How Mustafa Kemal Became Ataturk: A Semiological Analysis of Mustafa Kemal Myth in Turkey

Roland Barthes is a prominent poststructuralist theorist, mainly known for his works in semiotics. His monthly essays published in Les Lettres Nouvelles were later published as a book, in 1957, named Mythologies. In this book, he examined the process of myth creation in popular culture. His examination consists of analyses of the signifier and the signified in relation to the myth. This article will analyze the myth of Mustafa Kemal and the process of turning him into a mythological commodity, in light of Roland Barthes’ theories.

According to his theories explained in the “Myth Today” section of Mythologies, Roland Barthes follows Saussure’s semiology and takes it one step forward. Barthes claims that language is based upon the intention to signify and myth is a second-order semiotic system that carries with itself a specific intention, making it the language of ideology. (Barthes 113)

In language, the semiological system is rather simple: There is a signifier and there is a signified, where the two of them form a sign. With the introduction of myth, the already constituted sign turns into a signifier again. Therefore, Barthes calls the myth the second-order of language or metalanguage, a derivative of the original sign. And Barthes acknowledges that, in order to analyze, a semiologist may treat writing or pictures (statutes as well) in the same way as they both carry the same objective, to sign. (Barthes 114)

In my analyses of the effects of speech, statues, and other forms of signs in Turkey to create a myth of “Ataturk”, I will be referring to the semiological systems of myth.

It is very seldom in the history of the world that a person is as idolized as Mustafa Kemal. There are of course some extreme examples of this, which most of them are religious leaders. We see the paintings of Jesus Christ, Mary, and other saints in churches, along with some sculptures as well.  In mosques, we do not see any form of sculpture or painting, however, there are other things in the Islamic world that helps the mythification of Mohammad. The reason I started my analyses by comparing Mustafa Kemal to religious leaders is because of the main emphasis on his eternity.

According to Roland Barthes, an important technique or semiological system to create a myth is the process of erasure of history. Depriving a sign of its history is an important step to create the myth. Only when a sign is turned into a myth, it can be the language of ideology.

Mustafa Kemal had various titles, among which are Great Leader (Ulu Önder), Eternal Commander (Ebedi Başkumandan), Eternal Chief (Ebedi Şef)[i]. Those titles have in common the emphasis on his eternity and deprivation of history. When I see these titles, I remember Mustafa Kemal’s quote on the Republic of Turkey.

“One day my mortal body will turn to dust, but the Turkish Republic will stand forever.”

This was said by Mustafa Kemal after a failed assassination attempt in Izmir, in 1927, and reflects his ideas perfectly. Like everyone else, Mustafa Kemal knows that every system has a due date, Ottomans lasted for nearly 600 years, Romans, Huns, even the greatest Empires had ended. But his desire to create a myth was there when he was alive. Another quote by him reflects his ideas upon the people and he claims to live within the people forever.

“There are two Mustafa Kemals. One the flesh-and-blood Mustafa Kemal who now stands before you and who will pass away. The other is you, all of you here who will go to the far corners of our land to spread the ideals which must be defended with your lives if necessary. I stand for the nation’s dreams, and my life’s work is to make them come true.”[ii]

It is with the great emphasis on eternity, Mustafa Kemal and his successors have created a myth of Ataturk. Every time we see his name somewhere, we see his statues, we think of something different than the original sign. With the deprivation of history, now, Mustafa Kemal is alive and among his supporters, living as a myth. Indeed, his name appears in children’s songs as: “Ataturk ölmedi, aramızda yaşıyor”, which may be translated as: “Ataturk is not dead, he is living among us.”

According to Barthes, there are myth-readers and myth-consumers. For a myth-reader, the motivation of quotes listed above is obvious, as the reader decipher the signs (Barthes 129). On the other hand, for the myth-consumer, Mustafa Kemal becomes Ataturk and, thus, eternal.

In this manner, Mustafa Kemal statues were built across the country, starting from 1926.[iii] The first one being built while he was alive, to naturalize his presence, popularize his views and cement his reforms. Following his death, more and more statues were built, and today it is impossible to see a government building without his statue, or portrait. With the use of statues, his presence is internalized by people and those statues began to gain a mythological meaning. For myth-consumers today, an attempt to criticize statues is an attempt to remove Mustafa Kemal’s reforms and ideas.

A 2008 article written by Leda Glyptis states the presence of Mustafa Kemal in Turkey:

“Atatürk’s houses exist in an Atatürk-inundated context with his face and sayings appearing on all official documents, buildings, television channels, newspapers and schoolyards, coins and banknotes. Moreover, regardless of personal belief, every Turk lives in a country where nationalism is part of standard political discourses. Politicians, teachers, and journalists appeal to the nation and Atatürk on a daily basis. Yet they are not alone in this. The omnipresence of Atatürk paraphernalia can only be partly attributed to state sponsorship. Atatürk’s face appears on posters behind supermarket counters, in barbershops and video stores, in bookshops and banks; Atatürk talismans even dangle from car mirrors, while Atatürk pins adorn lapels. And even the Turks who do not join in with such spontaneous commemorations know how to ‘read’ the Atatürk semiotic universe”[iv]

Another semiological system used to create a myth is the process of identification as coined by Barthes, to get rid of the others within a system. (Barthes 153) Since the bourgeois can not consider the Other, it must ignore, deny, or transform the Other into itself. This act of identification is again clearly visible in Mustafa Kemal’s discourse for the myth-reader. In fact, the creation of a nation-state, upon the ashes of a multi-nation imperialist state, identification had been the vital step.

After the decadence of the Ottoman Empire, the new state was named the Republic of Turkey, the second state with the name “Turk” in it, the initial being the Gokturk Khanate emerged in 552 AD.

As much as the intention is stated as to create a unified nation, this led to the assimilation of other ethnicities living in Anatolia, and a Turkish identity was imposed on them with the use of semiotics.

Mustafa Kemal’s phrase, Ne mutlu Türküm diyene (How happy is the one who says “I am a Turk”) is written everywhere in the country along with statues and was taught to children in schools as part of the compulsory Student Oath.

At this point, Barthes makes the final definition of myth in bourgeois society: Myth is depoliticized speech. (Barthes 142) By using the semiological systems stated above, creators of myth, intentionally distort the true meaning of signs to create their ideological language. If political is the natural state of human relations, social structure, depoliticization strips away the naturalness and creates a fabricated quality.

Again, for myth-consumers, this fabricated, depoliticized speech seems natural. As in my example of Mustafa Kemal, assimilation of other cultures is not seen when one looks at his statue. Truth is stripped away from the facts, and what is left is a myth.

As Barthes put it, bourgeois society has a relationship with myth based on needs, not the truth. Depoliticization is done according to their needs and put into use.

Barthes uses the example of a woodcutter when he is talking about the depoliticized speech. A woodcutter may “speak the tree”, whereas someone who is not doing any action related to the tree may only “speak about the tree”. The latter one’s speech is not acted upon the tree and this language becomes second order which acts as a cradle for the myth to grow.

When Mustafa Kemal is taken as a reformer, founder of a country, he then may be compared to the woodcutter and his speaking the people, the country is political, and real language. When his successors speak about his actions though, it is the second-order language in action and the creation of myth. In this case, Mustafa Kemal’s speech gave his successors plenty of material to build their myth on.

In conclusion, eight-two years after his death, Mustafa Kemal is seen everywhere in Turkey. His name is in streets, schools, bridges, universities, children’s songs, etc. Politicians today, still use his name, regardless of his ideas, and it is impossible to watch a political debate where his name is not mentioned. It was by the use of intentional language, the myth, that Mustafa Kemal was turned into a mythological hero for the nation and became Ataturk.

[i] Levine, Lynn A. (2010). Frommer’s Turkey. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub. p. 31. ISBN 9780470877739. “Mustafa Kemal was given the name Atatürk (“father of the Turks”) by the Grand National Assembly”

[ii] http://users.metu.edu.tr/ahmet/ataturk.html

[iii] Navaro-Yashin, Yael (2002). Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press. p. 89. ISBN 9780691088457. “Today the statue that is most frequently encountered all over Turkey is still that of Ataturk.”

[iv] Glyptis, Leda (December 2008). p356 “Living up to the father: The national identity prescriptions of remembering Atatürk; his homes, his grave, his temple”. National Identities. London doi:10.1080/14608940802271647. ISSN 1460-8944