Livaneli's Veda and the Kemalist Dilemma

Wednesday, December 1, 2010 

Well, it's been a busy couple of weeks in the Bordlerands. The week before last, of course, MSU held its Turkey Extravaganza, hosting several days of talks, discussion, fun, food, and frolicry.

One of the highlights of Turkey Week was Stephen Kinzer's talk to open the festivities. Kinzer was challenged by a number of the Turkish students at MSU, which led to several interesting exchanges. The main critique of the Turkish students (who are here as part of joint-degree programs that MSU has with Istanbul Technical University and Selcuk University in Konya) was that Kinzer was too hard on Ataturk and too easy on Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. I thought the critique was a fair one, but Kinzer did a good job of responding to this critique with more nuance than I think he was given credit for.

On Wednesday I gave a talk about contemporary Turkey, but unlike Kinzer I focused less on politics and more about society. Since MSU's Turkey Week came in the context of International Education Week and a desire to encourage--particularly among young people--a more general interest in the world beyond the United States, I also talked a fair bit about my personal history in the country and the many cultural blinders I continued to discover within myself even after spending years in the country.
The talk was pretty well received, and there was a good turnout from both the university and the community. It was especially nice to meet a class of 10th graders from Bozeman's Heritage Christian High School, whose teacher had brought them along.


On Wednesday evening, we watched a screening of Veda ("Farewell"), a recent movie about the life of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. I'd looked a bit into this film, and therefore didn't have very high expectations. Indeed, the movie appears to be a response to Can Dundar's "Mustafa," a film that was criticized by a number of self-styled Kemalists for being unfair and/or critical of Kemal (here is my review of "Mustafa"). 

To be honest, I thought "Veda" was a wretched film--though certainly eye-opening with respect to the current state of the Kemalist mindset in Turkey. As far as I can tell, the film is exactly like virtually every other movie about Ataturk that was made in Turkey prior to "Mustafa"--hagiographical and completely uncritical. "Mustafa" isn't a perfect movie, but there was a genuine effort by Dundar to present Kemal as a human being, rather than as an icon. In response to this, all Veda's Zulfu Livaneli can do is repeat the same old anecdotes about the man.

Can Dundar had tried to do something different with "Mustafa," so Zulfu Livaneli responded by doubling down on the hagiography

In many ways I think "Veda" is an apt expression of the total sterility of the secularist argument in Turkey today. There are great arguments to be made for secularism, but the CHP doesn't know how to make them. Neither does Livaneli, who has been one of the faces of the CHP in recent years. 

Faced with political adversaries who seem determined to expand the place of religious piety in the public sphere but who couch their arguments in terms of freedom of religious expression, all the secularist opposition to the AKP can do is repeat the same old tired arguments they have always made, pretending that the last twenty-five years haven't taken place.

In a similar way, Livaneli pretends "Mustafa" was never made. His "answer" to Dundar's heresy is to just restate the same old stuff that secularists have been saying about Turkey for the past several decades. And that's the secularist strategy more generally: pretend that the AKP hasn't won three straight mandates, and keep insisting that Turkey hasn't changed. When in doubt, invoke authority in the form of Ataturk. End of argument.

Well guess what? Nobody's buying it outside of the echo-chamber of the CHP's die-hard supporters. Secularists are going to have to do more than just repeat themselves and invoke Ataturk's authority if they want to win a political argument with the AKP over the place of religious piety in Turkey's public sphere.

After the movie, I had a discussion with a group of American and Turkish students at MSU, who had a long rap session about the movie and Kinzer. It was fascinating watching American and Turkish MSU students talk about these things. All in all, I thought the event was really great, and I appreciated the chance to see "Veda" no matter what I thought of the film itself.
Indeed, seeing this film and talking about it afterward was my favorite part of Turkey week. I thought it was a great example of the sort of cross-cultural contact and discussion that International Education Week is presumably designed to encourage. 
More links, info and analysis can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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