ISTANBUL – On a trip to Rio de Janeiro, a Turkish notary public gazed at the Christ the Redeemer statue that looms over the Brazilian city and was inspired to build a monumental likeness of his idol: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's independence war hero and national founder.
"I said to myself: 'Jesus Christ is a great man, but my Ataturk is as great as him,'" said 78-year-old Sitki Kahvecioglu, who fulfilled his dream 15 years later.
A 22-meter (72-foot) high copper statue of Ataturk — the country's biggest of the iconic figure — was inaugurated on May 19 in northeastern Turkey, a tribute to the near-mystical hold that Ataturk exerts over his fervent believers, whose admiration is rooted in his success in imposing secular values on a largely Muslim nation.
Yet the cult of Ataturk, once a staple of Turkish state ideology, is slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, being diluted, replaced in part by the Ottoman imperial era as inspiration for an Islamist-rooted government with its own set of ideas about modernity, morality and regional stature.
To be sure, Ataturk, whose surname means "father of the Turks," is still seemingly everywhere more than 70 years after his death.
His face is on banknotes. His piercing eyes and widow's peak adorn framed portraits in public offices, and many shops and homes. His sarcophagus lies in a giant mausoleum in the capital, Ankara. Istanbul's main international airport is named after him. Turkish law says it is a crime to insult his name, though prosecutions have eased up in recent years.
But Turkey is a nation in the grip of an astonishing transformation, and such official reverence appears increasingly out of sync with the times.
Today's Turkey is a democracy grappling with an authoritarian legacy, a market economy whose explosive growth in the past decade is the bedrock of newfound swagger and a Western ally with historical and cultural links to the Middle East that place it at the forefront of debate about the change sweeping the region.
It is also led by pious Muslims whose electoral triumphs drained power from military-backed classes that championed the code of Ataturk, who pulled together a nation from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, diminished Islam's influence by decree, welded Turkish ethnicity to national identity and reinforced the power of the state over the individual. The current government has sought to soften that credo, preserving Ataturk as a national icon but chipping away at the idea that his word, and traditional expressions of homage, are inviolable.
"In the past, to say 'Ataturk said so' would be the end of the discussion," said Mustafa Akyol, author of "Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty."
Now, Akyol said, more people are willing to challenge Ataturk's precepts, and as a result, followers of his ideology, known as Kemalism, "are becoming more insecure and that sometimes makes them even more insistent about keeping the symbols."
One example of tension-tinged change came on May 19, the anniversary of the day in 1919 that is celebrated as the beginning of the Turkish fight for nationhood — with Ataturk, who only later acquired that surname, at the center of the narrative. For the first time, the militarism of past celebrations was replaced with civilian events hailed by government officials as more inclusive. In Istanbul, a ceremony in front of a statue of Ataturk skipped the traditional moment of silence held in his honor and a band played the national anthem. Some onlookers were outraged, shouting: "We want respect for Ataturk."
Howard Eissenstat, an academic at St. Lawrence University in the United States who is working on a book about the roots of Turkish nationalism, said that some Turks distrust the ruling party for challenging "longstanding definitions of what being a Turk is." He traced the start of this conflict to the 1950 election victory of an opposition group over a party founded by Ataturk, who died in 1938, in a process that accelerated with the opening up of the economy in the late 1980s.
Eissenstat compared Turkey's "cultural war" to what some American conservatives have called a "war on Christmas" — recent disputes in the United States over whether Christmas should be observed as a secular or religious holiday in public settings. He also noted that the willingness of Turkish leaders to acknowledge official wrongdoing in a deadly bombing campaign aimed at crushing a Kurdish rebellion in the 1930s reflected an indirect way of tarnishing the reputation of Turkey's premier historical hero.
"They're highlighting the ways that Mustafa Kemal was directly implicated in crimes," he said. "They see Mustafa Kemal as somebody with a complex historical legacy. They don't feel that he should be at the center of policy, and they certainly don't think that rituals that prioritize the military should be at the center."
Tansel Colasan, president of a foundation that promotes the national founder, wrote in an email that it was "unfortunate" that the leaders of military coups in 1971 and 1980 claimed to act in the name of Ataturk. She also criticized the "jargon of radical/fanatic pro-Islamic media" that has recently denigrated Ataturk, saying it ignores how he laid the foundations of a country that is a symbol of "peace and stability" in the Middle East.
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sometimes accused of illiberal tendencies and score-settling, says it is committed to secular politics and intent on joining the European Union despite a troubled candidacy for membership. At the same time, it has presided over a flourishing of pride in the Islam-based, Ottoman empire and perceptions, open to dispute, that its rulers were tolerant and pluralistic. Old mosques have been restored, Ottoman-era calligraphy is back in style as an art form and period television dramas are popular in Turkey and beyond its borders.
But there is only one guiding light for Kahvecioglu, who poured his savings into the $2.2 million statue of Ataturk in Artvin, his hometown near Georgia. It depicts Ataturk in uniform and a high cap, hunched forward, apparently in deep thought during a campaign against a Greek army just before Turkey was founded in 1923.
Kahvecioglu said he carried firewood from the mountains as a child, went to law school, ran unsuccessfully for mayor, did business for one of Turkey's richest men and ran a charity foundation that built facilities in Artvin. He dismissed criticism on the Internet that he was an idol-worshipper who should have spent the statue funds on the poor. "I was always a rebel against injustice," he said.
And a new generation of Turks is growing up with Ataturk, even if the national adulation is not what it was. Every morning, children in elementary school recite an oath that includes the line:
"O Great Ataturk! On the path you opened, toward the goal you have shown, I vow to march without hesitation."