No one who visits Turkey can fail to miss the omnipresence of Atatürk. You will probably arrive in Atatürk Airport in Istanbul. Your bus or taxi into town will pass along the Atatürk Avenue. You may see a concert or a ballet at the Atatürk Cultural Centre. Or an international football game at the Atatürk Stadium. In every town in every school, university, sports centre, post office, tax office, public and private foundation and institution, bank, most offices, many shops, you will see pictures and busts of Atatürk, but never in any mosque or Islamic foundation.
Today, October 29th, the day which commemorates the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the brass bands are practicing for the parades, and bunting and banners , pictures of Atatürk, and the red flag with the white star and crescent are flying from houses, apartments, office building, often covering the whole side of a twenty-storey building, all over Turkey, especially here in Etiler, middle-class Republican district of Istanbul par excellence.
There is an exhibition of photos of Atatürk in the nearby Akmerkez Shopping Centre; Atatürk young at cadet school in Salonika with twirling moustaches, Atatürk in uniform, smart in tails, plus-fours, a natty cap; Atatürk with the King of Afghanistan, the Shah of Iran, Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson; Atatürk swimming; Atatürk with his adopted daughters or groups of women, unveiled, of course; Atatürk looking up, Atatürk looking down; a paunchy Atatürk a year or so before his death through liver cirrhosis on Nov 10 1938, aged 58; and, inexplicably, Atatürk leaning out of a train window fingering a set of Islamic prayer beads. Well, maybe he was traveling through a particularly religious area. Many of these are on permanent exhibition on the walls opposite the Dolmabahçe Palace.
The Atatürk foundation has been active on the streets and in the shopping malls selling magnets, bookmarks, paperweights, mirrors, heart-shaped pill boxes, calendars, cigarette cases, jewellry boxes. Atatürk has become a symbol, an icon. Liberal Turks I have met, especially women, university teachers, have on their desk or walls small framed pictures of Atatürk.
But wait a minute, you tell me, wasn’t Atatürk a dictator: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini… and Atatürk? How can this possibly come about?
I am told: if it had not been for Atatürk, we would still be in the Dark Ages. We would still be wearing the veil; we might not have the chance to work; Turkey might be like…, well, Iran. And because of Atatürk we can work, wear what we like and live much as women do in the West. And they may quote Atatürk: “Human kind is made up of two sexes, women and men. Is it possible that a mass is improved by the improvement of only one part and the other part is ignored? Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to earth with chains and the other half can soar into skies?”
Mustafa Kemal, who took the name of Atatürk, “Father of the Turks” in 1934, when, through his own decision, all Turks had to take surnames, gained fame as the Ottoman colonel at Gallipoli in 1915 who held back and prevented the British and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) landing. Then on the Syrian border in 1917 he managed to hold onto as much territory as possible before the inevitable defeat of the flailing Ottoman Empire, allied to Germany, before the Anglo-French forces. The Ottoman Empire had crumbled. With the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 the European powers gave themselves slices of the cake of Turkey. Greece was to administer the west, Italy the south, Britain the south, France the Syrian border, Armenia got the far east, and only a rump Turkey in the north and east of Anatolia was to be maintained.
The defeated Sultan Mehmed VI, Vehideddin, sent Kemal as an army inspector to eastern Turkey, to inspect the troops. A piece of luck, as he raised the call to get rid of the foreign invaders. He organized the Erzurum and Sivas congresses of 1919 and called for a Turkish state. He was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The task was arduous. Equipment and supplies were lacking. Brigandage was rife. A Kurdish uprising was put down. Agreements were made with the French and Italians, and eventually the English, but the Greeks wanted to hold on to territory which had been part of the Ancient Greek Empire. Defeats were suffered. But, playing on patriotism, the desire for a Turkish nation, a new sense of patriotism, Kemal’s own enormous prestige and charisma, the Greeks were eventually defeated and left Syrrna, Izmir, in 1923. Atrocities took place on both sides. The Armenians were forced back, and now the killings of the Armenians by Turks in 1920 has become the greatest problem for Turkey to enter the EU. The Turkish Republic was proclaimed on 29th October 1923. Kemal was elected President. The country was unified at last. Borders were just about fixed, to include an apparently unified Turkish speaking population.
Differently to Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Kemal did not embark on any attempt to conquer other territories. Despite opposition from those who thought he wanted to become another Sultan, he, with the support of the armed forces, managed to hold onto power through the 1920s and 1930s. An opposition party was attempted in 1924-5, but when it was looking too successful it was withdrawn. Its leaders were linked to an unsuccessful assignation attempt in 1926, and some were hanged.
Kemalism became established with its distinctive traits: republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism, secularism and reformism. And Turkey never became a Stalinist state with “the dark menace of the concentration camp” (Volkan and Itzkowitz in Atatürk, A.L. Macfie, p.190).
Socially, Kemalism brought about great changes. The Caliphate and religious courts were abolished in 1924. Religious symbols were outlawed: the fez was banned in 1925. Men were ordered to wear European headwear: European companies dumped their unsold stock of pink bowler hats in Turkey.
The Swiss legal system was adopted in 1926. Atatürk encouraged de-veiling, held mixed dances and dinners, and may even have been the first ever Turk to have danced (the foxtrot) with a woman, at least in public. Polygamy and repudiation of wives became illegal in 1931, though, ironically, this was how Atatürk had divorced his wife, Latife, Hanim, in 1925, after just two years of marriage. Women were given the right to vote and could stand for elections in the same year.
Almost overnight, the alphabet was changed. Few, less than 10%, could read the Ottoman script, which mixed Turkish, Persian and Arabic. On 3 November 1928 Turkey began to use the Roman alphabet. Illiteracy improved almost immediately, and, where possible, Turkish words were introduced in place of Arabic and Persian, and future generations would be unable to read anything written before 1928. Indeed, today, very very few can, even at Boğaziçi University.
And Turkish gained the status of a national language. The Koran was translated into Turkish in 1931. The Turkish Historical Society emphasized that Turks were “citizens linked together by a community of language, culture and ideals”; and in 1932 the Turkish Linguistic Society identified Turkish as the sun-language, “the original language, from which Semitic and Indo-European languages had evolved”.
In the middle-class suburbs of Istanbul and Ankara the flags are waving, but there will be much less celebration in the working-class Islamic suburbs.