Atatürk--and After

September 1, 2000 Topics: Society Tags: September 11 AttacksSpiesSecularism

Atatürk--and After

Mini Teaser: The definitive portrait--and vindication--of Turkey's founding father.

by Author(s): Graham E. Fuller

Andrew Mango, Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1999), 539 pp., $40.

Upon entering the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., one is immediately confronted with a massive bust of the "Father of the Turks", Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk is the very personification of the modern Turkish state-indeed, Turkey is one of only a few countries whose national ideology, in its case Kemalism, derives from a single individual.

AtatŸrk was unquestionably one of the greatest political figures of the last century. Modern Turkey most likely would not exist today, certainly not in its present form, if this brilliant statesman had not rallied the people of a collapsed Ottoman Empire, fought off the imperial forces of Europe, and established a nation-state in Anatolia. He brought Turkish society into the modern era at an extraordinary pace and, at least among the elite, inculcated a Western way of life that has made Turkey the most successful Muslim state in the world.

All this Atatürk achieved without the ritual bloodbath that so often accompanied such transformations. The social revolution he instigated avoided the excesses of Marxism-Leninism that seized neighboring Russia, and the grim features of national socialism that reigned in Germany and Italy during the same period. He was not revanchist or expansionist, he did not seek to re-create an empire, and he accepted the Western international order as it was. He possessed few if any foreign enemies in his day. As Paul Henze has observed, while Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao and Tito have been thoroughly discredited, today's Turkey stands as a living monument to Atatürk's success. Few statesmen of the Third World can aspire to such a legacy. True, Atatürk ruled as an autocrat during most of his nearly twenty-year reign, but few other leaders have taken advantage of an "authoritarian interval" to build and create a lasting society.

Andrew Mango, steeped in Turkish history throughout his life, has written the first truly definitive biography of Atatürk, avoiding the sins of excessive adulation on the one hand and excoriation on the other. The biography is deeply researched but eminently readable, and is likely to remain unsurpassed as a chronicle of this extraordinary man's life.

The book traces Atatürk's life through a period of cataclysm in the Ottoman Empire, as Balkan ethnic groups, encouraged by competing great powers, one by one contrived to whittle down the empire to its present Turkish ethnic heartland. Mango shows us Atatürk the soldier putting out Balkan fires and Arab world rebellious stirrings, his continuing disillusionment with the Young Turks' regime, whose efforts at reform and discipline only hastened Ottoman collapse, his dramatic role in decisively turning back the British at Gallipoli, his organization of the national resistance war, which mobilized the Anatolian center against European imperialist designs to further partition the country, and, above all, AtatŸrk's sweeping cultural revolution designed to bring Turkey into the twentieth century. Mango balances well the political chronicle with insights into both the personal life and the psychological character of the leader.

A proud, headstrong, determined visionary with a demanding personality, Atatürk had few friends, and, apart from his obsessive and driving national project, his few interests included nightly soirées with a select handful of loyalists and intermittent romantic relationships. Mango probably provides more details on Atatürk's personal life than the official biographies care to see, and he also sifts and dispels some of the myths surrounding the supreme national figure. There have reportedly been some attempts to suppress the publication of the book in Turkey, but the official guardians of the myth should lighten up: Mango's portrait of the man is admiring, impressive and leaves little doubt of his greatness and overwhelming centrality to modern Turkey, while reminding us that he was human as well, lending both credibility to Mango's account and valuable detail to students of leadership and power.

For all its excellence, Atatürk is in some senses written too much as a chronicle. Turkey has evolved immensely since Atatürk's day, and, as with all historical figures, he needs to be assessed in light of subsequent events. Mango's interesting narrative makes no links to major issues such as Turkey's transition from a statist economy, the emergence of the Kurdish problem, the resurgence of Islamic politics, and the collapse of the Soviet Union-all of which have wrought immense change over the last two decades, with direct implications for Kemalism.

Presumably, Mango did not wish to date his book by systematically linking the Atatürk era to more recent decades. And it is true that his approach does offer a "timeless" account that can be re-interpreted and resummarized by others in later eras with new historical perspectives. Still, despite the excellent final chapter that analyzes the Atatürk phenomenon in light of today's events, one is left thirsting for a more interpretive biography.

For the post-Atatürk story is at least as important as Atatürk's life in determining his legacy. The unfolding of events continues to vindicate many of his policies, and also to expose their flaws. Mango suggests that Atatürk, as an autocratic reformer, was above all interested in cultural revolution. The many aspects of that revolution-the emasculation of Islamic institutions, the introduction of Western legal codes, the abolition of the Arabic alphabet in favor of the Latin, the imposition of formal surnames, the creation of a cult of new nationalism that would glorify the Turks as the center and seed of world civilization, the compulsory adoption of Western clothing styles over traditional Turkish dress-had a massive impact on Turkish life and on what has subsequently become of it.

But reforms imposed from above exact a certain price, and the passage of time has now revealed that price with greater clarity. Many of the questions about Atatürk today are in fact questions about the statist values of the blighted twentieth century as a whole. Atatürk was a child of the West, not of some exotic East. Large segments of the Ottoman reformist intelligentsia were steeped in Western thinking.

Most of them were Turks from the Ottoman's Balkan provinces, intimately aware of the daily workings of European great powers and of their cultures. Atatürk had absorbed many of the values of the European eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including leitmotifs of the French Revolution such as the disestablishment of religion, the defrocking of the clergy, the veneration of the nation-state, the imposition of national identity upon citizens of all origins, and the supreme values of secular nationalism. All these features were adopted by the Turkish state.

Even in his autocratic rule, however, Atatürk scarcely flirted with bloodshed as an instrument of nation-building. What he did do was produce his own version of Western values. Six key principles emerged in his thinking during the twenty years of his unchallenged stewardship over the country, principles that provided the foundation of Kemalist ideology after his death: republicanism; nationalism; populism (vaguely defined but representing rule in the people's interests); statism (in the sense of state intervention in the economy); secularism; and "revolutionism" or reformism. Kemalism as an ideology was enshrined more deeply after Atatürk's death, and thereafter was preserved largely unchanged by a Westernized elite with a paternalist outlook.

If there is a problem with the Turkish state today, it is indeed the unthinking perpetuation of Kemalism as a static set of values. No text of any kind can continue to be applied in the same terms as those in which it was originally conceived. The world in which Atatürk so brilliantly and creatively operated is now gone. So many of the key tenets of Kemalism require re-interpretation, if not simple abandonment, as the world and the conditions of Turkey transform.

Turkey, one of the most successful countries in the whole of the Balkans, Middle East and Muslim world, still faces serious problems in offering itself as a full candidate for membership of the European Union. Ossified Kemalism lies at the heart of these problems. Among the six principles of Kemalism, that of statism in its broadest sense presents the greatest obstacle to the country's evolution today.
The centrality of the state was the key element of nation-building over much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it is now perceived in a different light across the globe. This change reflects both the continuing evolution of liberal thought and the cautionary lessons concerning the gross abuse of power by fascist and communist states in the twentieth century. Received wisdom now asserts that the state does not embody the people, nor should it be an object of veneration. The state should serve the people and not the converse, and the people is made up of a plurality of groups. It does not constitute a monolith in the Rousseauian or Marxist sense, and so has no independent existence apart from the institutions and culture of civil society.

In spite of this wisdom, Turkey clings to the near Orwellian language of an earlier era that proclaims, in the very first sentence of the preamble to its constitution, "The Turkish state is eternal." Yet the Turkish state should not be eternal. It is a construct of the people, constantly evolving to meet their needs and demands. It is the Turkish people who are eternal and who will shape the state as they wish. Thus, laws in Turkey such as those that criminalize insults to the state help perpetuate the illiberal order that prevents Turkey's acceptance as a fully Western country in European eyes. More important, that illiberal order hinders Turkey's own democratic evolution, and thus complicates a solution to its two main problems, Islamism and the Kurds.

First, the religious question. Turkey, as a "secular" state, continues to ban the main Islamist party in the country, which also happens to be the single biggest party. Turkey should indeed maintain secularism, but it must be real secularism that ensures absolute separation of church and state, not absolute state control over religion in the French Jacobin sense, which is what the word "secularism" means in Turkey today. Islam is not inherently incompatible with democracy. Islamist parties should not be treated as a security issue unless actual violence is employed, nor should religious issues be handled by security authorities in accordance with the views of an old paternalist elite.

Turkey's second-biggest domestic crisis is the Kurdish issue. In the interests of building a homogenized nation, the Kemalist state opted upon its foundation (as did France and many other countries) not to recognize any identities within the country other than the Turkish one. This was of course a fiction, since Turkey is quite multi-ethnic. The Kurds are only the single biggest of the ethnic minorities. They are not discriminated against as citizens, but they have virtually no cultural or language rights or regional voice over their affairs-in what is their original homeland within Turkey.

The Turkish state had a perfect right to employ force to put down the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a violent ethnic Kurdish movement that came into existence in the mid-1980s to articulate some long-held Kurdish grievances, but the state also has an obligation to solve the initial problems that gave rise to the conflict. A solution could come fairly easily if Turkey's democratic governmental processes, civil society and media were allowed to operate freely. But they are not allowed to do so, because the Kurdish issue is seen strictly in security terms, and thus outside the pale of discussion. The doctrines of the state, which the old elite chooses to call "Kemalism", are no longer adequate to handle the problem, and the cost for Turkey is high.

Turkey's populace is now increasingly sophisticated and its civil society rich and growing. It possesses many of the democratic and civil institutions that we have in the West. The older Kemalist term, "republicanism", should now be understood in the context of contemporary liberal democracy and the needs of Turkish society as a whole. Similarly, the Kemalist concept of "statism", which enshrines the principle of strong state control of the economy, is archaic. Under policies of import substitution Turkey developed a sound functional infrastructure over many decades, but it could not leap forward dramatically until the adolescent economy was liberated in the 1980s by President …zal's policies of privatization and opening the economy to foreign investment. Nearly all Turks now recognize the need to replace economic statism with openness to the international market economy. Similarly, "revolutionism" or "reformism", once a paternalistic program of drastic cultural reform, should today be understood as continuing the ongoing evolution of civil society and liberalization of the state.
The life of Atatürk as chronicled by Mango is an important study in enlightened statesmanship in an era when many other major international statesmen were less enlightened-and less successful-in shepherding their peoples toward a better future. Even as Atatürk deserves permanent respect and admiration for his accomplishments, his policies of eighty years ago require serious rethinking.

Essay Types: Book Review