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Dreams from My President: Obama Sails to Byzantium

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"And therefore I have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium."

W.B. Yeats

“Sailing to Byzantium”

So how did President Barack Obama do on his visit to Turkey? For those who love the idea of living in a democratic, secular, social state governed by the rule of law, bearing in mind the concepts of public peace, national solidarity and justice, respecting human rights, and loyal to the nationalism of Atatürk, indeed Obama said all the right words.  

At Anıtkabir, President Obama praised Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as tenacious and courageous. He spoke of Atatürk’s continuing legacy to “generations around the world” and noted, in writing, his signature words “Peace at home, peace in the world.” In short, President Obama reaffirmed not only the founding premises of the Turkish Republic, but also the relevance of the nation’s Constitution, a document that the ruling party is intent on changing.   

Obama consistently referred to Turkey as a modern nation respectful of  democracy and the rule of law. He disavowed the Bush administration’s nonsense of Turkey being a “moderate Islamic state,” thus stripping away one of the veils that brought the present government to power in 2003. “Respectful” was a popular word used by the president. He also observed to President Abdullah Gül that he considered Turkey not as an Islamic nation but, similar to the United States, a “nation of citizens.” In so saying, he underscored the fundamental and essential secularity of Turkey, and indeed all democracies.  

Obama also addressed an embarrassingly lethargic parliament, that mostly sat on its collective hands throughout the speech, except for a momentary awakening when the president mentioned two Turkish NBA basketball players. President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan looked consistently sullen. And perhaps for good reason. Early in his speech, President Obama likened Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (not the two Turkish leaders favorite subject) to George Washington. (Forget George Washington, I would argue that no statesman in recorded history comes close to Atatürk, but that is a subject for another day.) Among other items, Obama mentioned that Turkey had strengthened laws that “govern freedom of the press and assembly.” He encouraged that these new laws should be implemented and the reform momentum sustained. No sarcastic moaning broke out among members of the opposition parties. Turkish politicians are just so polite and refined. With the Ergenekon fiasco sweeping a fear-filled nation, and Obama’s reference about “an enduring commitment to the rule of law,” no wonder Gül and Erdoğan had faces like heartburn victims. Obama closed with an appeal to promote education and economic opportunity for Turks of Kurdish origin. And for all Turkish youth as well. In his later meeting with Turkish students, he, like Atatürk, singled out young people as “our best hope” for a peaceful, prosperous future. He encouraged student activism, failing to note that in Turkey, students are usually beaten by gangs of police for their political activism, social responsibility, and idealism. 

In President Obama’s extraordinary memoir, Dreams from My Father, he importantly wrote that “politics will need to reflect our lives as they are actually lived.”(1)  And therein lies the problem with President Obama’s visit. He was speaking about the Turkey of Atatürk, that product of Atatürk’s enormous mind and will. Sadly, that country no longer exists, and the actual lives of the Turkish people are not lived under the enlightened principles of Atatürk. Turkey is neither democratic, nor respectful of the law. In fact, Turkish politicians have no understanding of democracy, certainly not of the delicate balance of governance provided by the independent separations of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The Turkish people have even less knowledge, and the Turkish media have the least of all.  

In undemocratic Turkey, the prime minister is also the self-proclaimed “chief prosecutor” of a witch hunt called Ergenekon. Turkey has not the slightest resemblance to a nation that respects the rule of law. In Turkey, virtually all rules of evidence are ignored, illegal searches and seizures are routine, false and unjust imprisonments are common, and the democratic provisions of habeas corpus, that is, the right to a fair and speedy trial universally ignored. All opposed to the tyrannical rule of the majority party are being purged, either physically or emotionally. And the elected political opposition in parliament are craven and ineffective beyond belief. Like the gestapo of old, early morning police raids and confiscations of personal property have struck fear in the citizenry. Telephone conversations are recorded, and tampered, tainted evidence is leaked to the favored religious press that is the servant of the ruling party. So one can forget secularity as well. Atatürk, whose surname means “father of the Turks,” would be ashamed. And Atatürk, that great revolutionary leader, would be particularly ashamed of the docility of the Turkish people. 

Thus regarding President Obama’s visit... Hoşgeldiniz (Welcome), Mr. President, but you were addressing people who now live on the dark side of the moon. Wrong people. Wrong country. Wrong time. The brutal truth is that the country that was the realized dream of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has turned into a nightmare. A dear friend and confidant of Atatürk, Falih Rıfkı Atay wrote, “There was never a man like Atatürk. He was a mighty torrent that flowed over barren soil and was lost.”(2)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died on 10 November 1938. His Turkey has been perishing ever since, killed by his beloved “Turkish youth of future generations.”(3)   

James (Cem) Ryan, Ph.D.

21 April 2009  İstanbul

(1) Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father. Three Rivers Press, New York, 1995 (page 457).


(2) Atay, Falih Rıfkı. The Atatürk I Knew. Yapı ve Kredi Bankası, Ankara, 1981. (page 293)


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James (Cem)Ryan is a writer living in Istanbul, Turkey. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, he has a MFA from Columbia University.

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