Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat – In Turkey, it is as though Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had only died yesterday such is the significance of the role he plays in the daily lives of the Turks. He is also frequently quoted in speeches. In reference to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the problems related to the Iraqi borders due to Kurdish activity, Turks say that if Ataturk were alive today, this would not be happening.
“If Ataturk was alive today, he would execute Abdullah Ocalan,” in reference to the leader of the PKK who is currently sentenced to imprisonment in Turkey. “Ataturk would never allow anyone to threaten the unity of the Turkish territories,” explained Mohamed, a Turkish trader.
The answer to many issues regarding prices, unemployment, the veil or the confrontation between secularists and Islamists usually begins with “If Ataturk was alive today…”
The Turks differ on many things; however, they agree on Ataturk. Religious figures, the poor, the rich, the middle class, and the religious clerics all remember him in their prayers. No Turkish leader since has enjoyed such an elevated status.
Born May 19, 1881, Ataturk served as the first president of Turkey from 29 October, 1923 until he died in 1938. He also served as the first Turkish prime minister between 3 May, 1920 and 24 January, 1921; first speaker of the Turkish Parliament from 1921 to 1923 and the first leader of the Republican People’s Party from 1921 to 1938. He also enjoyed a similar status at the international level as he was one of the most important political figures of his time and his picture was published three times on the front cover of ‘Time Magazine’ in the US in 1923, 1927 and 1934.
Any visitor to Turkey cannot miss the pictures of Ataturk and the Turkish national flag all over the cities.
Everyday, hundreds of people arrive at Ataturk’s mausoleum that is known as ‘Anıtkabir’ to learn more about the man. Some people have been moved to tears upon hearing his recorded speeches being played. The mausoleum, built in the heart of Ankara, contains Ataturk’s famous expressions including, “Sovereignty belongs to the nation unconditionally.”
The grave of Ataturk is in an underground chamber that is off limits to visitors. However, one can view the grave via a television screen. By the grave, there are pots of soil from every Turkish province; a request made by Ataturk to be buried with soil from the different parts of his homeland.
Above the grave, there is a portrait of Ataturk with children, women, workers, teachers, and employees, all of them carrying torches of fire. The museum relates the history of the establishment of the modern Turkish republic. It contains pictures of some of the most important Turkish female writers of that time, most notably Naziha Hanem in 1924. It was one of the first pictures of Turkish women not wearing the headscarf after Ataturk had banned it. There is also a picture of civil servants wearing their new compulsory attire in 1925, namely, the suit, hat and tie, in addition to a picture of Turkey’s first beauty queen in 1929.
The mausoleum also contains a rare letter written by Ataturk, which is one of the first letters in which he used Latin letters instead of the Ottoman and Arabic scripts. This letter dates back to 9 August, 1928. There is also a picture of a group of unveiled girls graduating from Istanbul University in 1973, in addition to the first sheet of metal that marks the first time Latin letters were used instead of Ottoman and Arabic letters that also carried a picture of Ataturk, Ismet Inonu and the then Minister of Education, Mustafa Necati.
In the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (parliament) that was inaugurated by Ataturk in 1924 and that witnessed the declaration of the Turkish republic, there are many monuments built in honour of Ataturk. There are wax statues of Ataturk and his vice-president Ismet Inonu, as well as members of the first elected parliament in Turkey and a large picture of Ataturk’s funeral in 1938 in Istanbul.
As part of the military, Ataturk spent half of his life fighting the armies of the superpowers in the battlefields and spent the other half in Turkish parliament and the presidential palace in Cankaya where he laid down the foundations of the new state.
When World War I ended, as Turkey was defeated and large parts of it were occupied by the Allied forces, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led the war of independence to liberate Anatolia. But a disagreement occurred between Ataturk and the Ottoman sultan when he rejected the sultan’s commands to leave Ankara and return to Istanbul, which was occupied by the British at the time. Ataturk resigned from the military and organized the liberation forces in May 1919 and under his command they fought the Greek, British, French, and Italian forces until the all the occupying forces were ousted in 1922.
In 1920, during the battles for liberation, Ataturk had established the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara, which became a parallel government to the authority of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul and began debates for a new constitution on November 19, 1920. A month later, 20 January 1921, the constitution was ratified during an assembly session. In 1922, Ataturk declared victory and the liberation of Turkish land, in addition to the abolition of the sultanate. He signed the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 and declared the establishment of the Turkish Republic on 29 November, 1923. He was then appointed president and made Ankara the capital of the new state instead of Istanbul.
Following his success on the battlefield, Mustafa Kemal transformed from a military man to a politician and launched a set of social and cultural reforms, which he considered necessary to reconstruct the Turkish nation. These included banning religious schools, revoking the Shariah courts, and abolishing religious titles and orders. Furthermore, he adopted the western calendar system.
In 1928, Ataturk issued a decree that the Latin alphabet was to be used in Turkey instead of Arabic. He made primary education compulsory for both men and women. He adopted civil laws derived from the Swiss Civil Code. He also banned the Fez hat and religious cloak and adopted new laws in the country that would ensure equality between men and women, granting women the right to vote. He then focused on and stressed the separation between the state and religion.
Turkey underwent radical changes during the next 15 years. However, the revolution of reforms, led by Ataturk, did not come without a price or without its critics, especially from amongst the first generation to experience the sudden changes that were imposed upon Turkish society by Ataturk.
Turkish writer Adalet Agaoglu, who is in her late eighties and who herself says that she suffered as part of the first generation as a result of Ataturk’s revolution, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Ataturk’s reforms were decreed from high above, in that, they did not come from the people. It was very difficult at the beginning for the majority of the Turks. For example, he brought together uneducated people, both males and females, in all Turkish villages and set out to teach them how to read and write. Not everyone was happy about this as farmers wanted to cultivate [their crops] rather than go to school; however there was no choice as this was the law now and it was imposed from above. It was as if we were in a laboratory and everyone was subjected to examination. Ataturk, however, was subject to this same examination with us. He did make any demands that he did not adopt himself, from wearing suits and ties to learning [how to use] Latin letters.”
Agaoglu told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Women were the ones who suffered the most from Ataturk’s reforms. Many women didn’t want to take off their headscarves and were harmed as a result of their new attire. Also, many women were not willing to go to school as their families were not enthusiastic about the idea. In the Turkish villages back then, Ataturk’s educational and social revolution was not well received by some who believed that girls should stay at home to protect their honour and help their mothers. Ataturk used to say: ‘The Ottoman state has ended and you now live in the republic of Turkey, which is a European state.’ It was clear to the Turks that there was no going back; however, people supported him because of his victory in the war for liberation As for me, what is most interesting from Ataturk’s reforms is the way in which he dealt with the military, which was part of what remained from the Ottoman state. But what happened after the war? Ataturk began the same rehabilitation [process] with the army as he did with the Turkish people. The military had to study the history of the republic and understand its new distinct identity.”
At the beginning, the majority of the Turks did not comprehend the amendments introduced by Ataturk. The clerics, who were amongst the elite and who enjoyed prominent economic and social status suddenly became ordinary citizens. Furthermore, top government officials were no longer important after the establishment of the republic, and educated people were no longer educated due to the change from Ottoman script to Latin forcing everybody to re-educate themselves from scratch.
These social transformations were later accompanied by economic reforms. The old city centre of Istanbul, or the district of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, an area where the elite and the affluent members of society had once lived, including clerics, merchants and teachers gradually transformed into an area inhabited by the middle class. It deteriorated further as time passed and the educated classes left the area. Today, it is an area inhabited by artisans and craftsmen.
Agaoglu told Asharq Al-Awsat: “These reforms were very confusing for the Turks. Clerics were prohibited from wearing the Fez hat and the religious cloak, which were replaced by the Western suit, hat and tie. Women were also prohibited from wearing the headscarf. Quranic lessons and the signs of piety were no longer welcomed and were later banned. People were joking about Ataturk’s way of thinking and were asking what secularism was. Why had he wanted a secular state? Clerics, officials and farmers did not understand it, but everyone followed the leader of the war of liberation. But people would frequently say, ‘He sees what we fail to see’. Turkey proceeded in a manner that was unlike any other country in the region. It neither hated the West nor accepted the occupation; rather it adopted secularism and democracy as a system. We knew that this had yet to be applied in the Arab world because news was still transmitted between Istanbul and the Arab states.”
As for the ordinary Turks, they would frequently mention Ataturk’s victory over the invading forces that sought to divide the remnants of the Ottoman state amongst themselves. Erdogan Baktash, a Turkish citizen in his eighties who voted for the Justice and Development Party [AKP] in the recent elections, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Ataturk fought against the armies of four countries and achieved victory over them without funds or advanced means. May God rest his soul; he is the eternal leader of Turkey. Some say that Ataturk was not a believer [in Islam], but this is incorrect as he had memorized the holy Quran and knew Arabic. Have any leaders of the Turkish military today memorised the Holy Quran? No.”
“There is no one like Ataturk. He had nothing when he died as he distributed all his wealth amongst the Turks. At present, the best Turkish politician is corrupt. Everyone is benefiting from their own position. No one loves Turkey in the way that Ataturk did,” said Baktash.
Baktash however remembers some frightening elements relating to the way in which the Turkish state dealt with banning religious lessons. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I remember when I was six years old in the village; two of my father’s friends came over to have dinner with us. Then they entered the mosque, performed prayer and sat with a number of children teaching them about religion. The police came and arrested them, searched their homes and interrogated them. Because they were my father’s friends, police came and arrested my father and brother. We didn’t hear from them for four days until they were released.”
Baktash remembered the difficulties that many Turks experienced at the hands of the authorities. He talked about the decree that banned the public call to prayer in the Arabic language. However, when the first elections were held and the Republican People’s Party was defeated by the Democratic Party, the Arabic public call to prayer was reinstated instead of the call to prayer in Turkish. “Personally, I was happy about that,” Baktash said.
But Ataturk’s reforms did not only cause upset among the religious people; the Kurds also disliked him. Mustafa Halil, a young Kurd living in Diyarbakir, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Ataturk had built a state for the Turks and not for all of Turkey’s people as the Turkish ethnicity is the only recognized one. As for us, the Kurds, we have to show that we are Turks [above anything else] in order to be acknowledged. Ataturk prohibited the use of the Kurdish language and sought to crush our identity. He then set in place a national anthem that included the phrase: ‘happy is he who says I’m a Turk.’”
What remained from Ataturk’s achievements was the state that he established. Although Ataturk was not a democratic figure personally, he was surrounded by sound advisers and would ask for their counsel before he made any final decisions. Thus, he laid down the foundation for a liberal system. In this regard, Adalet Agaoglu said, “What is interesting regarding Ataturk is that he focused his whole attention on social reforms rather than economic reforms. He believed in liberalism rather than plurality.”
During Ataturk’s reign, there were no opposition parties or figures. As for Ataturk and Ismet Inonu, their absolute governance was “a temporary political necessity to build the republic” and not an example that should be followed. Therefore, no measures were taken by them in terms of succession following Ataturk’s death, and they stressed the importance of respecting the existing democratic institutions.
Andrew Mango, a leading professor who specializes in Turkish affairs, observed that unlike totalitarian regimes in which ruling parties dominated the state, the Republican People’s Party, founded by Ataturk, did not control the state but was in fact controlled and used by the state to proliferate its new ideology, that is, secularism and modernity. However, the succession of Ismet Inonu was not an easy matter for him because even though Inonu shadowed Ataturk for over 20 years, there were differences in opinion between them during the 1930s and they began to drift apart.
The exact reasons for their disputes are unknown however; the method that Inonu followed after Ataturk’s death may partly reveal the reasons for differences in opinion. After the death of Ataturk, Inonu reopened the religious schools, which were always under tight control. The death of Ataturk spread fear in Turkey. As his illness intensified in November 1938, even top officials were fearful. The atmosphere was bleak during Ataturk’s final days and even Inonu who succeeded him was scared of what the future would hold. When Ataturk’s death was announced, thousands of people took to the streets in mourning.
“I was only two years old when Ataturk died. We had no radio at that time but we heard the news from others who were crying in the streets. I remember that everyone cried for him. May God rest his soul,” Baktash said.
Millions of people attended the funeral including many women who had admired Ataturk for instating the laws that granted Turkish women the right to vote and be elected in municipal elections in 1930, and the laws that granted them the right to vote and be elected in parliament in 1934.
“The women in particular were very sad,” said Adalet Agaoglu, “I remember seeing my mother crying and praying and she didn’t sleep for days due to her sadness. Turkey, as a whole, cried and was afraid.” Perhaps it is still afraid today. Even though the Turks are proud of the legacy Ataturk has left behind, there is also a fear of it.
Mustafa Kemal was born in Salonika that was part of the Ottoman Empire and which today is part of Greece. His father, Ali Riza, was a customs official who then worked in the wood industry, however, he died when Mustafa was still a young child. His mother, Zubeyde Hanim, educated him herself. Through her, he formed his vision about women that was characterized by great respect whereby he granted them equal rights to men. Mustafa continued to be called Mustafa Ali Riza until he started school where his maths teacher, called Kemal, asked if he could call him Mustafa Kemal due to his extraordinary intelligence in the subject. Thus, he was now known as Mustafa Kemal. After joining the Ottoman army, Mustafa Kemal became Mustafa Kemal Pasha after the Ottoman sultanate bequeathed upon him this title for his accomplishments in the First World War.
In the Grand National Assembly of Turkey’s first session following the war of liberation, Turkish parliament gave Mustafa Kemal the title of ‘Ghazi’. When the law that imposed family surnames was introduced in 1934, the Grand National Assembly gave Mustafa Kemal the right to choose his surname and so he chose Ataturk, which means ‘father of the Turks’. Since then, nobody has used that same surname out of respect for Ataturk.