Ataturk’s secularist legacy

While the Turkish founder died seven decades ago, his memory is very much alive.

Religion and secularism are contested issues in modern Turkey [AFP]

Turkey’s unique position straddling both Asia and Europe has long made it a bridge between East and West.

Its population is almost entirely Muslim. Yet for more than 80 years, Turks have been governed by strictly secular principles, principles introduced by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic of Turkey.

For some Ataturk, is a national icon, but for others he is the symbol of a state that is using his memory for its own oppressive purposes.

Turkey is almost totally Muslim, but has been governed by secular principles for decades [Reuters]
Turkey is almost totally Muslim, but has been governed by secular principles for decades [Reuters]

Sener Eruygur, a former Turkish Gendarmerie Forces Commander General, said: “He is the cement of the Turkish nation. Ataturk provided the Turks with hope in a time of despair. He gave us our independence.”

The AK (Justice and Development) party has been in power in Turkey since 2002. It has drawn its support from those who have been marginalised from Turkish society – many of whom maintain a traditional Islamic way of life.

The ruling party has been criticised for seeking to overturn the secular system upon which Ataturk built modern Turkey. But it accuses those who say it wants to introduce Islam into political life as scaremongering.

Yet earlier this year, the political system fell into turmoil after the opposition refused to accept the AK nomination for president, Abdullah Gul, claiming the secularist system would be under threat if both president and prime minister were members of the AK party.

In reaction to the threat against Ataturk’s legacy of secularism, Turkish nationalism has been on the rise.
Bedri Baykam, a Turkish artist and scholar, said: “This country in the last 20 years has done nothing but criticise Ataturk.

“But when we look to the country overall, the more he’s attacked, or the more his legacy becomes hot politics for today’s Turkey, the more the love for his image grows.

Sevan Nisanyan, Turkish writer and academic, said: “I tend to think that the cult of Ataturk as it has survived in this country since the 1930s is primarily a cult of the ‘state’. It’s a cult of a certain regime that wants to stay in power.”


Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923 after leading a war of independence against European powers seeking to colonise the remnants of the Ottoman empire.

After seizing power, he took drastic steps to re-orientate Turkey towards the West, abolishing the caliphate system, changing the alphabet, and relegating Islam to the private sphere.

As a division commander, he fought against the Allies in the infamous Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

But after three years of fighting, the Ottoman war machine collapsed, and the Allies began to divide the empire among themselves.

Istanbul was the imperial capital of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, but when Ataturk returned to Istanbul after the First World War, he found the city occupied by allied forces. He was determined to restore Turkish sovereignty.

By 1922, the Turks were victorious in their war of independence. Ataturk’s successes against the “invaders” gave him and what was still a rival government increasing legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

On October 29, 1923, the Republic of Turkey was declared, with Mustafa Kamal, the hero of the war of independence, as its president, and his power-base, Ankara, as its capital.

Under the Ottomans the Sultan’s legitimacy as ruler rested on his position as Caliph, God’s representative on earth. The authority of the state came from Islam.

But Ataturk abolished the position of caliph, and the last caliph was expelled on March 3, 1924.


Since Ataturk’s death in 1938, Kemalism, at the heart of which is the principle of secularism, has become the dominant ideology of the Turkish state.

But there is an increasing feeling in some quarters that this Kemalist status quo is under threat.

Eruygur said: “You have to be Turkish to understand why his image is there … and why the love and respect for his image is so constantly present without being a threat to free thinking or the democracy of a free person.

“Without being a Turk you cannot understand this constant love and link to Ataturk.”

But not all of Turkey’s 70 million people are Turks. About 15 million – or 20 per cent of the population – are Kurds.

The Kurds were promised an independent homeland at the Treaty of Sevres, signed by the Allies of the First World War.

But this dream was quashed following the creation of the Turkish Republic.

Groups such as the the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), have continued the struggle for self rule – leading to more than 30,000 deaths in the past 25 years.

Tar?k Ziya Ekinci, a prominent writer on Kurdish issues, said: “Ataturk treated Kurds and Turks as equals; he recognised the rights of the Kurds. But the Turkish nationalism that was imposed on Turkey after the 1950s changed all that.”

Today in the constitution there is a clause that every citizen of this country must identify himself as Turkish. You are a traitor to this country if you do not call yourself a Turk.

There are signs that the foundation stones of Ataturk’s Turkey, in which the army wields significant power, minorities are oppressed, freedom of speech seriously curtailed, and Islam kept out of politics, may not hold forever.

While Ataturk died seven decades ago, his legacy, expressed in the idea of secularism, is very much alive in the Turkey of today.

Source: Al Jazeera