In defence of Ataturk

Ishtiaq Ahmed

Posted Nov 24, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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In defence of Atatrk Ishtiaq Ahmed

Atat염rk salvaged his country from being reduced to an Anatolian hinterland enclave and, above all, a client state of British imperialism. He also made the right choice by embarking upon modernisation and Westernisation instead of relapsing into the Middle Eastern quagmire of despotism, intrigue and Islamism

A series of articles on Turkey by fellow columnist Ahmad Faruqui have appeared in Daily Times recently. The overall message is a positive evaluation of that country and its achievements. However, in his November 4 article (Turkeys strategic culture) when discussing the role of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal AtatҼrk, his observations are superficial and dont do justice to the role played by that extraordinary man to save Turkey from oblivion and put it on a track which 70 years later has resulted in the consolidation of a secular democracy.

AtatҼrk salvaged his country from being reduced to an Anatolian hinterland enclave and, above all, a client state of British imperialism. He also made the right choice by embarking upon modernisation and Westernisation instead of relapsing into the Middle Eastern quagmire of despotism, intrigue and Islamism.

Faruqui alleges that Atatrk banished Islam from Turkish politics and embraced the French definition of secularism 쓗 not so much neutral towards all faiths as antagonistic towards public expressions of the dominant religion.

The fact is that the patriotic Sunni-Hanafi religious establishment supported AtatԼrk in the liberation war against the Allied forces on Turkish soil, while the captive Sultan-caliph, Vahiduddin, and the reactionary ulema at the royal court, sided with the British who ironically had dismembered their empire weeks earlier!

Later, when Atatrk established the secular republic the Sunni establishment was adjusted into the Directorate of Religious Affairs and the Hanafi doctrines continued to receive state patronage. Recently the Alevi minority, which constitutes some 15-20 per cent of the population, has been protesting that the state favours Sunni-Hanafi doctrines. They want the state to be completely neutral and have been demanding that state funds support their cultural and religious organisations instead of only Sunni mosques and cultural organisations.

To say, therefore, that Atatrk forbade the public expressions of the dominant religion is not entirely correct. He suppressed outmoded cultural practices but did not touch Islam as a private belief. Admittedly this policy can be criticised but revolutions have negative aspects or consequences, which cannot be denied. But compared to the most famous revolutions which changed the world in the last few centuries 켗 the American Declaration of Independence and the consolidation of that revolution in 1862-63 with the defeat of the south; the French Revolution of 1789; the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949; and, the revolution in Iran in 1979 the loss of life in Turkey has been minimum.

During the 600 years of Ottoman glory the rate of literacy in Turkey was only around three percent. Among women it may have been less than a fraction of one percent. All that changed dramatically and today Turkey has one of the best literacy rates in the Muslim world.

The second observation which I find disturbing is Faruquiגs statement that Favouring alcohol, cigarettes, and flashy women, the extravagant Ataturk seemed more interested in worldly pursuits than in the spiritual teachings of Islam, which nevertheless were a key influence in the life of the majority of his fellow citizens, like they had been in the lives of their forbears for centuries. In 1938, he succumbed to a very European ailment, cirrhosis of the liver.Ӕ

I have no access to the record of the diseases that caused the deaths of the Ottoman sultans and elites but maintaining huge harems in which carnal pleasure was the one and only pursuit cannot be denied by anyone. When the last sultan-caliph was expelled from Turkey his huge householdђ included his wives, concubines and eunuchs.

In contrast, Atatrk married only once. He adopted an orphan girl as his daughter. He toured the length and breadth of his country urging women to enrol in schools and get educated. His adopted daughter became a pilot, serving as a role model for Turkish women struggling to liberate themselves from patriarchal malpractices.

There can be no denying that Kurdish rights to their language and culture have been denied although there is no discrimination against Kurds in the economic or political spheres. There are more Kurds elected to the Turkish Grand Assembly than their proportion (15-20 percent) of the population of Turkey warrants, but they are elected as members of secular political parties and not ethnic parties.

The suppression of Kurdish rights has deep historical roots in the fact that Western powers encouraged first Christian minorities and then Muslim Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Since then Turkish security concerns have been overly sensitive to the possibility of Kurdish secession. All well-wishers should encourage Turkey to respect Kurdish language and culture while emphasising that the country has the right to reject any suggestion of breaking it up on an ethic basis.

I dont know what Faruqui had in mind when he talked about Turkey쒒s strategic culture being rooted in the Ottoman past. I hope he is not thinking that Turkish admission into the EU would be through military conquest. That was the route the Ottomans tried until they were repulsed from the gates of Vienna in 1683.

Atatrk had to employ force to bring down very powerful vested interests wedded to maintaining (the) medieval culture and societal arrangements. Some of his reforms were certainly resisted by the people but had he been defeated where would Turkey be now? We have the Iran of the Ayatollahs and the Wahhabi state of the Saudi family as alternative models of state and nation building. Then we have the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan and the Baath in Syria. Would one want Turkey to emulate any of these states?

Atat쒼rk tried to emulate over a few years the evolution which took Europe several centuries but which had come to a standstill in the Muslim East when the Mongols laid waste to Baghdad in 1258. Afterwards there were more conquests and many grand empires including the Ottoman and Mughal. However, in terms of social, economic and scientific developments nothing worthwhile happened in all those centuries that could have taken Turkey forward into the modern age. Judging Atatrks role fairly is not possible without grasping this point.

The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books.

Originally published in the Daily Times - Site Edition at
and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.