MUSTAFA Kemal Atatürk is the man who brought the centuries old Ottaman Empire down, nearly single handed. In its place he set up an intensely nationalist, secular modern Turkey. He became part of the Turkish myth and folklore with monumental amount of work done on him and attributed to him. He has been deified.
Sifting through this maze of work to identify and portray the statesman-politician and nation builder that he was is no easy task, says M. Sükrü Hanioglu, author of Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography.
A life-long champion of westernisation of Turkey, Atatürk nevertheless recognised the West as ‘an enemy’ of the interests of his nation. He resisted the economic and political intervention of the West in Turkey all his life. He was part of the famous Young Turks, the group that fought against the supremacy of the Sultan and worked for the scientific temper and growth in Turkey. “Mustafa Kemal adopted a similar approach to the West.
He also viewed European civilisation as the zenith of progress and the epitome of modernity, yet at the same time was wary of Europe’s power and designs on the Ottoman Empire, especially after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 – the most ignominious defeat in Ottoman history, and the one that instantaneously transformed a multicontinental empire into an Asiatic country.”
Born into not so well known family, Mustafa Kemal went to a military school and a non-Islamic school, unlike children of his time. This initiation away from the religious education shaped his attitude towards religion all his life. He fought under the Sultan initially and later joined the nationalist forces and led the armed struggle.
When victory came and he assumed power, he had no patience to reform the existing institutions. Says Sükrü Hanioglu “He insisted on abolishing the old and replacing it with a radically new set of norms, structures, and values.” This he did in all spheres, including changing the Ottoman script into a modified Latin. He imported civil codes and discarded the old system.
In his mission he found that Islam was a hurdle. And hence he set about blunting it, marginalising its impact. This too he did systematically, first separating the caliphate and the sultanate. Then he abolished the caliphate. When he was pressurised into assuming the role of caliph, he firmly refused. To fill the void of religion, he planted nationalism and the scientific temperament. He revived the old Turkish history and pride, the pre-Ottoman, pre-Islamic Turkey, which was glorious and splendorous. He stoked the anti-Greece emotions.
Mustafa Kemal (1881 – 1938) was first and foremost a member of “a generation of materialism” says Sükrü Hanioglu. “He viewed everything from nationalism to modernism through the prism of scientism… His assumption of power in a predominantly conservative Muslim society was astoundingly revolutionary.”
Atatürk was not an original thinker or a born intellectual. He was influenced by a wide variety of ideologies and the contemporary world scenario. French Revolution, the Japanese victories in 1905 deeply inspired him. He did not hesitate to change and reverse and amend his stance on issues and decisions. Sometimes he gave the impression of a ‘Muslim Communist’ and sometimes he was secular and other times he was anti-Islam, totally consumed by his Turkish pride. He became a legend in his life and became role model for leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, says Sükrü Hanioglu.
He reinterpreted Islam. Under his supervision, the history text books were revised. He believed that Islam was the religion of the Arabs. “The Turks too had been a great nation before accepting the religion of the Arabs,” he said. “However, the “Arab religion … loosened the national ties of the Turkish nation” and “benumbed national feelings and enthusiasm for the nation, because the aim of the religion established by Muhammad prompted an Arab nationalist policy … Those who accepted Muhammad’s religion had to suppress their identities and devote their lives to the exaltation of the name of Allah everywhere… Under these circumstances, the Turkish nation resembled those who commit the Qur’an to memory without understanding the meaning of a single word of it and thus became senile.”
The most popular name by which he is known ‘Atatürk’ is the surname bestowed upon him by the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1934. It literally means Father Turk. One of the acts of defiance of Atatürk against Islam was to have statues made and installed at various places. His own statues were put up in several places. He shifted the capital of Turkey from Istanbul, the seat of power of the Ottoman Empire to Ankara.
He is a fascinating personality, a man of many shades, but a single commitment – to see his nation restored to its past glory. In his version of history, Ottoman Empire was only a footnote.
Sükrü Hanioglu’s Atatürk is a work of serious research. Keeping the account strictly intellectual and political he has steered clear of both personal accounts and the opinions of others, quoting Atatürk himself on all issues. Says the author, “A politician, diplomat, and commander, Mustafa Kemal had fought and won a protracted and arduous struggle on three fronts. In less than four years, he had risen from being the rebel general of a dying empire to become supreme leader of a resurgent nation.” Sükrü Hanioglu is the Garrett Professor in Foreign Affairs in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. His analysis and sculpting of Mustafa Kemal have only embellished his traits and not demolished. Definitely a valuable addition to the biography collection of any reader.
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