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ATATIORK, MUSTAFA KEMAL (1881-1938), founding father of the Turkish Republic. Born of modest Turkish parentage in the cosmopolitan Ottoman port of Selanik (now Thessalonliki in Greece) into a markedly Muslim environment, Ataturk opted for a military education, passing out as an infantry staff-captain in 1905. A participant in the Young Turk movement, his early military career ran concurrently with his secret, illegal political activities against the despotism of Sultan Abdul Hamid II-itself a misconstrued attempt to invigorate the empire against slow throttling by the Great Powers. Ataturk and his fellows diagnosed the grievous condition of their society as caused by its political structure and prescribed political restructuring as the cure.

Ataturk’s obsession with partisan politics was typical of the Young Turk officers who secured the restoration in I9o8 of the 1876 Constitution and thereby the transfer of the center of power to the officer corps. He saw no contradiction between his military profession and his founding, joining, and propagating of various revolutionary societies in the Arabian and Macedonian provinces. Only when he perceived that factionalism based on military membership in political societies would undermine the discipline, and therefore the fighting capacity, of the armed forces did he advocate that the military disengage from partisan politics and the officer corps thus assume an autonomous position and hence a commanding role. Unheeded, somewhat excluded, and overshadowed by more glamorous officers in the tumultuous aftermath of 19o8, Ataturk devoted himself to military writing and fighting. He was active in quelling domestic uprisings in the capital (1909) and Albania (1910), as well as in the defense of Ottoman Libya against Italy (1911-1912); but it was the disastrous Balkan War of 1912-1913 that really accelerated his conversion to Turkish nationalism, not yet wholly negating his Ottomanism but salving his wounded Volksgeist.

Ataturk emerged from World War I a brigadier-general, acknowledged as one of the youngest and most outstanding commanders among the combatants and accorded prestige and popularity at home. Yet the finality of their defeat faced the Turks with the problem of preserving their very existence against the victorious Allies’ attempts to dismember what remained of the empire. Ataturk shared the officers’ prevalent belief in the efficacy of the regular military to resist such pressures and so in their own indispensability to the life of the nation; he therefore assumed decisive military and political leadership. His supervision and centralization of spontaneous and widespread local resistance, establishing an alternative national assembly to represent the resisting Turkey, was founded upon his conviction that a nation’s right to full independence is fought for, not granted-a postulate central to the National Struggle of 1919-1922 and demanding the absolute loyalty of the professional soldiers to it.

With the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, President Ataturk concentrated on the furtherance of his nationalist revolution. Through a series of predominantly political reforms, relentlessly pursued despite some internal and international opposition, Ataturk, from 1927 a retired field-marshal, endeavored to establish an inherently capitalist nation-state based on the principle of popular sovereignty; the state’s moral substance would be a conscious synthesis of indigenous and universal elements. His envisaged social order for Turkey was fashioned out of long reflection on the Ottoman disorder he had lived through. This social order assumed a modern state inclining toward social democracy, in which ideas that had taken root in Reformation Europe would -be grafted onto the liberated Turkey through the complementary concepts of contemporaneity and nationalism.

Ataturk considered contemporaneity to derive from the rationalist essence of civilization, holding contemporary civilization as equivalent to, but not identical with, civilization in western Europe. He strove to cultivate rational enquiry as the ultimate authority in society, to gain individual self-awareness and thence national unity. Linking civilization with the idea of progress as both technological development and moral improvement, his view of contemporary world civilization to which all nations might contribute involved recognition of the multiplicity of its origins, including medieval Islamic civilization. Simultaneously, he sought to nurture that sense of loyalty to country, already beginning to overtake traditional loyalty to sultanate during the National Struggle, into an intense Turkish nationalism, whether combined with the traditional bond of Muslim society or, preferably, replacing it; nationalism would be the Turks’ rediscovery and reassertion of their Turkishness-based on assimilation no less than birth. To Ataturk, contemporaneity, fostering the integrative tendency of contemporary world civilization, involved a break with the past, while nationalism with its self-assertive tendency served as a counterbalance, providing continuity with the past through even the most drastic social change. The conjunction of contemporaneity and nationalism thus forms the core of his holistic view of the political universe, underpinning all the reforms he initiated, and it relates directly to his belief in the power of ideas-developing the individual so that the individual can change the society. He aimed to educate individuals toward control of their own affairs, to stimulate a nationalist economy free from foreign dominance, and, significantly, to secularize the polity; for this, he would extricate the state from the cumbersome dichotomous structure whereby social institutions were regulated in part according to seriat (Ar., shari-ah), and unify those institutions under state authority alone.

The depth of Atatiirk’s religious conviction is still unclear; what is certain is that his drive to secularism (called layiklik or laiklik, a misappropriation of the term laicisme) in Turkey was not conceived as an attack on Islam, which he considered the most rational, natural, and therefore final religion. He held the decay of the Muslim world and its falling under oppression to be the fault of Muslims, dominated by their wrong thinking. His idealist philosophy ascribed this to Muslims’ retreat over the centuries from rationalism to implicit acceptance, rendering themselves submissive and defenseless. As he argued, the weight of rigid orthodoxy that had turned Islam from a reasoned belief to blind faith must be lifted from society, not just so that Muslims might advance but for Islam itself, which needed to be cleansed of irrational and inflexible accretions. Then, too, since Islam is essentially a rational religion in which knowledge preponderates, individuals might reach the divine by using their intellect. Atatiirk’s persistent attempts to have the Qur’an and the language of worship rendered into an authorized Turkish version for general use were thus aimed at religious enlightenment. He wanted for Turkey a secular society of Muslims wherein the maintenance and advancement of Islam would rest upon the voluntary adherence of individual believers: nonreligious government for the religious rather than religious government, in what would inevitably be a secular state.

Ataturk lived his life determining how to impose the possible but not attempting rigidly to impose the notyet-possible. Given the dearth of religious scholars of sufficiently revolutionary caliber, he abandoned his earlier feeling that a secular state must nevertheless provide some kind of infrastructure for the regulation and instruction of Islam. His consequent withdrawal in the 1930s to the thesis that the government of such a state has no role in the people’s religious development, and to the legal implementation of this, was perhaps misconceived. It created the paradox of the unlettered hoca (religious teacher), who lacked adequate state-supported education yet was blamed for perpetuating ignorance and bigotry among the faithful.

Ataurk’s attempted reform of Turkish religious life comprises, with his other social reforms, a consistent political philosophy. His ultimate objective, in a formula admitting of general application, was the achievement of a genuine and modern nationhood, responsible for and answerable to its citizens individually and collectively, which would survive, conscious and assured, in the contemporary world.


Ataturk, Mustafa Kemal. A Speech Delivered by Ghazi Mustapha Kemal, President of the Turkish Republic, October 1927. Leipzig, 1929. English version of Ataturk’s famous six-day speech, covering the years from the 1918 Armistice (without the original documents). Essential for an understanding of the man and the period. Aydemir, Sevket Sureyya. Tek Adam: Mustafa Kemal. 3 vols. Istanbul, 1963-1965. The most perceptive life of Ataturk in print ; the book still awaits a critical editing and translation into English. gokman, Muzaffer. Ataturk ve Devrimleri Tarihi Bibliyografyasi/Bibli-ography of the History of Ataturk and His Reforms. 3 vols. Ankara, 1981-1983. Comprehensive bibliography that includes works by Ataturk, comprising speeches, statements, declarations, treatises, diaries, letters, handwritten and dictated notes, and unsigned articles, together with secondary material in numerous languages. lgdemir, Ulug, et al. Ataturk: Biography (1963). Translated by Andrew J. Mango. Reprint, Ankara, 1981. Published by the Turkish National Commission for UNESCO, this is a complete translation of the entry “Ataturk, Gazi Mustafa Kemal” in Islam Ansiklopedisi (13 vols.), vol. 1, fasc. 10, pp. 719-807 (Istanbul, 1949-1986). The authorized biography, an encyclopedic compendium of information; dated but factually sound.

Kazancigil, Ali, and Ergun Ozbudun, eds. Ataturk: Founder of a Modern State. London, 1981. Informative, though somewhat uncritical, example of collected scholarship on Ataturk.

Kinross, Lord (John Patrick Douglas Balfour). Ataturk: The Rebirth of a Nation (1964). Nicosia, 1981. Still the most readable biography in English. While there have been numerous workaday lives of Ataturk, he still has not found his much-needed scholarly biographer. Tongas, Gerard. Ataturk and the True Nature of Modern Turkey. Translated by F. F. Rynd. London, 1939. Though long out of print, this study by a contemporary is still one of the most incisive in its approach to Ataturk’s revolution. Nevertheless, the ideas behind the revolution continually require further examination. The author of the present article, for example, has already written elsewhere (in English) on the political thought of Ataturk, and is currently preparing a book-length study.

Turfan, M. Naim. “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, 1881-1938.” In The Routledge Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Political Thinkers, edited by Robert Benewick and Philip Green, pp. 12-14. London and New York, 1992. Readily accessible and recent example.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/atatiork-mustafa-kemal/

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