TURKEY: Ataturk’s grave, head scarves and the call to prayer


Walking along Mostafa Kemal Ataturk’s mausoleum is like visiting a reproduction of an ancient temple. Though it is a burial site in a country with an absolute Muslim majority, no trace or engraving of Islam can be found. On the contrary, the creators of this spacious grave seemed to have no interest in recognizing religion, choosing instead symbols belonging to the Hittite civilization that flourished before Islam reached Anatolia.

The mausoleum for the nation’s first president appears as evidence that Ataturk and the Kemalists founders of the Turkish state wiped Islam from public space to build a capital dedicated to secularism. But history has a way of repeating itself, and if Ataturk were alive today, he might be shocked at the images and sounds drifting just beyond the stone columns of his resting place.

Across this canonical cemetery, the call for prayers echoes in Arabic five times a day, attesting to the ceaseless battle between Ataturk’s secular heirs and rising Islamists. I felt as if I were back in my native Cairo, not in a country seeking entry to the European Union. While walking downtown, I spotted posters and pictures of Ataturk hanging on public buildings and displayed by street vendors. Yet, I was also struck by the high number of veiled women and store windows featuring modern Islamic fashion.


As part of his determination to distance his new republic from centuries of Ottoman Islamic heritage, Ataturk moved the capital from Istanbul, the base of the most extravagant mosques and Islamic monuments, to Ankara, a small trading town under the Ottomans. The new capital became a stronghold of secular republicans. However, with an Islamic mayor in the mid-1990s, Ankara went through a change of heart.

Shortly after Islamists won Ankara’s mayorship, the capital’s logo was changed from a Hittite pre-Islamic symbol to the Kocatepe mosque. The influence of Islam became more pronounced, most notably by the wearing of head scarves, when the Justice and Development Party (AK) rose to national power in 2002.


“Of course the coming of AK party to power and especially the second term opened the gate to the veil issue and because of that probably more and more shops of Islamic fashion opened,” said Alev Cinar, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ankara’s Bilkent University, who authored a book on the battle between Turkish Islamists and secularists over the public space.

Badei, a housewife living in Ankara, seconds Cinar, affirming that rise of the AK party encouraged many women in the capital to take the veil. “The party played a great role in improving the status of veiled women. Now, the veil is not considered as the president, prime minister as well as many parliamentarians have veiled wives. Veiled women are encouraged to go out now as there is less discrimination against them,” she said.

“The veil is no more restricted to lower classes, the Islamic fashion has flourished over the last three or four years. All brands have special departments for veiled women now,” she added.

Nevertheless, one should not assume that the secular class has fallen into the oblivion or the entire capital is following the same path. Ankara’s expanding western suburbs have become the new niches for Westernized secular upper classes.

— Noha El-Hennawy in Ankara

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