ISTANBUL // When Gul Kilinc, a farmer in a small Turkish village, led his cow Gulsum out of the house to let her graze one morning this month, everything seemed normal. But then Gulsum tore herself free and wandered off to the schoolyard. Things have never been the same since. Like all schoolyards around the country, the one in the village of Kadirusagi near Malatya in eastern Turkey has a bust of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man who founded modern Turkey in 1923. For reasons yet unknown, Gulsum, whose name means "the pretty one" in Turkish, came too close to the Ataturk monument in Kadirusagi during her search for green grass and pushed it from its plinth. The bust, which was made of plaster, broke.
Mr Kilinc, who had run after his cow to catch it, said the schoolchildren told him what happened. "We are very sorry about the incident," he told Turkish media. Education authorities immediately launched an investigation and questioned people in the hamlet, while a panicked Mr Kilinc sold the animal well under price to another farmer in a neighbouring village. The bust has since been replaced by a metal one, news reports said.
Seyit Resitoglu, the head of the district education board, told Turkish media all the signs were that the cow was responsible. But observers say the whole episode is an absurd consequence of the official personality cult surrounding Ataturk, a former general of the Ottoman Empire who led the struggle to form a republic after the empire's collapse in the First World War and almost single-handedly turned the country into a modern state with a western outlook.
"There is something wrong with the perception and with the treatment of the memory of Ataturk," Sahin Alpay, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University and newspaper columnist, said this week. "He was a great leader, of course, but that was in another age, almost a hundred years ago." Ataturk busts and pictures are omnipresent not only in schoolyards, but also on village squares, in government offices and on coins and bills. Ataturk slogans grace court chambers and parliament in Ankara, and the whole country comes to a halt for two minutes on the anniversary of his death every Nov 10.
Last week, Turkey celebrated "Ataturk remembrance, youth and sports day", an official holiday, commemorating his landing in the Black Sea city of Samsun on May 19 1919, which marked the beginning of the struggle that eventually led to the creation of the republic four years later. The country's judiciary is very strict when it comes to preserve what it sees as the honour of Ataturk, who is called the "Great Leader" in official parlance. The internet video site YouTube has been blocked for more than a year in Turkey because of spots that make fun of the republic's founder. Last year, a political scientist, Atilla Yayla, was given a suspended sentence of 15 months because he had said in a speech that Ataturk's period of government had not been as progressive as many assumed and that many Europeans would be surprised about the number of Ataturk statues and pictures in Turkey.
Since 1951, the memory of Ataturk has been protected by a special law in Turkey. Smashing or defacing monuments and statues dedicated to Ataturk carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Under the law, accomplices are treated like the actual perpetrators themselves, which is why Mr Kilinc was so afraid of the result of the investigation by government inspectors who were sent to his village. "They told us that even if there had not been any intent, we would be punished," Mr Kilinc said, according to the Milliyet newspaper. "We got afraid, and we decided to rid ourselves of the cow."
The fear expressed by Mr Kilinc is unacceptable for a democratic country, critics say. "Such a terror is experienced only by people living under brutal dictatorships," Ahmet Altan, editor of the Taraf newspaper, wrote in a column. Referring to the Turkish constitution, which states that Ataturk's principles and reforms provide the direction in which the country is going, Altan added: "What kind of direction is this? A direction that tells people to get rid of a poor animal 'because my cow smashed an Ataturk bust'. If you ask me, it is not a direction to be very proud of."
Dr Alpay said this kind of reaction showed that "Turkey is moving on" from traditional attitudes of unquestioning worship of Ataturk. That tendency has also shown itself in reactions from ordinary people. "It's like it used to be with Lenin," a businessman in Istanbul, who declined to be named, said about the cow incident. "That has to change." Media concentrated on the humorous side of Gulsum's adventures, and the cow has become somewhat of a celebrity. Visitors have been flocking to the village of Inekpinar, the cow's new home, to take pictures of her and to buy her milk and cheese. Omer Ates, Gulsum's new owner, was quoted by newspapers and television stations as saying that prices for the cow's milk and cheese had almost tripled. "People are calling on the telephone and say they want her milk," Mr Ates said.
He also said he received offers from potential buyers of Gulsum that went far beyond the actual worth of the cow, which he estimated at 4,500 lira (Dh10,800). "I am not thinking of selling the cow," he said. Meanwhile, Gulsum has given birth to a calf that Mr Ates named Kader, meaning "fate" in Turkish. email@example.com