The Reading Room
Kemal Atatürk Founds a Twentieth-century Islamic Nation Rooted in Enlightenment Ideas
He led an overwhelmingly Islamic population out of the Ottoman Empire, created a new secular nation, introduced protections of individual rights, deposed both the sultan and the caliph to introduce a presidency, initiated a Western economic system and Western dress, launched a new Latin-based alphabet, and earlier than many European nations established the rights of women.
Leaders and popular opinion have revered Mustafa Kemal as a historic champion of secular, liberal republicanism—and a giant in modern Islam. Turkey, the new nation he created in the framework of Enlightenment ideas and Western values, honored him with the name “Atatürk”—the Father of Turkey.
Decades since his death in 1938 have not dimmed this world reputation, but the resurgence of fundamentalist religion across Islam now challenges his legacy. Despite this, Turkey remains a member of NATO and other key European organizations and is working toward European Union membership, attesting to how well Atatürk built the new nation on fundamental principles.
The popular impression and that conveyed in many histories is that Atatürk, in just 15 years (1923-1938), consummated a near miraculous revolution. Much supports this impression: his triumphant military career, charismatic vision of a Westernized Turkey, and, not least, his imposing appearance. Atatürk’s position in history if the ideal of the secular, liberal, republican nation endures, seems secure.
But history also teaches that “great men” lead revolutions because they espouse powerful ideas at moments of historical receptivity. And it is those ideas that have laid the foundations of change.
The United States and modern European nations trace their birth as secular liberal republics committed to human rights and human equality to the ideas of the European Enlightenment (broadly 1600 to 1800). Enlightenment philosophical fundamentals—reason, science, secularism, individualism, limited government delegated to uphold rights—as integrated into the unifying concept of the autonomous, responsible individual free to choose, act, achieve, and enjoy the fruits of his labor—are the heritage of every free (or semi-free) nation with a liberal market economy.
None was “created” by an individual—or by fiat. We know that is true of European nations; but, for example, Japan—refashioned as a democratic republic under Allied occupation in the wake of WWII—had cultural roots in an era of Enlightenment philosophy and education during the Meiji period (the 1870s and after). The Japanese Enlightenment was “the phenomenon of absorption and intake of Western civilization…in parallel with the renovation of the political system, during the time when the strongly feudalistic Japanese culture that had been unbrokenly continued throughout the [previous] Edo period…”
Turkey had deep and explicit intellectual roots in the Enlightenment, the only Islamic country with such a legacy. "Atatürk was a competent commander, a shrewd politician, a statesman of supreme realism. But above all he was a man of the Enlightenment.” (Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey, by Andrew Mango. Abrams: New York City, 2000.)
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: 1880-1938
But first, briefly, who was the man whose entire life was inspired by the earlier Ottoman Enlightenment and a vision of Westernization, and who led creation of a new nation rooted in those ideas?
There are disputes about Mustafa’s early life, including the date of his birth in 1881. Mustafa (later “Kemal,” still later “Atatürk”) was born in the Ottoman Empire in Salonica (now in Greece). His father sent him to a traditional religious school with a contemporary education program. But his father died when Mustafa was only seven and Mustafa already had decided on a military career. He enrolled in a military junior high school, then Monastir Military High School in 1899, then the Ottoman War Academy in Constantinople, and was graduated in 1902.
The first half of Mustafa’s life is the story of his triumphant rise through the Ottoman imperial army. By WWI, which the Ottoman Empire entered on the side of the Central powers, Mustafa “Kemal” (a famous historic name given by an admiring teacher) proved ready for increasingly major commands. He led at Gallipoli, an infamous catastrophe for the Allied powers. The official record is that Mustafa Kemal won every battle he commanded in the war. By the end, he had risen into military administration.
When the Central powers lost the war, British, Italian, French, and Greek forces in 1918 surged into Anatolia and Constantinople to set up an Allied military administration. That incited mobilization of a Turkish national movement and the Turkish War of Independence, led by Mustafa Kemal. He responded to dissolution of the Ottoman Parliament by calling for a New National Assembly in Angora (now Ankara). At its first session, April 1920, the president of the Grand National Assembly (GNA) of Turkey was Kemal.
He led military and political resistance to Allied attempts to partition the Empire, insisting upon complete independence of a Turkish majority on Turkish soil. He persuaded the Assembly to recognize that sovereignty resided not in the Sultan but the nation. In 1922, a popular sovereignty law accompanied a new constitution. With the tools the Assembly gave him, Kemal created a national army and won the War of Independence.
Creation of a Modern, Secular, Liberal Islamic Nation
From that time forward, Kemal achieved one (often radical) reform after another that transformed the new Turkish nation into a secular, liberal republic. Here is a barebones list of the chief reforms:
- Civic independence (popular sovereignty) (1921).
- Abolition of the Caliphate (1924).
- Creation of a Directorate of Religion Affairs (1924).
- Locating the new capital at Ankara (1923).
- Advancement of freedom of the press (1925).
- Creation of a government statistics and census bureau (1926).
- Reform aimed at separation of church and state (1934).
- Introduction of women’s participation in politics (1934).
- Introduction of equality of the sexes in other areas (1926).
- Role modeling the Westernized man (1029-).
- Reform of personal names from Islamic to Western style. That same GNA that passed the law awarded Kemal the name “Atatürk” (1934).
- Reform of the calendar (1925-26).
- Establishment of co-education and education of women 1927).
- Industrialization and creation of a banking system (1927-1931).
The vision that drove these and dozens of related reforms was secularizing Turkish politics, education, military, and society; establishing a constitutional republic of rights, universal enfranchisement, and law; Westernizing social mores, including European dress; and fundamentally revamping the Turkish language on the Western model to make reading and writing accessible to more than a minority of Turks.
How did one man—not alone, but as the leader, inspiration, educator, and model—bring about this revolution in the years 1923-1938?