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Briefly: Ataturk and Turkey’s Problems

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on May 3rd, 2007
ARTICLES

A Turkish professor is quoted this morning as saying that the current political crisis in his country is simply another stage in a struggle that "Turkey has been fighting against radical Islam almost since the founding of the Ottoman Empire." [Financial Times May 3, 2007 p. 9] Something like this view frames much contemporary discussion: the rationalist and democratic national hero Ataturk eighty years ago dragging Turkey into modernity, against the protests of ignorant and obscurantist partisans of the Ottomans, the Caliphate, and Islam in general.

It may be truer to suggest, however, that many of Turkey’s current problems are legacies of terrible errors in judgment by the mercurial and authoritarian Kemal Pasha, a military genius who drove the British back from Gallipoli in 1915 and the English-supported Greek invaders from Anatolia seven years later, but whose abrupt and militaristic approach to problem solving did not serve well the founding of the Turkish republic.

We often forget that having won his great victory, Ataturk seized political power from a pluralistic national assembly in part by threat of force, created a one party system, and ruled as a dictator until his death in 1938. Like other would be social engineers of his generation, ranging from Lenin to Mussolini, he imagined, as did contemporary social scientists, that cultures could be radically altered and changed by diktat and failed to understand the need for change to be organic, evolutionary, and consensual if it was to succeed.

Thus, relying on the support of his army, he cut short discussions of the future of the monarchy, declaring it at an end. He terminated attempts by Islamic scholars to reform Sharia, instead importing and imposing Swiss civil law and other European institutions in toto. He suppressed the Islamic clergy and the Sufi orders that had been part of the Turkish scene for hundreds of years. He abolished the Caliphate by diktat and would probably have murdered the last Caliph had he not sought refuge with the British in Malta. He refused to tolerate political opposition. He alphabetized the language, abolished the Fez and traditional dress, and himself believed in a thoroughly mythical version of Turkish history. At his death he bequeathed a dictatorship without a dictator, leaving a Turkey lacking robust or tested and tempered institutions, but with a continuing cult of personality and a mythologized understanding of its own history.

His iron fist notwithstanding, many commentators have long been highly favorable in their assessment of Ataturk, the argument being that the Ottoman empire was so corrupt and Islam so pernicious that only tough measures could work. This was a characteristic twentieth century view, applied also to appalling and far worse and misguided violent social engineering in Russia, China, and, for a while, the fascist states.

But the tough radical measure didn’t work. As the images of Boris Yeltsin’s Russian Orthodox funeral in the newly rebuilt Cathedral of the Saviour in Moscow (destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s) make clear, one cannot simply suppress the national religion by force, as the Bolsheviks sought to do, starting at about the same time as Kemal. Human nature, culture, and tradition are not so easily malleable as the revolutionaries of the last century imagined. So, not surprisingly, Islam has not been eliminated in Turkey despite cruel oppression, any more than Orthodoxy was crushed in Russia, or Confucian tradition and religion in China.

Not only that, Ataturk’s measures foreclosed the possibility that Turkey might become the laboratory in which Islam found its modern form. The society was bubbling with change. Sufi orders helped shelter Kemalists fleeing from British-controlled Constantinople to Anatolia. Talent abounded. Political institutions were in flux.

If Ataturk had allowed his parliament to have a voice, that would probably not have been the end of Turkey, or the means of entry for extremism. Rather, such a measure would likely have allowed democracy to mature and take root.

If Ataturk had allowed a free press and education, with a genuine contest of ideas, Turkey would be more sophisticated today, not less.

If Ataturk had permitted the continuation of some sort of unifying Ottoman identity, rather than the narrow and imaginary Turkish nationality in which he believed, minorities such as the Kurds might have found loyalty easier.

Consider even the Caliphate. When Ataturk abolished it, Islam lost its traditional authoritative voice. A void was created that today is being filled by Wahabi doctrines supported by Saudi Arabia. Suppose a modernizing and tolerant Turkey had continued to be the home of a religious authority forced to confront the realities of change? The whole development of Islam in the twentieth century might have been different.

The point here is not to vilify Ataturk, though he was a far more deeply flawed figure than hagiography admits. His political vices he shared with a whole generation of reformers in too much of a hurry—the communists and fascists most notably. Their constructions have collapsed.

Ataturk’s is wobbling, protected by an army that hypertrophied under his rule simply because he needed it to get his way. He was unwilling to persuade, or to accommodate himself to the actual components of his society.

Perhaps he would have been wiser to move more slowly. Or, having won the war of liberation, to hand over political authority to colleagues.

After the Greeks had been driven out and Turkey secured, one of Kemal’s intimates, the great writer and intellectual Halide Edib put her hand on her shoulder and said, "Now Pasha should rest." He responded with rage, listing all the internal enemies he had yet to conquer. Halide Edib and her husband had been among his strongest supporters but always aware of his vicious dictatorial streak.

They decided the time had come to move to France and then to America, returning to Turkey only in 1939.

Turkey has come a long way since then. But she still faces problems. It is important to understand that some of those problems are not products of Islam, but rather were created by Ataturk.

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