Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Just the name Mustafa Kemal Atatürk can draw tears in many Turks. His contributions to the Turkish people are celebrated several times a year, and the anniversary of his death is remembered with reverence and grief, even 80+ years after his death. You may know him as the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, but to the Turkish people he is so much more, and you really should know more about this remarkable statesman. I’ll spare you some of the biographical information, but you should know that he was born in 1881 in Thessaloniki, which was a part of the Ottoman Empire. After WW1 (The Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany), Turkey was being carved up by European powers, and the sultan handed over the keys of Turkey in exchange for a promise of wealth and safety.
Enter the single man on horseback, riding across the nation, calling people to arms to fight for an independent Turkish state. It’s important to keep in mind that he wasn’t trying to save the Turkish state – there was no Turkish state – this was a revolution, fighting to create a nation with clear borders for the Turkish people. His success in this campaign and the miraculous ways that he avoided assassination are another compelling story, as is the sacrificial leadership style that defined him.
But today’s story is his reforms and the quick modernization of Turkey – and how he somehow completed these reforms without compromising national identity; rather he created a new national identity. Keep in mind, I’m calling this a national identity, not an ethnic identity. Similar to America of old, anyone can be a Turk, even if they’re not ethnically Turkish. The Turkish Constitution defines as “Turk” as “anyone who is bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship.”
A side note: The narrative today in America when discussing Turks is about this “Turkish/Kurdish” issue. If you try to talk to most Turks about this, you’ll get a blank stare, as you will with most Kurds residing in Turkey. It is a shared national identity, and they share the same rights as brothers and sisters under the banner of the crescent and star.
Anyway, here’s a short list of a few of the more surprising reforms and characteristics of Turkey introduced by Atatürk:
Turks don’t speak Arabic. In Ottoman days, the Turkish language was written with an Arabic script, but an early change that Ataturk made was to switch to a Latin script. He also removed many of the borrowed Arabic, Persian, and French words and re-instated the original Turkish words (or made up new ones!). It was an opportunity to close a chapter and open the door to a new, modern and secular Turkey. Atatürk championed education and saw literacy increased from 9% in 1923, 33% in 1938, and today it’s more than 99%.
Turks love children. They are never a burden or in the way, but they are THE future, and they deserve to be treasured and trained. Ataturk dedicated Turkey’s National Sovereignty Day to the children of the nation, because, after all, the children are the future they fought for (according to Atatürk).
Turks view men and women as equals. From the beginning, Atatürk’s goal was not to get women “some” rights, but he felt that the sign of the maturity of the state was the role of women, and from education to suffrage, abolishing polygamy to giving women equal inheritance rights, he pushed equality with great zeal. By the mid 1930s (ten years into his presidency), 18 women were elected to national parliament. Turkey also boasts the world’s first female supreme court justice and female fighter pilot.
Turkey is not an Islamic nation. Turkey is a secular republic, and while the overwhelming majority of the population is culturally Muslim, there is freedom of religion in Turkey.
Turkey is a democracy. Atatürk was fiercely devoted to the equality of all of the citizens of Turkey and somehow created and enforced reforms that became a framework for the democratization of not just political life, but also social life.
This just scratches the surface, and even if I listed every single reform, it can’t begin to truly articulate his absolute brilliance, passion, and resolve to see his nation become a model to the world. So do yourself a favor and learn more!
There are two Mustafa Kemals. One the flesh-and-blood Mustafa Kemal who now stands before you and who will pass away. The other is you, all of you here who will go to the far corners of our land to spread the ideals which must be defended with your lives if necessary. I stand for the nation’s dreams, and my life’s work is to make them come true.
-Mustafa Kemal Ataturk