Academic in Trouble for Ataturk Speech

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ANKARA, Turkey -- When political science professor Atilla Yayla questioned the legacy of the revered founder of modern Turkey, nationalists called him a traitor and his university suspended him.

Yayla said he was punished for shattering a taboo: daring to criticize Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a leader so idolized that his portrait hangs in all government offices, life stops for a minute every year on the anniversary of his death 68 years ago, and his ideas are still the republic's most sacred principles.

"There was a lynching campaign against me," Yayla recalled recently in his office surrounded by books on liberal thought.

In a Nov. 18 speech, Yayla said that the era of one-party rule under Ataturk, from 1925 to 1945, was not as progressive as the official ideology would have Turks believe but was "regressive in some respects."

The uproar that ensued shows how Turkish universities, most of them state-controlled, are not always places where ideas float freely. Anyone deviating from the set of principles inspired by Ataturk and closely guarded by the military, bureaucracy and judiciary, is chastised and, in some cases, fired.

Ataturk was a soldier and statesman who founded secular and Westward-looking Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

He set about on a series of secular reforms that imposed Western laws, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned Islamic dress and granted women the right to vote. The country he founded is frequently held up as an example that democracy can exist in a predominantly Muslim country.

"As an academic, I must be free to think, to search and share findings," Yayla, 50, said in an interview at the Ankara-based Association for Liberal Thinking, an organization he co-founded in 1994. "If Turkey wants to be a civilized country, academics must be able to scientifically criticize and evaluate Ataturk's ideas."

Yayla's ordeal is a reminder of how Turkey is still grappling with ensuring basic freedoms -- one of the main problems it must address if it wants to realize its ambition of joining the European Union.

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