May 19, 1919, is considered the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence, which was to lead to the establishment of the Turkish Republic. We all know the decline of the Ottoman Empire started long before 1919, so the process resulting in the proclamation of the republic did not start on that very day; and besides, there was no way to be sure in 1919 that in a few years a brand new regime would emerge from the ruins of the old empire. But you know the general rule: All’s well that ends well.
An honest debate on the events surrounding May 19, 1919, requires a thorough discussion of one of the most controversial decades in our history. It is not always easy to face the facts of this particular period with honesty. Yet the lack of self-criticism about some aspects of this period and events that occurred is the basis of many of the problems we are trying to resolve nowadays, such as transforming our republic into a democratic republic.
Our history is often described as a succession of military victories. In other words, all achievements are explained as the accomplishments of several military personalities. This of course contributes to the overall impression that the armed forces are the real “proprietors” of this country. That’s one of the many reasons why Turkey’s national days, including May 19, are celebrated principally in a militaristic atmosphere.
The repetitive program of national day celebrations in Turkey is not much different than those held in countries like China or North Korea: Military and civilian dignitaries come together early in the morning to lay wreaths on statues, military parades are organized in every major city and primary school pupils are taught to march. During these ceremonies, called “official celebrations,” despite being a republic -- which means in a country that is supposed to be ruled by the people -- ordinary citizens are confined to a spectator role while bureaucrats perform their ceremonial duties. That is why the national days are seen by most people as occasions when officials deliver boring speeches that no one really listens to. In brief, such days have been nothing but an extra duty for bureaucrats and a day off work for most people.
Now a debate has been initiated by those who want to change this “celebration” mentality. The problem is that two opposing camps immediately form: Those who would like to maintain everything as is and those who want to introduce some changes. One group accuses its detractors of exalting authoritarianism, the other claims its opponents are damaging republican values.
Nevertheless, the majority of people are not at all interested in the political aspects of this struggle. The masses worry much more about the implications such debates may have for their daily lives. It is sad to observe that the level of mistrust between different segments of society is increasing with every passing day. These debates would be more constructive if the debaters had only democracy for a focus, if they were condemning all forms of authoritarianism, if they were all respectful of the fundamental rights of everyone and if they were agreeing that there is no great difference between calling for the prohibition of alcohol and preventing women wearing headscarves from studying.
National days such as May 19 would be better honored if they were used to strengthen the bonds that keep this nation together. These days would then become an opportunity to remember that everyone in this country has (or at least ought to have) equal rights. Only then will our national holidays become feasts of democracy.