Ataturk and the “New Turkey”
Before World War I, Turkey was part of the Ottoman Empire. At its peak, this vast Muslim Caliphate (Empire of Islam) had included the Middle East, part of North Africa, and southeastern Europe. By the 20th century, however, only remnants of the empire remained, with Turkey at its core. A group of mainly military men known as “Young Turks” opposed the absolute rule of the Ottoman Turk sultan (king).
One of the Young Turks, Mustafa Kemal, traveled in European countries and was shocked by how advanced they seemed to be. He concluded that his people were culturally backward and influenced too much by religious laws and customs. Kemal vowed to modernize and secularize Turkey.
Turkey entered World War I on the side of Germany, a move that Kemal opposed. After the war, the victors dismantled the Ottoman Empire. Only Turkey remained in the hands of the sultan. Greeks, traditional enemies of the Turks, occupied cities in western Turkey. Kemal rallied Turkish patriots and helped drive the Greeks from Turkish soil.
In 1919, Kemal backed a “National Pact” to create a new Turkish nation. In 1922, the European powers recognized Kemal as the legitimate leader of Turkey, prompting the sultan to flee the country. The next year, Kemal proclaimed the Republic of Turkey with himself as president.
In 1924, Kemal produced a constitution. He boldly aimed to transform Turkey into a modern Western-style state.
Turkey’s current constitution pays homage to Kemal as “the immortal leader and the unrivaled hero.” It declares, “The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state. . . .” A key provision states, “. . . there shall no interference whatsoever by sacred religious feelings in state affairs and politics. . . .”
With his constitution, Kemal launched a revolutionary program of modernization and secularization for the “New Turkey.” Below are some of the far-reaching changes he imposed.
• Most Turks had one name. Kemal decreed that everyone must adopt a surname as in Western countries. To set an example, he changed his name to Kemal Ataturk. “Ataturk” meant “Father of the Turk.”
• Ataturk outlawed public wearing of the male fez (a brimless hat), because he thought it showed cultural backwardness. He also banned the female veil and other religious body coverings. He believed these old Muslim customs of female modesty served no purpose in a modern nation.
• He replaced Arabic writing with the Latin alphabet. He also adopted the Christian Gregorian calendar used by most Western nations.
• He abolished religious instruction in the public schools and adopted a modern European curriculum. While permitting the practice of Islam, he closed many religious shrines that the state had maintained.
• He legalized the sale of alcoholic beverages, banned by the Koran.
Ataturk also addressed the status of women. He overturned centuries of Muslim custom by making women the legal equals of men. For the first time, Turkish women had the right to vote and run for seats in the parliament. Ataturk placed matters like divorce and other family matters in civil rather than religious courts. He abolished polygamy, the right of Muslim men to have more than one wife.
These changes upset conservative Muslim Turks, who wanted to follow the old ways. When they resisted, Ataturk used his army to enforce his new policies.
Ataturk favored democracy in theory, but not in practice. He proclaimed himself president for life. After a brief experiment with multiparty parliamentary elections, he banned all parties except his own, the Republican People’s Party. In effect, Ataturk headed a popular one-party dictatorship until his death in 1938.An Evolving Democracy
After World War II, Turkey legalized opposition political parties and required the election of all future presidents. But the Turkish military assumed the role of preserving Ataturk’s idea of a secular state.
On four occasions between 1960 and 1996, the military either directly took over the government or pressured elected leaders to change their policies. The military did this to restore public order or to protect Ataturk’s vision of a secular Turkey.
After each intervention, the military eventually permitted elected governments to resume control of the country. But these interventions in Turkey’s democracy have retarded its development.
Necmettin Erbakan emerged in the 1970s as the leader of a movement to bring Islam back into Turkish government, a fundamental violation of Ataturk’s secular constitution. In 1996, Erbakan won enough seats in parliament to form a government. He pushed several Islamist policies, including the repeal of a law that prohibited female students from wearing the Muslim head scarf at public universities.
Alarmed at Erbakan’s challenge to Ataturk’s secular state, the military forced the government to ban all political activities by Islamist organizations. In 1997, Erbakan’s government collapsed. The following year, the Constitutional Court banned his Welfare Party because of “acts against the secular principles of the republic.”
A new Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party, soon arose headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the mayor of Istanbul. But Erdogan renounced the Islamist label for his party and declared his support for Turkey’s secular state.
Widespread corruption in the government, high unemployment, and the failure of politicians to respond quickly to a severe earthquake led to a decisive victory for Erdogan’s party in 2002. Although troubled by the Islamist origins of his party, the military did not intervene.
With a majority of seats in the parliament, the Justice and Development Party formed a government with Erdogan as prime minister. Some party members, however, revived the controversy over the law banning female head scarves at public universities. Protest demonstrations by anti-secular Islamists further inflamed the issue.
Turkey is still an evolving democracy. It has a history of military interference with democratically elected governments. In addition, Turkey still has undemocratic laws that prohibit insulting the president, the military, and “Turkishness.”
Erdogan’s government strongly wants Turkey to become a member of European Union (EU) in order to gain significant economic advantages. The EU requires its member nations to guarantee democratic freedoms. Under pressure from the EU, Turkey may move closer to a fully functioning democracy.
No Muslim nation in the Middle East is a fully functioning democracy. Iran is run by Islamists as a theocracy, a state run by religious rulers. Most Muslim states in the region are not theocracies like Iran. They are secular, but authoritarian states—Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and others. The opposition in many of these states, however, is led by Islamists who seek states run under Islamic law.
Turkey may offer an alternative for the region. If the Islamists and secular Turks can compromise on the role of religion, Turkey may become a democratic model for other Muslim nations in the region.For Discussion and Writing
1. What parts of Ataturk’s system of government were democratic? What parts were not democratic?
2. Is Turkey today a Western-style democracy? Why or why not?
3. What is Islamism? What problems might it pose to countries seeking to become democracies?
What Makes a Government Democratic?
One of the tests for gaining admittance to the EU is that a country must have a stable democratic government. What do you think are the criteria for a government being democratic?
1. Form small groups. Each group is a committee for the EU responsible for setting criteria to determine whether a government is democratic.
2. Each group should:
a. Discuss what makes a government democratic.
b. Decide on at least five standards that a democratic government should meet.
c. Prepare to report the standards and the reasons behind them to the class
3. Have the groups report and discuss the standards with the class. Write each group’s standards on the board. Vote on which standards you think are best.For Further Information
The Ottoman Empire A timeline.
Friesian: The Ottoman Sultans and Caliphs, 1290–1924 AD An annotated list of the sultans and caliphs.
Muslims, Islam, and Turkey By Professor Alan Godlas, University of Georgia.
Ottoman Empire and Turkey in The New York Times 1850 Through 1938 Articles collected by Murat Gunaydin and Bulent Akbas.
Encyclopedia Articles on Ataturk:
Mr. Dowling's Kemal Ataturk Page A brief biography.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk A slide show of his life. Click on links on the left.
Turkish Government: Ataturk Biography and much other information on Ataturk.
ABYZ News Links: Turkey Newspapers and News Media Guide Links to Turkish news sources, many of them in English.
U.S. Census Bureau: International Data Base: Turkey Demographic data on Turkey.
Maps of Turkey:
Turkey in Maps A collection of current and historical maps of Turkey.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan:
Links on Turkey’s Government:
Debatepedia: Turkey’s EU Membership The pros and cons are debated.
Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey By Andrew Mango.
Turkey Today: A European Nation? By Olivier Roy.
Islam and Democracy in the Middle East By Larry Diamond.
Political Leaders and Democracy in Turkey By Heper Metin.
Political Parties in Turkey By Barry Rubin.
Turkey: Coping with Crisis By George S. Harris.
The Kemalists By Muammer Kaylan.