
Kim Jong Il is a great fan of Arirang. A master of pageantry, he famously harnessed his totalitarian state in a cloak-and-dagger theatrical display to impress former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright. During the first high-level bilateral talks in 2000, he led the unsuspecting diplomat through Pyongyang’s darkened streets to the May Day Stadium, the largest in the world, and stunned her with a private display.