Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Turkish Secular Republic

Steve Muhlberger

Of all the attempts to adapt Islamic societies to the European challenge, there is none more radical than the program of Kemal Ataturk (Mustafa Kemal) to create a new Turkish nation that would be European rather than Asiatic, that would cut its links with Arabic and Persian culture and adopt the standards of  what he sometimes called “the whole civilized world.”

After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire still existed in name, but its territory was very much diminished and its future was in doubt.  Constantinople was occupied.  Greeks, Italians, French, Armenians, were all chipping away at its borders, and the Allies were demanding almost complete control of the government that would rule whatever they saw fit to leave to the Sultan.  The reduction of a diminished Ottoman Empire to protectorate status seemed inevitable.

This did not happen because of two factors.

Kemal was always a loner and had not been trusted by the Young Turks who had ruled the country, off and on, between 1908-1918.  After the war, though, he emerged as the hero of Gallipoli, and thus had his own independent claim to leadership.

In 1919 he received a commission from the Sultan as inspector of the Third Army with the task of bringing it and the eastern provinces under control.  Once he got there, however, Kemal began to organize a rival government.  Elections were held for a National Assembly, and under its authority Kemal. became President and Prime Minister of a state that was renamed Turkey.

It also adopted the National Covenant which declared the indivisibility of the fatherland and the “successful completion of the national movement” (“an independent Turkish nation living within its national boundaries” (EB)).   In other words, Mustafa Kemal had convinced his resistance movement to redefine itself as a Turkish Nationalist movement.

After the Greeks were defeated and the British were faced down, in 1922,  two radical measures quickly followed (1923):

The first was of course a matter of “ethnic cleansing,” the sorting out of two hostile populations that had long been mixed.  It was made possible by the mutual massacres that had taken place between 1918-1922 when the empire had been plunged in chaos.

The second measure was made possible by unusual circumstances, too.  The Sultan had not played a very inspiring role in the post-war period after the collapse of the Young Turk government.   His willingness to accommodate the Allies—which included military action against the nationalist movement—looked like treason to the men who had saved the Turkish homeland.  Mustafa Kemal was able to use the record of the Sultan against him.  He convinced the National Assembly that they had in effect already created a Turkish Republic and that they might as well go all the way.  Thus in October of 1923, Turkey became a republic with Kemal as president.

Kemal. was moving fast in forcing through this measure, but he wanted to go much farther.  Most Turks, even most modernist Turks, were Muslims and saw Islam as one of the foundations of the new Turkish national identity they were trying to establish.  But Kemal had little or no respect for religion, and held the religious leadership of Turkey in scorn.  At Smyrna, early on in the new regime, a holy man tried to convince him to honor a local Islamic saint for aiding in the recapture of the city from the Greeks.  Kemal responded that the saint deserved no credit, that the victory had been gained by the soldiers.

Mustafa Kemal wished to do away with Islam and the traditional religious institutions of Turkey as far as possible.  He saw them as fetters on the body politic, which tied the Turkish nation to a failed and out-of-date civilization—the Arabic-Persian civilization of the Middle East—and to a discredited way of looking at the world, the religious one.  Once upon a time, the Middle East civilization and the Islamic world-view had been the most advanced in the world, and the Turks had gained from their conversion to it.  But now that civilization and that religion were discredited, and the Turks had to turn to the secular and scientific civilization of Europe if they were to get anywhere.  To do this meant taking drastic action, tearing big swatches out of the social fabric of the country.   But he did not hesitate to do this.

To make the transition complete and irreversible, Kemal. also reformed the Turkish language through, first, a purge of the Persian and Arabic words from Turkish and their replacement with new words built from Turkish roots or in some cases French or other European roots (a similar process in European languages such as German) and second, a change from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman alphabet.   These two reforms together closed the door on the Ottoman tradition, by making it inaccessible to future generations, and turned those future generations towards Europe.  Remember that most Turks were illiterate.  They would in most cases not be able to remember the old style personally, and would have no access to it through organized teaching.  This was not a matter of practicality only!  It was a choice to align Turkey with “the whole civilized world."

How were such changes implemented?   Through the inspirational qualities of Kemal, and through the typical techniques of interwar dictatorship.

Kemal was a tough loner who had accomplished miracles.  He had a great deal of respect in the population at large, and the fear of his immediate associates.  He could get away with a lot.  More objective claims to leadership than  the more famous dictators of the interwar period.  But there is no doubt that Kemal was a dictator.  Kemal  had begun his program by building on the constitutional and electoral methods of the Young Turk regime, but he was opposed to anything that might reverse his revolution.  This included parliamentary opposition and the creation of rival parties.  His People’s Republican Party became the one party allowed, and at the same time a “vanguard part,.”  a parallel government with branches in every community and important institution, through which all patronage was distributed and which acted as a teaching and enforcement body.

He did twice allow rival parties to be formed as loyal oppositions.  But each time when real opposition to Kemal's policies began to gather around these parties and be publicly expressed, M.K. shut them down.

The similarity with other dictators of the time is  a real one.   He was the leader of a defeated nation, who saw a complete transformation of his society as its only salvation.   He turned his back on Islam as thoroughly as Hitler did on German Christianity, and Lenin and Stalin did on all aspects of  corrupt bourgeois Western civilization.  He wanted to create a New Turkish Man like the communists wanted to make a New Soviet Man.

Another similarity:  etatism or “state socialism.”  It was seen as the only way to resist foreign domination and to modernize the Turkish economy.  Remember history of the capitulations and the concessions, which even Kemal. had had a hard time bringing to an end.

Nor was he bloodthirsty,   though he was very ruthless, notably against the Kurds.   He made no systematic attempts to massacre entire populations like the Nazis or the Soviets, and he had no military ambitions.   Kemal  was deliberately anti-imperial.  He saw the old empire  as a drag on the Turks.  Though he had devoted his life to preserving the Turkish nation and its homeland, he was glad to get rid of all the provinces where there was no significant Turkish population.  He avoided the temptation of pan-Turkism (the dream of uniting all Turkic peoples all the way to China).   By comparison with other dictators of the time, he was very moderate and realistic.

His success was uneven.  Turkey was in bad shape after the war, and its population was rural and illiterate.  They followed Kemal for basic reasons:  he had saved the country from its enemies.  He was renamed “Ataturk,” "Father Turk."  The majority had little sympathy for the rest of his project.  They followed it because there was no practical alternative.

From such people, Ataturk could take away much of their past heritage, and upon them he could impose the basic symbols of  European civilization:  suits, hats and ties, a parliament and a republican constitution with universal suffrage, a Roman alphabet.  But he could not transform Turkey from a country of peasants with a depressed economy into a secular, scientific modern country with an industrial economy overnight, or even in a generation.

Thus his heritage to his homeland is still uncertain.  In recent years the disappointment with the state of  the economy and politics has made an Islamist party newly popular in a country that is officially secular.

Nevertheless, Ataturk was inspiration to nationalists of later generations.  His relative success seemed to make his way the obvious pattern for development elsewhere.  The rise of Islamist alternatives to his project, even in Turkey, is one of the most significant phenomena of our times.


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.