In most countries, the entity most relied upon to espouse nationalist narratives, history and ideals is the state itself. Street names, monuments, the national curricula state television, etc. are all employed to reinforce the values that the state deems are most important. The success of the penetration of nationalist propaganda — now an ugly word — depends on a number of factors, including the power and popularity of the state itself and the political culture of the nation’s populace. In all cases, the primary responsibility of spreading the narrative rests squarely on the state or those close to the state.
Turkey, however, is quite an exception to the rule because while the state does its part to make Ataturk — the modern nation-state’s founder — and his philosophy as universal as it can, the people themselves do a much better job of making Ataturk an inescapable and omnipresent figure in Turkish daily life. Museums have been made out of every house he has ever stayed in — and as a wartime general constantly on the move, he visited plenty. His portrait stands in public squares, private homes, grocery stores, hotels, teahouses, ferries and schools. I even saw people with Ataturk’s signature tattooed on their forearms, from working class Anatolian bus conductors to upper-class Istanbullu private high school students.
The portraits and statues themselves characterise Ataturk in a variety of ways. Decorated with medals and dressed in uniform, there is Ataturk the General; an older portrait of Ataturk denotes him as the Wise Man; Atatürk in a tuxedo, complete with a cigar and white gloves gave shape to Ataturk the Man. There is even a ubiquitous portrait of Ataturk with a light from above shining down on him, and him looking up at it which is ironic given how the foundation of his political philosophy was the relegation of religion to the privacy of one’s home. In this way, he becomes an embodiment of the values and character of Turkey itself.
What one gathers from Ataturk’s pervasiveness is how much Turkey depends on him, his character and his philosophy to give the nation a sense of identity, purpose and direction. And here is where the notion of patriarchy as a political phenomenon comes in. Patriarchy reframes the relationship between a nation’s executive and its citizens as that between a father and his children; the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the United States being a case in point. The way a political decision is made is by asking: What would he have done? It also shifts the burden of the creation of ideas and values on to the executive rather than the populace itself. And while democracy is a feature of a lot of patriarchal societies, by voting, a citizenry renders itself to be led. That is a consequential shift from electing a leader who is supposed to execute the wishes of the people.
That said, a patriarch does bring a nation together in ways that less patriarchal societies struggle to emulate. In large, diverse countries such as the United States, Russia and the former Yugoslavia, Lincoln, Lenin and Tito were able to prevent disintegration and forge a national identity that gave meaning to being American, Soviet or Slavic — at least for the time that they ruled.
But with the exception of the United States, most politically patriarchal societies lend themselves very easily to totalitarian rule, whether one looks to Latin American and Caribbean dictators such as Papa — notice the name — Doc Duvalier, Rafael Trujillo, Anastacio Somoza, or the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Amin or Ceausescu.
But why do countries lend themselves to strongmen? What’s the appeal?
The truth is that as invaluable as it is to our lives and the political process, being free is hard. It is an unending stream of constant decision-making that magnifies consequences and attributes greater responsibility to us for making those decisions. It requires incessant political participation. With greater choice, it seems our anxiety also increases. Within politics, one can see this in ever-lower electoral turnouts, the ease with which historically — at least in Pakistan — people dismiss the democratic experiment and call for the army to intervene (done most recently by the MQM chief), and the tendency to polarise politics so that in most political decisions, our choices become limited to two. Patriarchy is a solution to the difficulty and pressure of carving one’s own political destiny on one’s own.
Somehow, the patriarchal model did not quite apply to Pakistan and its leaders. For a number of reasons, ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’ never came to fruition and its absence is only lamented by select, secular sections of society. That, however, is not for lack of trying. Clothed in a sherwani and piety hat, purged of his dogs, his port, his suits and his monocle, Jinnah was sold to the Pakistani public as a Muslim saviour. But such a project can only enjoy limited success since even his speeches were in a language the vast majority of the people could not understand. Most crucially, his vision for Pakistan was ambiguous at best. There was no -ism named after him. He can be credited for delivering us a country, but he was not granted the years to determine what to do with it.
It is exponentially easier to have someone make decisions for us, which is why we have the concept of representation in politics in the first place. And if we have the one man — it’s almost always a man — who can provide us with a blueprint of how we should live, what we should believe in and who we should be, then it seems that patriarchy is here to stay — for better or worse.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2013.