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Hugh Fitzgerald: A Turkish Lesson: Ataturk and Erdogan


One of the notions that in the past contributed to dangerous complacency in the West about Islam was the belief that other Muslim countries would inexorably follow the example of Turkey under Ataturk, and by degrees, as they inevitably Westernized, would limit the power of Islam in their own societies just as Ataturk had done for his.

Ataturk and the reformers who supported him were Turkish nationalists, convinced by the stagnation, and then the complete collapse, of the Ottoman Empire that radical changes were necessary to save Turkey.

Ataturk wanted to secularize Turkey so that it would not be condemned to a state of permanent backwardness. He was very clear in his dismissal of the baleful effects of Islam, which he contemptuously called “the religion of the Arabs”:

Even before accepting the religion of the Arabs, the Turks were a great nation. After accepting the religion of the Arabs, this religion, didn’t effect to combine the Arabs, the Persians and Egyptians with the Turks to constitute a nation. (This religion) rather, loosened the national nexus of Turkish nation, got national excitement numb. This was very natural. Because the purpose of the religion founded by Muhammad, over all nations, was to drag [sic] to an including [for "inclusive”?] Arab national politics. [T[This appears to mean that Islam pulled non-Arab Muslims into being concerned about "Arab national politics”]p>

For nearly five hundred years, these rules and theories [reg[regarding civil and criminal law]an Arab Shaikh and the interpretations of generations of lazy and good-for-nothing priests have decided the civil and criminal law of Turkey. They have decided the form of the Constitution, the details of the lives of each Turk, his food, his hours of rising and sleeping the shape of his clothes, the routine of the midwife who produced his children, what he learned in his schools, his customs, his thoughts-even his most intimate habits. This theology of an immoral Arab [pre[presented as Islam]a dead thing. Possibly it might have suited tribes in the desert. It is no good for a modern, progressive state. God’s revelation! There is no God! These are only the chains by which the priests and bad rulers bound the people down. A ruler who needs religion is a weakling. No weaklings should rule!

I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the teachings of science. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow man.

A Turkish nationalist and determined Westernizer, highly critical of Islam and contemptuous of the backward Bedouins, as he saw the Arabs, Ataturk was determined to limit the power of Islam in every way, and to distance Turkey from the Muslim Arab states. He could manage to do this because he enjoyed great prestige as a war hero. During World War I, he led the Turks at Gallipoli, where they pushed back the invading Allies. Then, after the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the war, Ataturk again managed to rescue Turkey from its parlous state, taking back territory in Anatolia that had been occupied by the Allies. It was Ataturk who saved Turkey as a nation by winning its war for independence against the Allies, when it had come perilously close to dissolution.

His changes were of many kinds. Politically, Ataturk abolished the sultanate in 1922, and then made the caliph a mere figurehead at the same time. This caused quite a stir, as the caliphate as an institution dated back to the time of Muhammad. Muslims in India were especially vocal about rescuing the Caliphate, whether from infidels or from Ataturk, and the “Khilafa Movement’” was the result. But Ataturk viewed this movement as outside interference in Turkey’s internal affairs, and in response he abolished the caliphate altogether, sending the caliph and his family into exile in 1924. Since then, the Muslim world has had to survive without a caliphate.

As a nationalist, he had no wish for his project of a Westernized Turkey to be held back by the country continuing to be the center of a Muslim world which, he felt, could only act as a drag on Turkey’s progress. He reformed the government along Western lines, with executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. With the caliphate out of the way, the Turkish government had more freedom to pursue policies that attacked Islamic institutions. Under the guise of “cleansing Islam of political interference,” the educational system was completely overhauled. Islamic education was banned in favor of secular, non-dogmatic schools. Other aspects of religious infrastructure were also torn down. The Shari’ah council to approve laws that the GNA (Grand National Assembly) had established just two years earlier, in 1924, was abolished. Religious endowments were seized and put under government control. Sufi lodges were forcibly shut down. All judges of Islamic law in the country were immediately fired, as all Shari’ah courts were closed. Instead, legal codes based on Western European models were introduced.

Those were political changes. But there were others, also of great significance, including changes in dress, calendar, and language, that together contributed to the secularizing effort of Ataturk.

The hijab for women was ridiculed as a “ridiculous object” and banned in public buildings. That meant that women working for the government, or in the schools, could not wear a hijab. The fez, viewed as a symbol of the “Oriental” East,  was banned in 1925. Western dress for men became almost mandatory.

The calendar was officially changed, from the traditional Islamic calendar, based on the hijrah – Prophet Muhammad’s flight to Medina– to the Gregorian calendar, based on the birth of Jesus Christ. This was another way to westernize the country.

In 1932, the adhan – the Muslim call to prayer – was outlawed in Arabic. Instead, it was rewritten using Turkish words and forced upon the country’s thousands of mosques.

Friday was no longer considered part of the weekend. Instead, Turks were required, by law, to follow European norms of Saturday and Sunday being days off from work.

Ataturk had the Qur’an and a tafsir (commentary) both translated into Turkish. This was a way of distancing the Turks culturally from the Arabs. But even more important was Ataturk’s changing Turkish from being written in Arabic script to being written using the Latin alphabet. Ataturk used the excuse that this would increase literacy among Turks (which was low in the 1920s) by the replacement of Arabic letters with Latin letters. Turkish had been written in Arabic letters for many hundreds of years after the conversion of the Turks to Islam in the 900s. Because Turkish was written in the Arabic script, Turks could read the Qur’an, and other Islamic texts, with relative ease, connecting them to an Islamic identity. Atatürk saw as a threat, and hoped to disconnect Turks from Arabs, and diminish their Islamic identity, with the forceful imposition of the Latin alphabet.

In addition to the introduction of the Latin letters, Atatürk created a commission charged with the replacement of Arabic and Persian loanwords in Turkish. In keeping with his nationalist agenda, Atatürk wanted a language that was purely Turkish, which meant old Turkish words, that had become obsolete during the Ottoman era, came back into use instead of Arabic words. For example, the Turkish War of Independence, formerly know as the Istiklal Harbi, became known as Kurtuluş Savaşı, because “istiklal” and “harb” are Arabic loanwords in Turkish. He wanted to stamp out the influence of Arabic in every way — linguistically, religiously, politically.

From Atatürk’s perspective, the language reform was completely successful. Within a few decades, the old Ottoman Turkish was effectively extinct. The newer generations of Turks were cut off from the older generations, with whom simple conversations were difficult. With the Turkish people now illiterate in regards to their past, the Turkish government was able to feed them a version of history that the Kemalists deemed acceptable, one that promoted not the Ottoman caliphate but the Turkish nationalism that Atatürk himself believed in and promoted.

After all of these changes, the Turkish legislature, or Grand National Assembly, in 1928 gave up the pretense of following Islam, and deleted the clause in the constitution that declared Islam as the official state religion. Islam had been replaced with Atatürk’s secular ideologies.

Having the Qur’an in Turkish also made it easier for the government to monitor the madrasas and the mosques, since the police could more readily understand texts in Turkish. It also made it easier for government bureaucrats at the Department of Religious Affairs to compose the weekly sermon that by governmental fiat had to be used for the Friday sermon, at every Turkish mosque.

Secular democracy, on the Western model, with an executive, legislative, and judiciary, replaced the sultanate. Women were given the right to vote in Kemalist Turkey even before they received it in parts of Western Europe. The hijab was banned in universities and government offices. The fez, as a sign of “Orientalism,” was banned in 1925. Even soldiers who gave signs of being too devout — say, were seen reading the Qur’an too intently — would find it more difficult to rise into the officer ranks or, once there, to be promoted. Religious fervor was suspect in the Kemalist state. Given all these constrains on Islam, It was certainly reasonable, two or three decades ago, to assume that Kemalism had triumphed, Islam had permanently lost out to secularism,  and Turkey had joined the modern world, both a firm ally of the West in NATO and, it was assumed, would eventually become a member of the E.U.

That was how things stood even into the 1990s, when secularism was still riding high in Turkey, and in the capitals of the West, and especially in Washington, no one could imagine that Ataturk’s legacy could ever  be undone.

But then something unexpected happened. In 1996, Turkey elected Necmettin Erbakan as its first Islamist prime minister. He lasted for less than one year, because he was forced out by the army and its Kemalist generals, who deposed him in a coup in February 1997. They accused him, rightly, of having tried  to undermine Turkey’s secular constitution. It seemed that the challenge to Kemalism had been beaten back. In Ankara, and in Washington, there were sighs of relief. Erbakan’s natural successor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was in the meantime elected mayor of Istanbul. In that post, he surprised many who had expected he would limit the sale of alcohol and impose Islamic law, by concentrating on such practical problems as pollution, water shortages, and traffic. This behavior both pleased, and lulled, his enemies.

But Erdogan was not just concerned with picking up the trash and dealing with traffic in Istanbul. He was carefully setting the stage for his further rise to power. After many vicissitudes, including a four-month jail term for reciting an Islamist poem, by now well-known to many (“The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers...”) he ran for, and won, the post of Prime Minister in 2003.

And for the past fourteen years, while he has been systematically undoing Kemalism, he has also become ever more outrageous in his behavior toward Turkey’s allies in the West. How Erdogan has  promoted his anti-Ataturk agenda, and what he has so far accomplished, are the subject of my next article.

The Truth Must be Told

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