Ataturk by Beverley Blythe

Beverley Blythe

December 8, 2000


What comes to the American mind when hearing the name Ataturk? Nothing? Or perhaps a stream of consciousness that might flow in this way: Ataturk- Turkey- exotic- fez- funny little hat- Shriners- silly old men wearing this hat and driving tiny cars like madmen in every parade in small-town America…. Or, as a tourist in Istanbul, a fascination develops of "the other", and an attempt is made to make sense out of the exoticism of the East evident in a culture that also mirrors the West. A closer look reveals that the source of this identity struggle is indeed Ataturk. The ramifications of his actions more than 60 years ago are still being experienced not only in Turkey, but also in the rest of the Islamic world. Far from the obscure figure of the American mind, he remains a highly controversial figure to this day, because of his actions and achievements. On the one side, he retains mythic, legendary status. On the other, he is viewed as the catalyst for Western anti-Islamic attitudes.

On a personal level, how to explain this fascination with a character who held power for only a few brief years in a remote country, largely unknown in the West. Why was this legendary charmer of women reaching through time and enticing one more writer to tell his story and judge his actions sixty-two years after his death? What sort of personality was he, and how had he been able to sustain such a strong influence on his country long after his death. Was he a megalomaniac of the twentieth century? How broad was his influence; did it reach beyond the borders of Turkey? All of the answers would be provided, as the research path led far into the past, but would ultimately connect in the present.

Ataturk carved the nation of Turkey from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. He was a single-minded reformer whose methods were often brutal and cruel. "He believed that social engineering justified whatever means were required, and he had no qualms about destruction and murder." (Pryce-Jones 92) He was an absolute dictator operating behind the disguise of a republic. In order to save Turkey, a new nation state had to be carved from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Complete reforms and bold measures were necessary and the western powers provided the model. Ataturk forced the country to accept this model in order to modernize. His accomplishments were astounding, more so, given the time frame in which they occurred. Did Turkey’s twentieth century history prove that in Ataturk’s actions, the ends justify the means? The answer to this question depends upon the lens through which you view history.

To study Ataturk means to pull back the curtain and look at the other side which is seldom revealed. Who would think that a stubborn, single-minded soldier would represent an age-old conflict that goes to the heart of personal philosophical thought? Which way is man to live? By following the laws of God, or by turning away from God and living for the self, the State. The Muslim would say that Ataturk’s way was wrong, his brutal reforms not the way to civilization. He would present the side for Islam, an ancient civilization with sound standards of the highest degree of scholarship and accomplishment. Opposing views, reflected in Turkey’s complex twenty-first century identity today.

Who was this Ataturk? His very name means, "Father of Turkey". He was born as Mustafa, the only surviving son of Zubeyde and Ali Riza; a small Muslim family slightly less poor than it’s impoverished neighbors in the dusty hill town of Salonika. He was of solid peasant stock of Albanian and Macedonian origins; he had pale blue eyes and light hair and coloring. Later in life he would be called the Grey Fox, and much would be made of his cold, steel-like nature which seemed to be reflected in his very coloring. In school, he acquired the name Kemal, meaning perfection, a fitting surname.

By the time of Mustafa’s birth in 1881, a long line of Ottoman Sultans was sinking into a mire of corruption and decay, taking the empire with it. The "empire lay bankrupt, decrepit and rotting." (Armstrong x) Some countries, such as Greece and Serbia were occupied by European powers. The western powers and Russia hungrily waited to take a bite from the dying empire. The only reason the country had not been swallowed up was that the jealous nations kept each other in balance.

"As greedy for their meal as vultures, the Christian Powers sat waiting for the end. Afraid of each other, preparing for the stupendous catastrophe of the World War, they watched each other jealously. No one power dared rush in. And so the dying Ottoman Empire lived on, while the Red Sultan, Abdul Hamid, from his palace on the Bosphorus, cunningly played the nations one against the other." (Armstrong x-xi)

Mustafa Kemal entered the world precisely at this pivotal moment in history, with his early years formed by impressions of a decaying country, about to disappear. What he saw in his countrymen was a fatalistic attitude, attributing all their misery to fate. All power was in God’s hands. Inshallah…God willing. People were poor, diseased, and ignorant. As he matured, his personal characteristics revealed themselves. He became excited by the idea of going to military school. "He wanted to be a soldier: to be an officer, wear a uniform and give orders to men." (Armstrong 6) He was unpopular, touchy, ill natured, and antisocial. He thought himself superior to the others, and above all he wanted to be noticed. He did well in his training, and also enjoyed teaching the other students. "He showed also a jealousy, which would grow into a spiteful dislike, of any other boy who was more successful than himself. He would play second fiddle to no one." (Armstrong 7) The very characteristics that would enable him to carve a new country from the carcass of the Empire with steel-like precision were already becoming apparent. He was not concerned about making friends, or being popular. He was there to learn to be a soldier, a leader, and to be recognized as the best.

He entered military life precisely as the world around him erupted into cataclysmic war. Mustafa was a first rate soldier- he demonstrated the characteristics that were the essential qualities of his leadership. He was shrewd, single-minded, fearless, and lucky. He was always among his men in battle, rallying and pushing them forward with his iron will. He proved himself as highly successful warrior, as Turkey battled the great powers, then imploded into years of civil war. He was always in the thick of it and most happy and forceful when engaged in a battle. The same qualities carried him as he began to garner political power. No small feat, considering he was still highly unpopular, and no wonder.

"They were afraid of his vindictiveness, and his ambition to be absolute. They resented his sarcastic temper and his open rudeness to them. They knew he was ruthless, and, if given the opportunity, would hang any of them. They tried to reduce his power. He fought them back fiercely and without compromise. All the autocrat in him swelled up in anger at their interference. He was, and would remain, master." (Armstrong 154)

Military honors were his, but no one wanted him in politics. His own vision for Turkey as a modern nation was strong enough to motivate him through years of political intrigue; he was convinced that he alone could lead the newly formed and highly vulnerable country.

As Mustafa Kemal fought his enemies from without and within the country, he acquired titles. For his defeat of the Greeks, the people called him "Gazi, The Destroyer of Christians", the highest honor for a Muslim. Later, Islamic peoples would lament that they should have called him "Gazi, the Destroyer of Muslims". But while he loved the accolades, Kemal saw Islam as the enemy of the new Turkey. "His own ideas were clear and revolutionary. As soon as the foreign enemies were gone, the Sultanate, the Caliphate, all the lumber of the Ottoman Empire must go after them. All the old useless pomp and antiquated nonsense left over from the past. He would proclaim a Republic, and under this disguise he would be its absolute ruler. After that he would reform Turkey in every detail." (Armstrong 180) With a keen sense of timing, he advanced and retreated, but eventually made his move to kick out the Caliphate, and turn the country into a secular state. "Religion! He would tear religion from Turkey as one might tear the throttling ivy away to save a young tree." (Armstrong 200) While to the ordinary citizen religion was woven into their very identity, Ataturk was driven to separate the very nature of the individual person.

Steadily he made his moves and manipulated the people and their attitudes.

"Nonetheless he sneered openly at religion. He made it clear that for him the religious man, the man who went to the mosque and prayed, must be a knave or a fool, and, in either case, useless. The opinions of Mustafa Kemal were the faiths of the People’s Party, so that it became fashionable to sneer at religion and unwise and even dangerous to practice it. The men went no more to the mosques. Religion went out of fashion." (Armstrong 244)

The dervishes and monastic societies also had to go- they had the most valuable property and wealth, and were a breeding ground for rebellion. He had them turned out into the street, to work like everyone else, and confiscated their property. "Mustafa Kemal had destroyed the whole religious basis and outlook of the Turkish state and people." (Armstrong 244)

In 1924, the Caliph was exiled and the Caliphate ended. Andrew Mango summarizes the reforms that would become the mainframe of Ataturk’s legacy in Turkey: the Challenge of a New Role.

In the 10 years that followed, "religious courts and schools were abolished and religious brotherhoods banned; first international numerals and then the Latin alphabet were adopted to replace the Arabic script; civic, commercial, and penal codes were imported from Switzerland, Germany, and Italy; the international (Christian) calendar was introduced with Sunday as a day of rest; and specifically Eastern and religious forms of dress were banned, as were traditional titles. In 1934 women were given the right to vote and be elected." (Mango 9)

Was this the best or only road to modernization? Could there have been a path to "civilization" truer to the Islamic soul of the people? Did these actions bring about a national identity crisis that remains today?

Obviously, the answers to these questions would not be found solely in yellowing texts. Who would be willing to engage in a dialogue to provide the answers? First-hand information and opinion was needed from within the Muslim culture, but how to approach the culture; who would talk to me? The first answer was found at the Islamic Center at New York University. Here I connected with "Rasheeda", who generously agreed to meet for a discussion. Rasheeda wore the traditional long clothing and head-covering, but was not veiled. I quickly discovered that it is in dialogue with the religious Muslim that the other point of view is revealed and still relevant. In an informative meeting with her in October 2000, these views became clear. She was willing to sit on the floor and talk with me for several hours.

To Rasheeda and many Muslims, Ataturk is reviled, not revered. In the abolishing of the Caliphate, she believes he extinguished 1300 years of tradition and hope. She would say that Islam is the way to civilization in the world, and the path to peace and successful living. To Ataturk’s claim that without him there would have been no Turkey, that Turkey would have disappeared, the response would be, so what! The political, artificial borders imposed by the West do not mean anything in Islam, in the eyes of God. Rasheeda insisted that Ataturk was a Spanish Jew, in this way the logic is provided for his actions. He is viewed as an instrument of the Western powers of the time, especially Britain. It was in the conversation with Rasheeda that Ataturk’s attitude towards religion and the impact it had far beyond the borders of Turkey struck with such force.

She explained that to the Muslim, Islam provides a civilization that is the perfect way of life; if lived according to the beauty of the tenets set out in the Koran. The tenets cover every aspect of living, grounded in a reverence for God. The very purpose of life is to worship God (Allah), and to care for everything God has created. Islamic scholarship must be sound, show linkage, with the highest of standards. Every detail of how to live life is covered- everything a person needs to live and grow is included in the Hadiths. Universities over 1000 years old existed in Egypt, Arabia, Morocco, and Syria. To label Islam as uncivilized, as Ataturk did, would be ludicrous.

Islam sees Western priorities as worldly, with dreadful results for societies. Muslims look at Western culture as crime-riddled and completely lacking in calm and peace. They believe that progress lies in not imitating Western models.

"Islamic lands will not progress by merely imitating Western arrangements and values. Can Islam produce fresh thinking, independent laws and relevant statutes to fit the new needs raised by modern society? Yes- and more! Islam offers humanity greater possibilities for advance than others can. Its lack is not ability- but the will to use it. In reality the Shar’iya contains all the ingredients needed." (Lari 62)

The Islamic way is living on a Utopian path leading to God.

Clearly, even now we can see how the problem for Mustafa Kemal and his followers was obvious. Kemal did not see any solid evidence that this Utopian path was having concrete positive results in the daily reality of the early 1900’s. "Thus Islam and Kemalism could not be bedfellows; one of them had to go." (Mehmet 14) The devout Muslim would say that the priorities were exactly inverted; God (Allah) must be first, and in this way ultimate civilization realized.

It is necessary to hear the voice of a Muslim regarding the abolishment of the Caliphate in order to gain understanding of the impact of Mustafa Kemal’s actions. Not only did his actions have a profound effect on the lives of his countrymen; they set into motion a chain of events that formed Islam in the Middle East as we know it today. In his book, The Caliphate- The Hejaz and The Saudi-Wahhabi Nation State, Imran N. Hosein dramatically discloses the history behind the foundation of modern Islamic states. He reminds us that in the past 200 years or so, European civilization experienced conflict between religion and state resulting in secularization. Religion was reduced to individual and group worship, with people recognizing themselves as sovereign, rather than God. The secular model of the state became the highest power. This "Godless" state became the model, and was imposed on the rest of the world- often through colonialization. In the eyes of Islam, this separation is heresy; there is no sovereign above Allah.

While it appears Ataturk’s actions towards the Caliphate had goals only of restructuring society within Turkey, the results were far reaching. Ataturk had no interest in matters beyond Turkey’s borders, except to coexist peacefully with its neighbors. His actions towards the Caliphate however, still resonate. The office of the Caliphate was the ultimate symbol of Islam, and also created a link to the sacred heartland including Mecca and Medina. "Anyone who could succeed in severing that link, would cripple the institution of the Caliphate and render the world of Islam powerless". (Hosein 12)

The Islamic world had already been destabilized by the success of Britain in 1919, as it entered Jerusalem and declared that "The Crusades were finally over". (Hosein 13) The loss of the Caliphate further undermined Islam, and rendered it a weakened foe in the ultimate establishment of Israel in Muslim Palestine. According to Hosein, in those early years of the century, the goals of British diplomacy were to sever the links between Islamic nations in order to lessen the power of Islam and to create the Jewish state. Therefore, Ataturk’s goals for his country regarding religion contributed considerably, even if indirectly, to this plan.

Further, the formation of the nation of Turkey became the model for other countries, most importantly, Saudi Arabia. This was the pill most bitter to swallow for the Muslim, for this was the birthplace of Islam. "But the secularization process in the world of Islam was sealed when the Hejaz under the rule of Adul Aziz Ibn Saud, also joined Mustafa Kemal in the rejection of the supremacy of Islam over the state. And so, Arabia, the heartland of Islam, also embraced the secular model of a state." (Hosein 5) This action resulted in the God-given rights of all Muslims being eliminated. Until this action, all Muslims had rights guaranteed in the birthplace of Islam, including rights of entry, residence, and ability to seek livelihood. There had been no concept of Saudi sovereignty or citizenship. All Muslims could live, work, and participate in the political process. "The birth of the State of Saudi Arabia resulted in the denial, and eventually, the elimination of all these rights of Muslims." (Hosein 5) Needless to say, the huge oil wealth of Arabia would therefore also belong to all Muslims, not to one nation state.

Thus, the loss of the Caliphate and the creation of the State of Saudi Arabia following the secular model had enormous implications for the Islamic world. The very face of Islam was changed as western secularization and materialist views prevailed. Hosein responds: "History records since 1924 the confused attempts of modern Islamic scholarship to reconstruct a new public order on the secular foundations of the nation-state system." (Hosein 23) Since the Orthodox Muslim recognized no division between church and state (there is no Islamic church), it was not possible to do with Islam what Europeans had done with Christianity, hence establishing an Islamic state within a system of nation states was a futile goal. An Islamic Caliphate conference was held in 1926, and confirmed the necessity of the office of Caliphate for the world of Islam. The Caliphate must be re-established. This unmet goal remains as a profound source of polarization between East and West even today.

The discussion with Rasheeda brought a face and voice to this enigmatic Muslim. Her views stressed the importance of learning the foundations of Islamic thought. She explained that "Muslim" means one who submits to God, and that it is a way of life, not a religion. To her, Ataturk’s actions were heresy, and also represent the misinterpretation of what it means to be Muslim. How to explain the dilemma at this juncture. Ataturk had seemingly suppressed religion and was looked upon with hatred by Muslims. Yet, personal experience had revealed Turkey as a Muslim culture; the stirring call to prayer resounds five times a day, religious holidays are enthusiastically observed as national events. An American friend living in the interior of Turkey explains that her colleagues are religious and observant of Muslim customs. How to make sense of this paradox? How to explain the reality in the year 2000, and reconcile it to the events of the 1920’s? Clearly, more first-hand information was needed from within the country itself. As Rasheeda gave a face to the Muslim outside of Turkey and explained the ramifications of Ataturk’s actions on her life, it was necessary to meet and converse with Turkish Muslims to gain a perspective of Turkish life today, and the influence of Ataturk upon these lives.

The complexity of post- Ataturk Turkey was revealed in conversation with Fikret and Dogan. They are professors at the University in Kayseri, Turkey, and gave insight to the way that Muslim life has evolved through the years. While it seemed a paradox that Ataturk could effectively remove religion, yet Turkey now is an ethnically Muslim country, these men clarified the mystery. They are representative of the fact that although Ataturk reformed the social aspects of Islam, he did not wish to interfere with private religious practices, nor to deny private worship. This, in fact, was one of the foundations of what became known as Kemalism.

The following quotes are from an e-mail correspondence with the two professors in October 2000. When asked: "Did the religion have to be removed in order to reform the country and achieve ‘civilization’?" Fikret answered: "He (Ataturk) did not remove the religion but he did remove the superstitions from religion because the people at that time were mostly illiterate and learnt religion from people who were not knowledgeable. Fact and fiction were mixed up and someone was needed to clear the religion from erroneous beliefs. It was Ataturk who did that. The word ‘civilization’ is not the right term to be used here. This did not mean that Turkish people were not civilized then. I think, he meant ‘modernization’ by that term. It is not at all easy to reform a country even now. One has to make radical changes."

To the same question, Dogan responded: "No, but the concept of Ummet (which means the Brotherhood due to religion) had to be changed to nationalism." When asked about the state of religion in Turkey today, Fikret responded: "The state of religion today is, I believe, better than it was then. It is still a vital force in Turkey." Fikret and Dogan’s answers demonstrated that in Turkey now, religion is taught, but "in accordance with the principles of secularism." (Mango 79) The vast majority of citizens are Muslim, at least in name, but practice a form of religion controlled by the state. "Islam is the servant of civil power, not the other way around." (Mango 77)

And what does Turkey look like today? The results of Ataturk’s actions are reflected in modern Turkish society in every way. In modern Turkey, women have held important political office, including that of Prime Minister, and have lawful rights equal to those of men. Dress is westernized; consumerism is the way of life. Cultural sophistication is demonstrated as Internet buying outranks that of France, Italy, and Spain. It is estimated that within four years, fifty per cent of the population will own a mobile phone with Internet access. Mustafa Kemal was insistent that education was key to survival in the future, and statistics show the dramatic change-" the literacy rate in 1935 was nineteen per cent; in 1985 eighty-six per cent of men and sixty-eight per cent of women were classed as literate." (Mango 68)

The evidence of the rapid change in Turkish society in this century is obvious when meeting the younger generation. "Serdar" happened to be in New York in November 2000, and agreed to meet with me. His opinions clarified the experience of life in Turkey today. Serdar is the quintessential young Turkish entrepreneur. He is twenty-nine years old, and owns several bakeries in Istanbul. We met recently, for a conversation about Ataturk, at Dean and DeLuca on Broadway and Prince Street. Serdar travels to New York frequently for inspiration and creative ideas for his own business. He attended school in the U.S. for a few years and speaks excellent English. He is the personification of the Turkish spirit Ataturk wished to see in his people. He is educated, comfortable in Western society, proud, ambitious, and hard working. He demonstrates the confidence and self-reliance that Ataturk exhorted his people to obtain. Serdar views the outcome of Ataturk’s actions as a great accomplishment for his country, while acknowledging that not everyone agrees- namely the extremely religious.

Serdar explains that the industrialized and highly motivated West represents the more secular aspect of the country. The Eastern part of the country reflects the distance from the West in its more conservative religious views. The citizens of the West look upon some of their countrymen as too fanatical, and influenced by Iran and Iraq. Therefore, they are viewed as an impediment to the progress of the country. Serdar stated that now is the time for Turkey to become part of the European Union, a statement Ataturk surely would have endorsed. With his cell-phone to his ear, Serdar left Dean and DeLuca to investigate other cutting-edge New York bakeries for his research.

His admonishment about Turkey’s desire to enter the European Union relates directly to the conflict within the society today regarding Muslim practices. Whenever conservative religious factions are perceived as becoming too aggressive, the government steps in (at times with the military) to enforce controls. For example, in recent months officials have begun to enforce various laws that had been eased in the last few years. Most talked about is the wearing of headscarves by women. This is a common practice in Turkey, but lately has been prohibited for any young woman attending University, as well as the instructors. In this way, the government controls the burgeoning of any religious fervor.

An article in the Autumn 2000 Wilson Quarterly, by Cengiz Candar, explores the impact of these controls. Candar explains that ironically these same governmental methods are an issue in Turkey’s desire to become a member of the European Union. The use of force by the military and other governmental involvement is precisely what makes that organization nervous about accepting Turkey into its ranks. Strong opinion within Turkey now indicates that the country has grown up enough to more fully integrate Islamist parties, and stop fearing them. He explains that "Surprisingly, political Islam in Turkey takes perhaps the most benign and benevolent form found in the Muslim world." (Candar 95) His view is that Turkey now is holding too tightly to Ataturk’s original reforms, instead of going with the intent and spirit of his vision- to lead Turkey to the modern world. By simply holding on to the old methods of tightly controlling religious practices, Kemalists are preventing exactly what Ataturk would have desired for his country- now translated as being full members of the European Union with all the rights and benefits of this membership.

Ironically, the issue of European Union membership has joined both secular and religious forces towards the same goal. Candar believes that the political turmoil within Turkey is due to the Kemalists unwillingness to evolve to a "peaceful cohabitation" (Candar 96) with the country’s popular Islamist groups. He adds that this unwillingness is the major obstacle in Turkey’s acceptance in the European Union, and "thus to fulfilling the Kemalist dream of winning a secure place for Turkey in the Western constellation." (Candar 96) The Islamist groups are motivated by the European Union’s guarantees of civil liberties and access to such institutions as the European Court of Justice. It seems that at this juncture, Ataturk's vision and dreams for the continued advancement of his country could be short-circuited by the very followers who wish to hold on to his basic tenets of governing.

Ataturk’s legacy is indeed complex and far-reaching. There can be no doubt of the impact he made on twentieth century history, and beyond. While the western world continues to know little of him, his actions in forming Turkey as a secular Islamic state were profoundly important in their affect on the century, and in the resulting conflicts in the Middle East.

The vision Ataturk had for his country was limited to forming a proud, self-reliant nation that would coexist peacefully with its neighbors. He cared only for internal order and set limits for his nationalist movement. He had no interest in expanding his influence to other parts of the world. By the emulation of the model he created however, his influence and impact spread far beyond Turkey’s borders. The bitter response of the Orthodox Muslim to the mere mention of his name even now is testimony to his power and influence.

His secularization of Islam continues as a profound source of dismay in the Orthodox Muslim world; ability within Turkey to integrate these conflicting philosophical approaches remains a challenge for the twenty-first century. As Mango states, "recent experience suggests that political Islam is exclusive in its claims." (Mango 536) Turkey’s challenge now is to integrate these philosophies in order to further advance its position in the global sphere, and thereby continue to develop its unique culture and influence.

Within his country Ataturk’s accomplishments were astounding in their scope. In the context of his time frame, "Ataturk’s enlightened authoritarianism left a reasonable space for free private lives". (Mango 536) His institutionalization of Western ways opened his country to knowledge and education, and he had faith that his countrymen could overcome their disadvantaged place in the world. There is no question that women owe the rights they have by law and their prominent place in Turkish political life to Ataturk. His objectives for his country were to advance modernity and establish law and order. In Turkey today, the image of Ataturk benignly looks down from statues and portraits in every city. As Andrew Mango states in his biography Ataturk, however, "The Republic is his main monument".

Seen through the pragmatic lens of the West, there can be no doubt of Ataturk’s accomplishments. Without his goal for a strong self-reliant nation, the very existence of the country itself would be in question. While he most certainly caused years of traumatic change to the cultural psyche, he was responsible for creating a country unique in its position between East and West. His reforms provided a nation strong enough to move through time, and integrate its conflicting elements by retaining a controlled measure of its Islamic heritage. Ataturk’s role in twentieth century history remains controversial, but the gains for the nation he created cannot be denied.