How Dictator Mustafa Kemal and Secular Kemalists Destroyed Islam in Turkey


Turkey is gradually regaining the global attention it once enjoyed albeit for different reasons. The main international focus has been on Turkey’s EU entry talks which began in October 2005 on joining the European Union (EU). But the subtler and the less pronounced is the revival of Islam in Turkey despite nearly 90 years hostile secular Governments.

Although today Turkey seldom figures in Muslim or Islamic discourse, it was for five centuries the center of the Muslim world, until that fatal day, March 3rd, 1924, when Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk abolished the Caliphate -office of the successors to prophet Muhammad, the supreme politico-religious office of Islam, and symbol of the Turkey sultan’s claim to world leadership of all Muslims—was abolished.

Today 98% of Turkey’s population is officially Muslim but the proportion of practicing Muslims is as low as 20%. However unlike in Europe where church attendance gradually fell in Turkey it is the result of a systematic attempt to constrain and weaken Islam by successive Kemalist secular governments and the military.

The hostility towards Islam began in early 1920s. A military commander, Mustafa Kemal Pasha led the Turkish War of Independence to form the Republic of Turkey as the successor state of the defunct Ottoman Empire. For this Mustafa Kemal became very popular and adored by all Turks. Thereafter he became the first President of the Republic of Turkey. The Turks venerated him so much he was given the name ‘Atatürk’, meaning Father of the Turks, (honorific name formally presented to him by the Turkish Grand Assembly in 1934.)

But Mustafa Kemal Pasha Ataturk was no ordinary leader. He was an astute statesman and strewed strategist. He didn’t express to the public how he would develop Turkey until he got the power to execute his vision (i.e. not until he was President of Turkey.)

Then Atatürk carefully constructed and deployed a master plan, today known as the Kemalist ideology or Kemalism. Believing in this strategy Ataturk and his associates started to publicly question the value of religion and held the view religion was not compatible with modern science and secularism was imperative for modernity.

Thus Ataturk regime began step by step to implement the Kemalist ideology with a radical reformation of the Turkish society with the aim of modernizing Turkey from the remnants of its Ottoman past. In line with their ideological convictions the Ataturk government abolished Islamic religious institutions; replace the Shariah law with adapted European legal codes; replaced the Islamic calendar with the Gregorian calendar; replace the Arabic script which was used to write the Turkish language with the Latin script and closed all religious schools.

In addition Ataturk took over the country’s 70,000 mosques and restricted the building of new mosques. Muftis and imams (prayer leaders) were appointed and regulated by the government, and religious instructions were taken over by the Ministry of National Education. Mosques were to preach according to the Ataturk’s dictates and were used to spread the Kemalist ideology.

For Sufi Muslims it was worse. Atatürk confiscated Sufi lodges, monasteries, meeting places and outlawed their rituals and meetings.

According to Ataturk modernity was valued and represented as not wearing any religious dress or being non-religious. So he ordered what cloths Turkey’s citizens should wear. The traditional garb of local religious leaders was outlawed. The fez (Turkish hat) was banned for men and the veil and hijab (headscarves) were discouraged and restricted for women.

Atatürk and his colleagues even wanted to Turkify Islam. They ordered Muslims to use the Turkish word Tanri instead of Allah for God and use the Turkish language in Salaath (the 5 times prayers) and Azaan (the call for prayers). These preposterous changes deeply disturbed the faithful Muslims and caused widespread resentment, which led in 1933 to a return to the Arabic version of the call to prayer.

After some time the Atatürk regime moved towards more extreme measures. Ataturk prohibited religious education. The existing mosques were turned into museums or used for the regimes secular purposes.

The faithful Turkish and Kurdish Muslims be they Sunni, Shia or Sufi were powerless against Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s regime and his military. But they tried to resist the oppression and even led rebellions. But he was too strong for them and Ataturk suppressed the rebellions after massive bloodsheds. (e.g. Seyh Sait rebellion in southeastern Turkey which claimed nearly 30,000 lives before being suppressed had its roots in religious grievances.)

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died in 1938. After that some of his preposterous laws were revoked by his successors due to their harshness and the fact that Islam was always a strong force at the popular level despite the suppression.

Since then there have been occasional calls for a return to Islam. But the secular governments and military true to the Kemalist ideology have managed to suppress them. Amidst this environment in the 1980s a new generation of educated, articulate and religiously motivated leaders emerged to challenge the dominance of the Kemalist political ruling elite. By their own example of piety, prayer, and political activism, they have helped to spark a revival of Islamic observance in Turkey.

But the Turkish military and the state bureaucracy are infiltrated with (Kemalist) secularists and act as the guardians of Ataturk’s reforms and work to preserve Kemalism and weaken Islam. This situation has gradually led to a polarization of the Turkish society and today Turkey remains as someone observed a ‘torn society’.