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High-priced Atatürk book sparks debate on profiteering from Turkey’s founder

A limited, luxury edition of a recent biography of Turkey’s secularist founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has sparked heated debated after it was put on to sale with a $470 price tag and sold out in four hours.

Many critics accused the author, Yılmaz Özdil, and the publishing house, Kırmızı Kedi Yayınları, of profiteering from the memory of Atatürk, not just because of the price tag, but also because the book was put on sale at 09:05 a.m., the time that Atatürk died on Nov 10, 1938, and had a print run of 1,881 copies, to mark the year of his birth in 1881.

The standard version of the book, “Mustafa Kemal”, was already available for 26.50 lira ($5), but the luxury edition was produced for collectors with specially designed fonts and cover.

Among those who criticised Özdil on social media was Gökhan Özoğuz, a Turkish rock star, who mentioned Atatürk’s dislike of luxury. “If Atatürk had heard about it, he would be the first to strongly oppose the idea. It is totally contrary to his ideology,” Özoğuz said on Twitter.

“Showing effort for Atatürk? Does this have a price tag?” asked Aylin Aslım, another Turkish star. “Does this money go to Atatürk?”

Many on social media likened Özdil to Mehmet Aydın, who last year fled Turkey with more than 100 million lira ($25 million) after he was accused of cheating 77,000 people with a mobile phone application that encouraged users to buy and raise virtual farm animals.

Özdil responded to his critics in a column in secularist Sözcü newspaper last week, saying there was no prestige book published on Atatürk, while such books praising important names in history were common both inside and outside Turkey.

Some on social media said in response that if such a prestige book were to be published, it should be Atatürk’s own Nutuk, which includes a speech delivered by Turkey’s founding father over 10 days in October 1927, covering the events between the start of the Turkish War of Independence on 1919 to the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

But last Wednesday, the luxury edition of Özdil’s book sold out in just four hours, with some buyers immediately attempting to resell copies online for up to 25,000 lira ($4,751).

The debate over Islamism and secularism has become ever more polarised in Turkey during the 17-year rule of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), making Atatürk even more popular among Turkish citizens committed to the principles of the republic’s founding father.

Özdil has been heavily criticised as a symbol of that polarisation. Born in Izmir, a a key base for the main opposition secularist party, Özdil is the voice of what some label White Turks: people who are ardent followers of Atatürk and vocal opponents of the AKP, concerned about Turkey’s shift to Islamism, and the Kurdish political movement.

Last year, Turkey saw the publication of 38 new books about Atatürk, including biographies, children’s books, and research papers. The non-luxury version of Özdil’s book sold 1.5 million copies.

Academic readers criticised Özdil’s luxury book, which does has no bibliography and does not list any sources for the 552-page tome.

Özdil also published a 10-book series of children’s books on Atatürk, which critics say contain many oddities and factual errors. For example, one book praises Atatürk for taking a shower and changing his underwear every day. Özdil said this week that the money raised by the sales of the special edition of his Atatürk biography would be used to pay for his children’s books to be distributed across Turkey.

With 11 books on Atatürk, Özdil is still behind Yalçın Toker, who has published 30 books on the leader, and Ali Kuzu, with 12 books.