Tracing Turkey’s Creation to French Enlightenment’s Influence

Antecedents of the revolution led by Ataturk must be sought in the Turkish Enlightenment, which had two phases.
First, in 1865, Ottoman Turkish intellectuals, among them many medical students and military cadets, established a secret society, the Young Ottomans, to reform Ottoman society, modernizing it in the European tradition by adopting a constitutional government--even while preserving the Empire and some Islamic tenets. Their method was synthesis of liberalism and parliamentary democracy with Islamic jurisprudence. Among its leaders was the writer, poet, and playwright Namik Kemal. Later, the vision and ideology of Atatürk would be called (including by him) “Kemalism.”

Just two years after founding their organization in Istanbul, the fiery political publications of the Young Ottomans brought a response from the Ottoman government that drove Namik Kemal and others into exile in Paris and Vienna. It was there, in those years, that Kemal translated the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Victor Hugo, and others. He published the reformist newspaper Hürriyet (“Freedom). Remarkably, Kemal is best known for having virtually introduced into the Turkish language the concepts of “freedom” and “fatherland.”  (As a side note: These concepts cannot be viewed as absolutely de novo in Islam. As Cato Institute Senior Fellow Mustafa Akyol writes, the early Mecca Quran did not call for marriage of religion and state “but issued the sensible call: ‘To you your religion, and to me mine.’” He adds: “…what Islam called for in Mecca in the early 7th century” was liberty.)
Enabled in 1871 to return from exile, Kemal and other Young Ottomans poured out revolutionary publications, including Kemal’s most famous play, “Fatherland,” which expounded the idea of liberalism. That landed him in jail in Cyprus (1973-1976”) and another period in exile. By 1876, the Young Ottomans had pressured a reluctant Sultan to promulgate the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. It was a beginning, but short-lived; the sultan reverted to absolute monarchy. The group continued to exist until WWI and the fall of the Empire.

Second, a better-known group, the Young Turks, emerged several decades later to continue work of the Young Ottomans, leading a rebellion against the sultan (the “Young Turk Revolution of 1908) and helping to usher in the first era of multi-party democracy (the “Second Constitutional Era”). By 1913, however, the struggle among new parties had led to a one-party state with absolute power in the Ottoman Empire. This government led the Empire into WWI on the side of the Central Powers.

Most germane to our narrative is that both movements, in advocating European-style constitutional government, reached for the Enlightenment ideas that had shaped those governments--and thereby introduced them into Ottoman intellectual culture. This process of acculturation spanned some half-a-century (1865-1914). Consequently, the ideas were there to be encountered by young men like Mustafa, and, equally important, later to be summoned up by him to link his “Kemalist” revolution with a tradition known by the people. 

Transmission of Enlightenment Ideas
This article can offer only the briefest overview of the emergence of the Enlightenment in the Ottoman Empire and subsequently the young Republic of Turkey, which

 “…did not have…the Renaissance, 17th century scientific revolutions, or the modern wars of religion.”

“There are mechanisms noted by historians for the spread of the Enlightenment from its Western European origin. … the first…actors and networks of people that carried the ideals of Enlightenment. The second…dispersion of the Enlightenment ideals through the texts that were systematically translated across different domains of inquiry… 

“It appears that both…were in place during the Ottoman Enlightenment period. Many Ottoman-Turkish thinkers visiting Western Europe, especially France…received education, and influenced political and intellectual life within the Ottoman Empire. Many literary and scientific works were translated to the Ottoman and later Turkish languages. For instance, from 1729 to 1928, the year Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet, 3,534 books were translated into Turkish… This tradition continued in the young Turkish republic…” 

Ottoman intellectuals in Istanbul worked to master Enlightenment ideas, but across the vast Empire, spread over three continents, a huge diversity of ethnic groups (including Greeks, Armenians, and Jews) had their own trajectories of enlightenment. As early as 1803, Greeks established an academy in Ayvalik with a laboratory and library. At the beginning of the 1800s, a young Greek scholar, Konstantine Kumas, was teaching experimentation, observation, and Kantian philosophy in Greek schools in Izmir. By 1841, Charles MacFarlane, a Scottish author visiting Istanbul, expressed surprise—almost shock—that medical students were reading works by Baron d’Holbach, Diderot, and Cabanis. And that Voltaire’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Candide had been translated to Ottoman. In fact, the medical school nurtured important Enlightenment intellectuals including Hayrullah Efendi, Hekim Ismail Pasha, and Fuat Pasha. 

The ruling Ottoman Patriarchate kept closing schools as a threat to its authority over the Greek population. The same suppression of independent thought, secularization, and Enlightenment ideals caused the Young Ottomans in 1865 to constitute themselves a secret society. 

At this time, it is true, members of the Ottoman ruling class and elite openly sought ideas for change in Europe, but they tended to justify this as developing an advantage in military and economic affairs. “Many diplomats were sent to Europe and an extensive flow of Western ideas, tools, knowledge, and ways of living became available.” Later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Mustafa Kemal became one of these emissaries to Paris.

Opposition to “Kemalism”

Thus, Kemal brought to fruition a century-long scientific, philosophical, and cultural movement, which, by 1923, had matured and repeatedly been tested against suppression. His ideas and the results he achieved tended to override opposition, then and now, but there were challenges to his methods. He governed as president in a nation with a single political party (the Republican People’s Party, 1923-1945). Not until seven years after his death (on November 10, 1938) did a second party, the National Development Party, come into existence. It is true, however, that throughout the years of the Republican People’s Party monopoly, Atatürk repeatedly urged opposition parties to organize.

Atatürk’s style and outlook, including as president, has been described as military. He demanded changes ranging from Western dress for men to regularizing names in promulgating a Latin-based alphabet—among measures not strictly liberal--to drive Westernization of his countrymen. Andrew Mango comments that “he was a man of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment was not made by saints.”