The picture that you can see above is standard equipment in every law office, public school and sometimes even houses in the state of Turkey. Every year on November 10th, you can still see people crying on the streets and being in a state of mourning for the whole day. He was given the name “Atatürk”, father of the Turks, and almost a whole nation looks up to him as a role model and their saviour. Who is this man, who is imprinted into the minds of Turks all over the world as a god-like figure? As the single founder of a country that occupies more than 780 thousand square kilometres?
This man, or better said this phenomenon, is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. For many people he symbolises freedom, independence and the superiority of science, which is much said about a man who died before women even gained the right to vote in many European countries.
When it comes to the European youth, Mustafa Kemal is often a name that disappears somewhere between the pages of their history books, a name loosely connected to the Ottoman Empire, but very few youngsters nowadays actually know of the importance of Atatürk. They don’t know how he influenced the way we see Muslim states and dictatorships. Now is the moment to change that, but also to keep in mind that no leader has ever been perfect or done only good deeds. Let’s try to take a proper look at Mustafa Kemal, father of the Turks.
Turkey before Atatürk
It would be wrong to describe Turkey before Atatürk, since before his rule there was no such state as Turkey. Mustafa Kemal was born and raised during the time when the Ottoman Empire, which is what Turkey originated from, was under the rule of Abdülhamid II. Due to the lack of progress and adaptation, the Ottoman Empire was already seen as the “sick man” of Europe and was sometimes even made fun of. After becoming Sultan and Khalif, so both representative of Islam and head of state, following the failed attempt of a constitutional democracy in 1876, Abdülhamid II. made the Empire even more autocratic and theocratic than before. For his political purpose, he turned the Empire into a police state that suffered from bad living conditions and “lack of Westernisation”. With the literacy rate at only about 7%, corruption, practically no rights for women, continuously ongoing wars between the Balkan states and the believes and principles of the Islam as the basis of society, there was an understandable amount of Turks longing for more nationalist and democratic ideas.
Atatürk was born between 1881 and 1882 (he wasn’t sure of his exact birthday himself) as the son of Ali Riza Efendi and Zübeyde Hanim. He grew up here in Thessaloniki, which was still under Ottoman rule at that time. His childhood and early mindset were strongly influenced by his parents’ conflict, where to send their son to school. After going to a religious school according to the wish of his mother, he was soon transferred to a different school by his father. This new school was influenced by Western standards and education and gave him a first impression of the importance of freedom and independent thinking.
Always having admired the military and its order and discipline, he then went on to graduate from Military School, High School, Academy and finally the Military College in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1905. To the Military School he had to apply in secret, since his mother didn’t approve of his strong wish to be a military man and instead wanted him to become a tradesman. In his younger years he was mostly friends with older boys and the others described him as a young man who “did not like losing. Nor did he like games of running and jumping. Rather than strolling and walking around, he preferred to walk fast.”
During his military education he started to become more concerned with the problems of the Empire and their solutions. Furthermore, he even started secretly publishing papers about the government and its mistakes. This caused him a prison sentence right after graduating from the military college, after which he was stationed in Damascus and later in Monastir (Bitola).
His first military action that led to his rise was only in 1909, when he became chief of staff of the “Army of Action”. This military group was created in order to protect the Constitutional Monarchy and suppress the uprising of March 31st in Istanbul. Since Mustafa Kemal was convinced that a good military man needs to advance his own education in order to adapt to contemporary circumstances, he dedicated most of the following ten years to gaining further knowledge on military strategies and translating and publishing books. Even though the situation of the Ottoman Empire was rapidly deteriorating and its territory constantly decreasing, Atatürk proved himself to be an outstanding strategist and very successful commander, having won two crucial battles that influenced the outcome of the first World War.
The struggle for independence begins
After having to step down from the military profession and arriving in Samsun in 1919, Mustafa Kemal declared that “The whole nation is united for its goal of sovereignty and the sentiment of Turkishness.” and that “the independence of the nation will be saved by the determination and resolution of the nation itself.”. Shortly: the war for Turkish independence began.
Foreign occupations in Western Anatolia and massacres and attacks on the Turks and Jews living there lead to many Turkish people fleeing and a general uproar in their society.
For the first time, the Turkish people were given the idea of identity and union, after being pushed around by international occupying forces. Even though Atatürk had to step down from his Military profession, he still managed to awaken people’s national spirit and unite multiple parts of the resistance movement under his leadership in Ankara. Therefore, Ankara became the centre of the Turkish independence war and has never been under international occupation during its duration. He then went on to create the Grand National Assembly in April 1920, an assembly “of extraordinary authorities […] gathered in Ankara in order to administrate and supervise the affairs of the nation”. Soon after, Mustafa Kemal was elected the assembly’s official speaker and leader of the Turkish war of independence. His commander friends, who in an act of rebellion supported his cause, provided Mustafa Kemal with their military troops. As the speaker he spent hours and days in the Grand National Assembly explaining Turkey’s situation and his goals to the deputies, saying “Freedom and independence are my character. I put it as my main condition that my country should have the same characteristics.”.
In August of 1920, the Allies forced the government of occupied Istanbul to sign a treaty that, had it been implemented, would have given independence to Turks in a small part of Central Anatolia and would have kept the remaining Turkish territories under international occupation and control. With the help of his military experience and knowledge, Atatürk prevented the Allies from taking military action against Turkey for a really long time and commanded his troops passionately and ruthlessly. An execution was promised to anyone who tried to retreat from battle without Mustafa Kemal’s specific instructions. After his numerous successes in battle and the victory of the Turkish war of independence in 1922 when Izmir was liberated, Mustafa Kemal was acknowledged as the saviour of country and nation.
A systematic change like never seen before
When being offered the position of Sultan and Khalif, Atatürk declined both. Instead, when a delegation of his Turkish nationalist government was invited to meet with a delegation of the Sultan’s government in order to renegotiate the treaty that had been signed before, he demanded that the Ankara government should be the only ruling government. According to Mustafa Kemal, this one was the only government representative of the Turkish nation. After heavy and long discussions, the abolishment of the sultanate was finally passed (November 1922). Peace treaties with the Allies were signed, that gave Turkey full independence in every aspect (July 1923), Ankara was declared the country’s capital (October 1923) and on October 29th 1923, Mustafa Kemal could finally return to Ankara as first president of the Turkish Republic.
From 1924 up until his death in 1938, the father of Turks implemented a series of reforms that lead to the country changing, modernising and progressing in a speed as never seen before. In 1924 the “Law on Unification of Education” was implemented, shortly after a new Constitution was passed which made Turkey a secular state, so a country where state and religion are separated. In 1925, Atatürk started to tackle the strong influence that Islam had on Turkey by banning traditional dresses and headgear, closing religious convents and dervish lodges and abolishing titles and by-names. Something so unique and so risky like taking people’s roots and basic beliefs by limiting their religious freedom to achieve the freedom and independence of the mind, was a procedure that had rarely been thought of before. But that was just the beginning.
Atatürk adapted the international time and calendar system, enacted a Turkish civil code, adapted the new Turkish alphabet, implemented family names and in 1934 even introduced full political rights to women, such as voting or being a candidate for elections. Furthermore Atatürk believed in the superiority of the human mind and reason, he wanted his people to strive for knowledge and independence. Therefore his actions raised the literacy rate by its multiple and the Turkish people were finally living with social policies that were created for their sake. By the early 1930s, the Turkish economy was striving and ready to participate in the global market, while Mustafa Kemal was also receiving political visits from other world leaders. Atatürk had created a new Republic, a state so modern and philanthropist that it surpasses many states of our times.
The journey of modern Turkey continues
After finding peace within itself, Turkey started mending relationships with its neighbouring countries. Atatürk was one of the initiators of the “Balkan Entente” in February 1934, a treaty that secured the Western border and peace with Turkey’s Western neighbours. Soon after, in July 1937, the Turkish nation entered a peace treaty with Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan called the “Saadabad Pact”, ensuring peace around the South-Eastern borders of Turkey. Additionally, knowing how poor the relationship between Turkey and Greece is right now, it might come as a surprise that Atatürk was seeking a good relationship to Turkey. Therefore he initiated the “Friendship, Impartiality, Compromise and Arbitration agreement” in 1930 and the “Cordial Agreement” in 1933 with the Greek prime ministers of that time. Soon the Turkish government started receiving visits from the political heads of Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Afghanistan, and many others. Atatürk was admired for his ability and wish to create peace, which is why he got nominated for the Nobel Peace Price by Greek Prime Minister Venizelos in 1934. Within one decade, Turkey had established itself as a strong, ambitious and progressive nation.
A man becomes a symbol
“Peace at home, peace for the world.”
Mustafa Kemal was given the surname “Atatürk”, which is literally translated to “Father of Turks”, in 1934 by the Grand National Assembly. Even after his death in November 1938, he continues representing freedom, education, women’s rights and independence. After Atatürk’s death and the lack of strong leadership, Turkey started turning more towards Islam and away from Westernisation again. Especially nowadays we can see Atatürk statues being attacked by radicals all over the country on a regular basis. Of course there are also unpleasant things to say about Mustafa Kemal’s political methods, such as executing Turks who refuse to fight until their death or publicly hanging 13 people who were connected to his assassination attempt in 1926. But the truth is that the Turkey that this man created, the improvement that he made for people and country, are incomparable to anything done in history. He is the reason that Turkey is Turkey, and not Saudi Arabia. Today, in times of strong political tension and toxic leadership in Turkey, he is still a role model that many people look up to and the reason they refuse to adapt to an oppressive system. Many people honour the father of Turks by trying to keep up his values, others degrade it by acting in hateful ways. All we can hope for, is that Turkey finds a government that leads its nation back to the right priorities.