Every nation has its heroes. For the United States, two of the top candidates would no doubt be Abraham Lincoln, for preventing the dissolution of the Union and for his stance against slavery, the country’s greatest stain, and George Washington, for leading the country to victory in the War of Independence and serving as its first president. In some countries, especially many monarchies or de facto monarchies, the current ruler is placed on a highly public pedestal for adoration (see post of 5.4). Communist Russia, China and Vietnam all chose to honor their “greatest” leaders by embalming them and putting them on display. No country I can think of, however, can lay claim to a man whose stature in the country is as monumental, and as well-deserved, as Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

At a teahouse in Cappadocia

Ataturk is several heroes wrapped up in one. First, and perhaps foremost, he was a great military general, who not only was victorious in important First World War battles but more importantly saved the country from disintegration after the war. Upon the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the First World War, there was a definite possibility that the Turks would lose not only the more far-flung outposts of their empire, such as now Iraq, the Levant and Arabia, but substantial territory in the Turkish-ethnic heartland of Anatolia (now Turkey). The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920, carved Anatolia up into several pieces to be occupied by the victorious Allied powers, including France, Britain and Italy, and, perhaps more perilously for Turkey, Greece was rewarded for its war efforts with an Anatolian concession, around the city of now Izmir, which went beyond occupation to a sort of attempted integration of a significant part of Anatolia into Greece through conquest and ethnic cleansing. It was up to the forces of the new Turkish Republic, led by Ataturk, to fight back–including by quickly gaining the support of France and Italy–and save the homeland, to create a new Turkish state from the remains of the Ottoman Empire.

Like George Washington and so many others, Ataturk turned his military role into a political one, first by transferring his First World War hero status into a role as a republican revolutionary against the Ottoman Empire and then by using his leadership in the Turkish War of Independence against the Brits and the Greeks to become the first president of the new Turkish Republic.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul

It is his actions as president that to me define his stature, his paramount importance to Turkey. Ataturk had a singular determination to create a modern and westernized Turkish state, which could only be accomplished by creating a new Turkish national identity. The radical reforms that Ataturk introduced are almost too great and numerous to believe, ranging from the national language and legal system, to people’s dress, to religious life and the role of women in society. Even with complete cooperation from all within the country, even with a hundred years much less the fewer than twenty that Ataturk had, it would have been miraculous to institute such changes over an entire nation.

In Turkish Cyprus. (It wasn’t clear to me whether the native Cypriots of Turkish descent cherish Ataturk as much as the more recent immigrants from Turkey, who make up a significant percentage of the population of Northern Cyprus.)

Language. The Turkish language as used by the Ottoman court was infused with Arabic and Persian and written in Arabic script. Ataturk reformed the Turkish national language on the spoken vernacular and invented a new alphabet based on the Latin alphabet. The reformed and standardized national language no doubt improved literacy and communications, and the modified Latin alphabet in particular makes traveling through Turkey today far easier and makes the country, its language and even its people seem to the westerner less foreign than the Arab world or Iran.

Dress. Ataturk outlawed much traditional dress, including traditional male hats and headdresses, which were associated with titles (including religions offices), and burqas. Ataturk was the foremost model of clothing reform and in every depiction is exceedingly dapper in modern and stylish, almost movie star-glamorous, western dress. One of Turkey’s greatest contemporary controversies stems from this reform–it is hotly disputed whether women should be allowed to wear headscarves, required by Islamic custom, in schools and official settings.

Religious affairs. Ataturk in many ways ended Islam as it was practiced in Turkey. The office of the caliphate, the nominal head of all Sunni Islams, was abolished in 1925 and to this day there is no Sunni caliph. When it became clear that religious institutions threatened the Republic and its reforms, all religious convents and dervish lodges were also banned. All religious education was shut down, to be replaced with modern secular education.

Legal system. Ataturk changed the legal system from one based on Islamic law to a secular civil law system.

Women’s rights. Women gained complete legal equality, including the right to vote, which was not only radical for a predominantly Muslim country but not far behind Christian ones (the U.S. nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920). Ataturk’s wife (of his rather short-lived only marriage, which produced no offspring (other than perhaps the denim vendor below)) presented a public face to the new possibilities for women in Turkish society.

Other international standards. Turkey adopted the western calendar, clock and weights and measures. Ataturk also passed a law requiring the adoption of surnames, at which point in time he was given his new surname of “Ataturk,” meaning “Father of the Turks.”

Ataturk look-alike (selling jeans), Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

When we see countries that seem lost today, we often think, “This country needs an Ataturk.” But Ataturks are not easy to come by. Also in the 1920s, Mohammed Reza of Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty attempted a similar secularization and modernization of Iran. The extremely painful backlash came in the form of the Islamic Revolution. Ataturk, through force of personality and political will, was able to impress upon his country the importance of his reforms in such a durable manner that Ataturk is a living influence to this day, more than seventy years after his death. Even when it appears that some secularism may be rolled back in favor of religious freedom, the defining principles of Ataturk’s reforms are not in doubt, and his positions and statements still carry immense weight in Turkish political discourse–“What would Ataturk do?”

The Anit Kabir, Ataturk’s tomb in Ankara, a massive hilltop complex complete with a museum dedicated to Ataturk and Turkish nationalism. Ankara itself is an Ataturk creation–Ataturk felt it important to remove the nation’s capital from the various entrenched influences of Istanbul and so made the small town of Ankara, more centrally located in the middle of Anatolia, the new capital of the country.

6 thoughts on “Ataturk

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  2. I have visited many countries and also visited Turkey about ten times. In 2011, I visited Ankara and the Anitkabir for the first time. It is by far the best museum I have seen and a fitting tribute to a great leader. It has made me an even greater admirer of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. I am of Turkish origin from my father's side and am proud of it. I love Ataturk, Turkey and the Turkish people. I hope to visit the Anitkabir again one day. H N Effendi, Cape Town, South Africa.

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