Discussion and Reply to Two Peers
Almost overnight Kemal Ataturk banned the fez, secularized the state, gave women the vote and set Turkey on a course toward the West
Turkey’s teahouses are charming places. Plane trees shade small tables set along white walls. Men play backgammon or huddle overwater pipes. Steam rises from boiling samovars. The tea doesn’t vary, either: amber in color, it’s served in small, tulip-shaped glasses resting on saucers painted red and gold. Most of Turkey’s teahouses have something else in common-a picture of Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. In this, they are not unique. There are portraits of Ataturk everywhere you go in Turkey. Young Ataturk, old Ataturk, Ataturk in middle age. Ataturk the teacher, the soldier, the statesman. Ataturk in tweeds. Ataturk in flannels. Ataturk in a top hat. In homes, shops and universities; in restaurants, offices and banks, this man, though dead more than 50 years, is still very much a presence.
His name speaks volumes. In both Arabic and Turkish, “Kemal” means “perfection.” It was a name that was conferred upon him at military school in 1893 because of his command of algebra. He was just 12 years old. “Ataturk,” the name he took in 1934, means”Father Turk,” no less. For most of his life, he viewed his people as his children. Asked once why he rarely smiled, he replied, “Isn’t modernizing a nation a serious business?” But Kemal Ataturk never doubted he was up to the job. In 1923, when he founded the Turkish Republic, his country was mired in the Middle Ages. Muslim clerics, wielding authority said to come from God, dominated the customs of the country. Under the tutelage of a tottering sultan, and a caliph who was the heir of the Prophet Muhammad as temporal and spiritual head of Islam, the clerics had run most of the schools and some of the courts, as well. Legal disputes involving such matters as divorce and inheritance were referred to these religious courts, governed by precepts formulated 1,300 years before, in the time of the Prophet. Women, in general, had few rights, received limited schooling, could not vote and were not supposed to appear in public with men, even their husbands.
Powerful leaders used to be called “makers of history”; few so obviously deserve the title as Ataturk. Between 1923 and 1938, the year he died, he made this mostly Muslim country into a largely secular state, modeled on the nations of Western Europe. History has seen no national transformation swifter or more dramatic. In a little more than 15 years, he tried to accomplish the work of centuries.
He abolished the sultanate in 1922 and, a year later, exiled the caliph, took education away from the clerics and closed the religious courts. The effect of these measures was to separate church and state, something that had never happened before in western Asia. He banned the fez, which had become a symbol of Ottoman and Islamic orthodoxy, adopted a modified Latin alphabet, outlawed polygamy and championed equal rights for women. It’s largely because of Ataturk that, today, Turkish women have made their mark in medicine, law, even politics. Though her political future is currently in doubt, Tansu Ciller, Turkey’s bright, forward-looking prime minister, has been one of only a handful of women to head a government anywhere.
It is safe to say that without Ataturk there might not be a Turkish nation. It was he who extricated it from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and World War I, in which Turkey unwisely sided with Germany. When the war ended, the victorious Allies seemed bent on dismembering not just the Ottoman Empire, but its predominantly Turkish provinces, too. The Ottoman Turks had occupied Greece and parts of southeastern Europe for centuries. But under the Treaty of Sevres, signed by representatives of Ottoman Turkey and the Allied powers (with the exception of Russia and the United States), Turkey was to consist only of Istanbul and parts of the Anatolian peninsula. Greece, with British encouragement, laid claim to all parts of Turkey in Europe and a good deal of western Anatolia as well.
The treaty required Ottoman forces to lay down their arms, and it was to expedite this process that the sultan, by then under the thumb of the Allies, sent Ataturk to Anatolia in 1919. But Ataturk, then Inspector-General Mustafa Kemal, disobeyed orders. Instead of disarming Turkish soldiers, he reorganized them and repaired to the remote eastern Anatolian city of Erzurum, intent on organizing nationalist resistance to both the sultan and the Allies. The angry sultan ordered Ataturk to return to Istanbul. “I shall stay in Anatolia,” came the reply, “until the nation has won its independence.” Then he moved west, convened a parliament, set up a rebel government in Ankara (Turkey’s present capital) and launched an assault on the Greek armies occupying western Anatolia.
As a daring field commander, he had three times helped deny the Gallipoli Peninsula to the Allies in 1915. Now, in September 1921, he proved his audacity once again. At the Sakarya River his forces dealt the Greeks a decisive defeat in one of the longest battles in history. The two armies fought along a 60-mile front for 22 days and 22 nights. Greeks outnumbered Turks three to one but were short of food and water.
By the fall of 1922, with 50,000 men, no tanks and only a few rickety biplanes, Ataturk’s army had driven the Greeks out of Anatolia and had persuaded the Allies to withdraw most of their forces and territorial claims. For his pains, Turkish nationalists named him Gazi, meaning “conqueror,” or “one who fights on behalf of Islam.”
It was as the leader of his countrymen by popular acclaim that he abolished the sultanate. He intended to exile the sultan, but in the end he didn’t have to. The old man, afraid that an overzealous nationalist might kill him, persuaded the British to help him leave the country. One wet November morning the sultan assembled an entourage of ten, including his son, his doctor, his bandmaster, two eunuchs and a barber. (His five wives would follow later.) At 6 a.m., the party slipped into two British ambulances and headed for the Bosporus, where a battleship, HMS Malaya, was waiting.
A year later, Ataturk gave the caliph, Prince Abdul Mejid, less than 12 hours to pack his bags. After bidding farewell to his harem, the caliph was bundled onto a train bound for Switzerland. At the Swiss border, another indignity awaited. He was a polygamist, Swiss officials explained, and as such could not be allowed to enter the country. In the end they relented enough to issue him a temporary visa.
Having driven out the Greek invaders, abolished the monarchy and broken the official power of Islam, Ataturk set to work in earnest. As he saw it, to make progress Turkey either had to emulate Western Europe or be dominated by it. He wanted to make the country as liberal as he could; he wanted to make it “modern,” a word he used often. One day an exasperated cleric demanded to know exactly what the word meant. “It means being a human being,” said Ataturk. So great was his passion to emulate Western ways that enemies used to joke about it. The country was lucky, they said, that he hadn’t forced Turks to learn French or convert to Christianity.
Some reforms had been attempted in the past. What made the difference now was the tenacity, ruthlessness and enormous prestige Ataturk brought to implementing them. As early as 1922, he had created a national assembly, and this institution declared Turkey a republic with Ataturk as president in 1923. This change was affected with little opposition because of Ataturk’s reputation, won at Gallipoli and burnished during the war of independence. At Gallipoli, when he’d been struck in the chest by shrapnel, the watch in his breast pocket was shattered, but Ataturk came away unharmed. Many of his countrymen drew their own conclusions: he was divinely chosen to lead his people.
This was ironic because Ataturk was not merely an agnostic, he regarded Islam as inimical to progress. It is said that in a fit of temper, he once threw a Koran at one of Turkey’s top clerics.
Ataturk gave Turkey a republican constitution. People now voted, and laws were debated and passed by the national assembly. But there was really only one party-the People’s Republican Party, which would dominate Turkish politics until long after his death. In economics Ataturk’s programs aimed at nudging a mainly agricultural economy toward manufacture. He encouraged business with government loans, as well as a measure of state planning and the establishment of some state-owned industries. But he left the details to his able prime minister, Ismet Inonu, who served as the country’s leader for 12 years after Ataturk’s death.
In pursuit of projects that interested him-education, social evolution, the changing of popular attitudes, the eradication of religion from politics-Ataturk was incredibly tenacious. No detail escaped him, and he was prepared to use charm, cajolery, intimidation, even outright coercion. Though he kept the army small-to save Turkey money-and enjoyed wide public approval, he ruled imperiously. With the caliph gone, Ataturk declared an all-out war on “the forces of superstition.” He closed the religious schools and replaced the holy law with a civil code borrowed in part from Switzerland. For the first time in their history, Turks enjoyed legal rights similar to those of Western Europeans.
“Islam’s great iconoclast,” as Arnold Toynbee once described him, Ataturk also turned his wrath on what seemed an unoffending target: the fez. The fez had been worn in Turkey for about a century, but in that time Turks had come to think of it and Islam as synonymous. By rejecting one, you were rejecting the other.
“If we will be a civilized people,” said Ataturk, “we must wear civilized international clothes. The fez is the sign of ignorance.” Starting in 1925, he decreed, Turkish men would be required to discard the fez and wear Western hats instead. That was easier ordered than achieved, even for a national hero turned benevolent dictator. The very word “hats” was explosive in Turkey-hats being associated with infidel customs. For years, not daring to use the “H” word, the press had referred to all hats, except the fez, as “head cover with a brim,” or “protector from sunshine.” In his book The Ataturk I Knew, journalist and politician Falih Rifki describes his terror when, as a small child at the turn of the century, he first saw a hat at close quarters. It belonged to a foreign doctor visiting his father, and as he looked at it, Rifki recalled, “it seemed to have eyes and ears and a voice, like the head of a demon. When the doctor left, our maid, a devout Muslim girl, purified the place where the hat had stood, with boiling water and incantations.”
Before banning the fez outright, Ataturk devised ways of making the hat less of an object of fear. He added a small brim to the headgear worn by the army. (To keep out the sun, he said.) He ordered all civil servants to wear hats to work. (Some resigned rather than comply. Ataturk retaliated by stopping their pensions.) He had the national press run stories extolling the hat’s virtues. Follow-ups dealt with hat etiquette: how to wear and care for a hat, and precisely how high it should be raised when greeting someone.
Once the ban became law, any man found wearing a fez risked a penalty or jail. Naturally, the demand for hats grew, supplies ran out, prices soared. Desperate men settled for anything with a brim-bowlers, boaters, fedoras. Some even wore women’s hats. Particularly for the old, renouncing the fez was sacrilege. Many tried wearing a handkerchief under the hat. That way, they reasoned, the hat wouldn’t actually touch their head. The hat law was far from Ataturk’s most important reform, but it stirred the most publicity and passion. Riots broke out in eastern Turkey. Officials trying to enforce the law were stoned. Resistance quickly ceased when Ataturk sent in special tribunals and troops.
For the most part, he dominated his countrymen by the power of his will and the force of his personality. Physically he was slight, with thin lips, blue eyes and massive eyebrows that made him look dramatic. He claimed to be indifferent to luxury. All he needed in life, he said, was “a piece of bread and to be able to eat and drink with friends.” But he took pains with his appearance and ordered his suits from London’s Savile Row. For recreation, he listened to jazz, played cards, pursued women and read futuristic novels by H. G. Wells. He was also a great talker. Addressing a party congress in 1927, he spoke for six days, six hours a day.
Ataturk was also a believer in the civilizing powers of the fox-trot. In 1925 he gave Turkey’s first ball, attended by the country’s top officials and by their wives. Until then Muslim couples had rarely been seen together in public. Soon Ataturk was urging towns all over Turkey to open dance clubs. One such club, short of women, had to advertise for them. Applicants, said the ad, should be able to play a musical instrument and speak without stuttering.
As engines of change, the dance clubs seem fairly frivolous. But all Ataturk’s innovations, however small, contributed to his grand design. In his speeches he now began to stress the rights of women. This was radical. In much of Anatolia, women were considered inferior to men. To Ataturk this was nonsense. Women were entitled to the same opportunities as men, he insisted. If anything, their schooling was more important than men’s, because when you educated a woman, you educated an entire family. Little by little, barriers fell. Women voted in local elections in 1930 and in national elections in 1935. Seventeen deputies in the new Grand National Assembly that year were female.
Politically, Ataturk thought like a reforming Westerner. In personal temperament, he was quite different. Just months before his new civil code made easy divorces illegal, he divorced Latife Hanim, his wife of two and a half years, the Muslim way-by simply announcing he was done with her. He had known her for less than five months when he proposed. They were married within days in the European style. According to a contemporary account, Latife’s disarming black eyes had “accomplished what the whole Greek army could not-the subjugation of the Turkish Commander-in-Chief.” But the more she tried to run his life-and, particularly, control his dangerously heavy drinking-the more he resisted. She was as egotistical as he and spoke of them as “Napoleon and Josephine,” a comparison Ataturk objected to. Although he admired Napoleon as a general, Ataturk felt that, as a man, Napoleon had put his own interests above those of France.
Latife hated her husband’s drinking cronies-whom she rightly saw as sycophants-and took special pleasure in belittling them. She was also madly jealous. Once, at a lunch-the first at which men and women had sat down together in the conservative city of Erzurum-she made a scene because Ataturk was paying too much attention to an attractive woman. Within months he divorced her.
While Ataturk was establishing rational reforms-economic, religious and social-that were changing Turkish life out of all recognition, his own life grew more disordered. He battled insomnia, became depressed, grew unbearably cantankerous even for a despot. By the mid-1930s he was carousing all night, dancing, singing, and boasting of his sexual conquests. For all that, women still seemed to find him irresistible. One lay down in front of his car, it was said, daring him to run her over. Ataturk took her home instead. She was one of many, so many, that men, when they came to Ankara, often took the precaution of leaving their wives at home. Turkey, however, remained his one great passion. He believed that he, and only he, knew its real interests; he, and only he, could make it prosper. “I am Turkey,” he said once, sounding a little like Louis XIV.
As early as 1925, enemies plotted to kill him. One of the ringleaders, an adventurer named Ziya Hurshid, proposed throwing a bomb at the president during a session of the national assembly. Fellow conspirators shook their heads. Well, then, he’d shoot Ataturk-through a hole in the roof of the assembly building. In the end, hired assassins were scheduled to ambush Ataturk when he visited Izmir on June 18, 1926. As it happened, the president’s arrival in Izmir got delayed. Panic-stricken, the plotters thought their plan had been discovered and one turned informer. The plot involved only a handful of conspirators, most of them comically inept. But Ataturk, seeing a chance to be rid of his critics, cast it as a major national conspiracy.
The case went to a specially created “Independence Tribunal”-a grandiose name for what, in effect, was a hanging court. Dozens of people were arrested-among them 25 deputies theoretically protected by parliamentary immunity. The trial was a travesty. Defendants appeared without counsel and were not allowed to appeal their sentences. Fifteen were executed.
The Izmir conspiracy wasn’t the only challenge used by Ataturk to stifle opposition. Kurdish rebels had risen in the east, demanding restoration of the caliphate and an independent Kurdistan. One of their strongholds was Dogubayezit, a dusty little town not far from the foot of Mount Ararat. Except for their fundamentalist beliefs, the defeated rebels posed little real threat. But Ataturk showed no mercy, and Dogubayezit was destroyed. Some 40 of the Kurdish leaders were charged with treason and hanged.
This did not solve the problem. Turkey today has ten million Kurds; the demand of many for independence now threatens the stability of the Ankara government and clouds the political future of the entire country. (It was to destroy Kurdish guerrilla bases that 35,000 Turkish soldiers invaded northern Iraq last year.)
Many Kurds today would settle for cultural autonomy within the Turkish state. But in the tradition of Ataturk, Ankara has been reluctant to grant even this. To force the Kurds to assimilate, the government for years denied them the right to speak their own language in public or to study their history. They were also forbidden to sing Kurdish songs. They can now speak and use Kurdish but are forbidden to form ethnic associations or to use their language on radio or television. To do so is to be guilty of “separatist propaganda.”
Through the years, Ataturk became increasingly overbearing. Disagree with anything he said and he became enraged. He complained about being bored. For something to do, he turned his attention to the Turkish alphabet. For centuries, Turkish had been written in Arabic script. Adopted for religious reasons, it was a script few Turks could read, let alone write. By one estimate, 80 percent of the population in 1925 was illiterate. Ataturk proposed to change that by having Turks switch to Latin characters. “The Turkish language has been a prisoner for centuries,” he wrote. It was time “to cast off its chains.” He named a commission and gave it two tasks: draw up a new alphabet and devise a way to phase it in. But first he had a question: How long was the changeover likely to take? Five years, said the commission. Too long, he said. “The change will happen in three months or it will not happen at all.” Working day and night the commission produced an alphabet in just six weeks.
In November 1928, after the national assembly predictably made the new alphabet law, Ataturk set to work. Brilliant at carrot-and-stick manipulation, he gave civil servants an ultimatum: master the Latin characters or look for another job. He invited government officials to his home and made virtual prisoners of them until their upstrokes and downstrokes met with his satisfaction. He made everyone under the age of 40 enroll in literacy classes. Prison inmates able to show they could write got their sentences reduced.
He toured the country with chalk and blackboard and delighted peasants by teaching them to write their names. His enthusiasm galvanized Turkey. Banks, police stations, stores, post offices, cafes, ferries, streetcars-all became impromptu classrooms. The new alphabet was posted on street corners. Shop windows displayed the new characters. In the evenings, couples frequented the English cemetery in Istanbul, drawn by the tombstones with their Latin inscriptions.
Ships were the first to paint out the old letters, then trains, then trams. Of course, there were dislocations: in 1929, for want of proper type, only one book was published in Turkey, and some newspapers, unable to afford the new characters, went out of business. But only two months after becoming law, the new alphabet was in general use, and in less than a year, more than one million people had been taught to read and write it. By 1931, the Arabic script had all but disappeared from official use.
In 1935, Ataturk introduced what was to be his last reform, the surname. Until then, a Turk had only one name-the one he was given at birth: Selim, say. Or Selim, son of Ercument. But in a country full of Selims, Ercuments and Mustafas, all this created confusion. Ataturk’s solution was simple: Turks would follow Europe’s example and adopt family names. This was when he chose “Ataturk,” becoming Kemal Ataturk.
In 1936 his phenomenal energy began to fail. His memory deteriorated, and he complained of constant pain. Years of heavy drinking had taken their toll. Early in 1938, he was diagnosed as having cirrhosis of the liver. He moved from Ankara to Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace and spent much of his time in bed. In the sweltering summer heat, firemen hosed down the front of the palace “to keep the Gazi cool.” On November 10, 1938, at the age of 57, he died. A grief-stricken aide promptly committed suicide.
Ataturk’s death stunned Turkey. Tens of thousands filed endlessly past his embalmed body in the palace’s throne room. At Izmit his ebony coffin was placed on a special train for Ankara. Night had fallen, and it was fiercely cold as Ataturk crossed Anatolia for the last time. But at every town and village along the route, peasants lined the track, waving torches as he passed and setting bonfires, lighting a path for him as he made his way to Paradise.
Was Ataturk good for Turkey? Religious fundamentalists regarded (and continue to regard) his secular reforms as “infidel innovations.” But if you believe in the Western idea of what constitutes progress, there’s no doubt that the changes he set in motion-in Turkey’s laws, its political system, its very culture-broke the country’s inertia. When most dictators die, they tend to be reviled; Ataturk is still much loved. After his death, too, power was peacefully passed on without political dislocation. Turkey, it turned out, hadn’t just joined the 20th century; as Ataturk wished, it had managed to join Western Europe. In World War II, though very late, it sided with the Allies. It became a founding member of the United Nations and, in 1952, joined NATO. During the Korean War, Turkish soldiers, often praised for courage under fire, fought alongside American and other U.N. troops.
He was a dictator, yes. He was also a benevolent reformer with a special gift for making believers out of skeptics. Though he was chosen president by the national assembly, had he ever run in a general election, he’d have won easily. He espoused the procedures of democracy but was wary of them. “Liberty is like fire,” he once said. “It’s beneficent if controlled; [but] abandoned to itself, it burns and destroys.”
He had the resources to be an out-and-out tyrant, with an army all too willing to do anything he asked. But unlike his contemporary Joseph Stalin, then also remaking a “backward” country, he rarely resorted to force. After two years of repression, he abandoned the infamous Independence Tribunals. Turkey didn’t have an elaborate internal security apparatus, and there were no “reforms” that killed millions of peasants, as in the former Soviet Union. There were no concentration camps. And once the special tribunals had been disbanded, there were no show trials, no purges that exiled or murdered hundreds of thousands of people.
While many of those around him lined their pockets, he didn’t enrich himself as head of state. Aside from a small government salary, he profited little from his years in office. When he died, he was only slightly better off than he had been in 1923.
When you change a society, there are losses as well as gains. Ataturk’s opposition to Islam in all its forms now seems extreme. Moderate Muslims point out that the Koran is broad and various in its teachings, and that declaring war on its influences involves cutting off a source of wisdom, of cultural and spiritual strength.
“Do your best to live long,” a friend once urged Ataturk. “The day after you die they’ll smash all your statues.” “They” were the Islamic fundamentalists, and they didn’t smash his statues. Not then, anyway. For more than 40 years after he died, Kemalism, as Ataturk’s reforms are called, remained Turkey’s basic policy. It was only a decade ago that change began to set in. Starting in the early 1980s, the army, to offset the growing influence of the left, began to encourage an Islamic revival. The revival grew to the extent that Muslim fundamentalists today threaten Turkey’s secular policies, most notably the separation of church and state.
In the elections last December, the pro-Islamic Welfare Party, whose goal is a Muslim-run state, won 21.4 percent of the vote-a plurality. As a result, Party leader Necmettin Erbankan tried to form a workable coalition government with Turkey’s other major parties-including Motherland and Tansu Ciller’s True Path. The attempt failed. Then Ciller, as the caretaker prime minister, tried to do the same thing. Political negotiations continue, with the long-term outcome still in question.
Ciller’s party attributes the gains of the Welfare Party to the poor state of Turkey’s economy. Citing Ataturk’s continued prestige-all those pictures included-officials say the answer to the country’s problems is more, not less, Westernization. A notable step in that direction came last December when the European Union signed a customs union agreement with Turkey. Meanwhile, his reforms once more challenged by Islam, Kemal Ataturk looks down on his people from a multitude of images.
Originally published in March 1996 Smithsonian Magazine. All rights reserved.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): At the height of his power and popularity, Ataturk stares from the window of a train bearing him to Ankara.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): As an Ottoman officer, Ataturk won fame by beating British at Gallipoli.
PHOTO (COLOR): Tansu Ciller, prime minister since 1993, favors ties with the West.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): In 1935 Ataturk addresses the Congress of the People’s Republican Party, the only party that wielded real power during his regime.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Ataturk banned the fez and promoted Western hats; here he boasts a topper.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): During a brief, stormy marriage he strolls with his wife, Latife Hanim.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A tireless reformer, Ataturk tours villages teaching the new alphabet.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A sculptor puts the finishing touches on a monumental, frowning likeness of Turkey’s larger-than-life leader, a champion of equal rights for women.
By Eric Lawlor
Eric Lawlor is the author of Looking for Osman, a traveler’s memior about the paradoxes of life in modern Turkey.
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