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Ataturk: Lessons in leadership from the greatest general of the Ottoman Empire | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The downfall of several Arab despots, starting with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, has fomented a new fear: seizure of power by Islamists determined to deny Arabs a taste of freedom. To allay that fear, leaders of Islamist parties in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, where the despot has not yet fallen, use a magic formula: “The Turkish Model”.

The inventor of “The Turkish Model” was one Mustafa Kemal Pasha who founded the Turkish Republic and earned the sobriquet of Ataturk or “Father of the Turks”. By all accounts Ataturk remains one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.

But what is “The Turkish model”?

The common perception is that Ataturk created a secular system with a strict separation of religion and state. Arab Islamists, however, see “The Turkish Model” as one in which religious parties could win power through elections, as happened in the case of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyib Erdogan.

Neither view reflects the real situation.

What we have in Turkey is a secular government in a religious society. There is no separation of mosque and state because government controls religious institutions, including mosques and churches through intricate rules and regulations.

In Turkey, religion is a major industry employing tens of thousands of people. Ataturk could not allow such an industry to operate outside state control.

Ataturk’s passion for a centralized government, as the key instrument in his modernization project, is in contrast with his military doctrine in which decentralization and flexibility were key concepts.

Austin Bay’s book focuses on Mustafa Kemal’s remarkable military career which made him “The Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire.”

This is a short but action-packed military biography which provides a dramatic perspective of Kemal Pasha’s leadership both on the battlefield and in headquarters.

Kemal entered the army at a time that history was in high gear.

Rival European empires were nibbling at the vast Ottoman Empire, already weakened with debt and mocked as “The Sick Man of Europe.” Then there was the First World War which eventually led to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, leaving a rump that Kemal turned into modern Turkey. Kemal experienced fighting against more foreign enemies, among them Russians, Frenchmen, Greeks and Brits, than almost any other military leader in history.

Bay portrays the future Ataturk as a highly politicized man from his earliest days. It was as a student at the Istanbul War College that Kemal joined the pro-reform Unity and Progress secret society whose members came to be known as “The Young Turks.”

Kemal realized that if war had any sense it was only as an instrument of politics. In other words he was not one of those generals who morph into military robots with little understanding of the political undercurrents that shape history.

Austin Bay who has had a distinguished military career himself, is able to offer what sounds like an insider’s account of the many battles in which Kemal shined as a brave and visionary commander.

Kemal’s military career reached its peak with the Turkish War of Independence which transformed him from a popular general into the spiritual father of a nascent nation. If Turkey managed to escape being chopped into even smaller pieces, it was largely thanks to Kemal’s ability to galvanize his people in the darkest hours of defeat and desolation.

In an address in October 1927, Kemal said: “To speak of war means not only two armies but {in essence} two nations coming face to face and fighting against one another with all their being and all their resources, involving both material and spiritual resources. For this reason, I had to interest the whole Turkish nation in thought, sentiment and action in the same way as the army on the front.”

Kemal’s military doctrine was based on a hierarchy of values at the top of which was the “nation” (millet) just above the parliament (Majlis) as the political expression of the nation’s will. The “army” (Ordu) came at the bottom, indicating Kemal’s belief that the military were in the service of the nation and never its masters.

To practice what he preached, as soon as he became President of the Republic, and thus a political figure, Kemal shed his military uniform and took care to enhance the power and prestige of the elected Grand National Assembly (the parliament).

Ataturk is often labeled “nationalist”, a term that, in these days of “universal values”, makes some people uncomfortable. However, Ataturk’s nationalism was not defined in terms of aggressiveness or expansionism against other nations. His Turkey never even intended invading someone else’s territory and, remarkably for a country of its size, has not been involved in any war against its neighbours.

Ataturk’s was a creative nationalism. He needed to revive the long-dead national consciousness of the Turkish component of the Ottoman Empire so that he could build a new nation-state as its expression. In the process, most non-Turk components of the rump left by the disappearance of the caliphate were also re-moulded into Turks. Until the 1980s at least, even ethnic Kurds, though getting a raw deal from the Turkish Republic, accepted the rules of the game set by Ataturk.

While there is little doubt that Ataturk was a military genius and one of the most outstanding political leaders of the last century, we must not forget that his success partly depended on the fact that he reflected the spirit of his times. His were the days of nationalism, modernization and secularism in many parts of the world. This is why the model he created found a favorable echo in such widely different countries as Iran, China, Japan, the Arab Middle East, India and even Argentina.

A year ago, Ataturk and his “ Turkish Model” appeared to belong to another age. Now, however, both are back under the limelight as sources of inspiration for the historic movement that started with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the pro-freedom uprisings in Iran and the Arab Middle East.

Bay writes : “ Ataturk believed that reason and logic provide the foundation for common values that all nations and cultures may share and respect.” This is a “ grand and affirmative ideal” indeed.