Dr. Andrew Mango

Throughout the history of humanity, the possession of territory has been an important, possibly the most important, object of conflict. Tribes, peoples, nations – what sociologists call primordial communities – have fought over land. In their fight they have sought to dispossess, assimilate, evict or reduce to subordinate status people they considered as strangers who lived in the land they claimed. In modern times, conflict over territory tends to be described as a national struggle, a struggle in which a community that sees itself as a nation, tries to retain or acquire land. Mustafa Kemal, who later gave himself the surname Atatürk (meaning father, or more properly, sire of the Turks), first came to public notice in the summer of 1919, as the leader of the Turkish national struggle. When the Ottoman state was defeated in the First World War, along with its allies Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, and signed an armistice with the victorious Allies at the end of October 1918, some of the land it still controlled was claimed by neighbouring nations, which had once been its subjects. The Greeks claimed eastern Thrace and a large slice of western Asia Minor or Anatolia (to use the term current today); the Armenians claimed part of eastern Anatolia; and the Arabs, or rather Allied Great Powers who spoke for them, coveted all the land south of the Taurus mountains (and its eastern extension). The Greeks were championed by the British, the Armenians, more fitfully by the French and platonically by the Americans, the Arabs with less enthusiasm, by both the British and the French. The Allied Great Powers had their own designs too – for zones of influence and commercial privilege. But as these did not involve the dispossession of Turks living in disputed territories, they posed a lesser threat than the claims of ethnic adversaries.

The history of the contraction of the Ottoman state, from the 18th century onwards showed that where territory was lost to neighbours, who had once been subjects and had then become national rivals, its Muslim and Turkish inhabitants faced eviction. It was, therefore, safe to assume that if the Greeks and Armenians made good their claims, there would be no future for the Muslim Turks living in the lands lost to them. As the successful leader of the Turkish national resistance, Mustafa Kemal averted this fate and made safe the lives, property and livelihood of Muslims and Turks in the territory lying within the 1918 armistice lines. I shall not speculate here about the fate of Turks living south of the Taurus mountains, had they come under Arab rule after a transitional period of mandatory rule by the Allies, but the present condition of the Turkish minorities in Iraq and Syria suggests that their lot would not have been happy.

As the architect of the Turkish national state, Atatürk was bound to be unpopular with rival nationalists whose territorial claims he had defeated. But he cannot be blamed for the disappearance of the ethnic diversity of the Ottoman state. The erosion of the peaceful cohabitation of the various ethnic communities ruled by the Ottoman Sultans had started with the rise of nationalism a century earlier. By the time Atatürk had risen to the leadership of the Turks, the non-Turkish communities had become determined to lead separate lives in their own national states, and ethnic diversity within one state was no longer an option. The Turks were the last Ottoman community to take to nationalism, naturally so because they had been the ruling community in a multinational empire. Turkish nationalism of which Atatürk became the leader was defensive in character. He won a war which his people had not sought, and which led inevitably to the creation of a Turkish national state, as one of the successor nation states of the former Ottoman empire.

Today possession of land does not appear to be a prime cause of conflict between national communities, with a few obvious exceptions, such as Israel and Palestine, former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Kashmir and East Timor. The problem, or at least one major problem, lies elsewhere – in the governance of territories confirmed in the possession of different national communities, and particularly of countries which have acquired their independence in the 20th century. The governments of these countries aspire to the material and administrative standards achieved in the developed part of the world, commonly known as the West (which, paradoxically, includes Japan). In many cases their peoples had become acquainted with these standards when they were part of Western empires or zones of influence. That knowledge is extended and reinforced today by mass communications and emigration. Modernisation is the process of achieving these increasingly widely known Western standards. And although there is much talk of different cultures, with corresponding specific values, and of different, and allegedly clashing, civilisations, although also there are reactionaries i.e. people who, in theory, seek a golden age in the past, modernisation in the sense of catching up with the West is a quasi-universal desire. Talk to the contrary is froth which obscures the wish of people the world over to lead lives as healthy, rich and free, and to enjoy as fair and effective an administration, as is the lot of their contemporaries in the West.

However, progress towards the satisfaction of these aspirations has been disappointing. In some places there has even been regression from the days of imperial or mandatory rule. Not to put too fine a point on it, much of what used to be called the Third World is a slum. Primarily, this is a tragedy for the indigenous population. But it is also a major problem for the West. Incapable of satisfying their subjects, the lords of misrule in the Third World, turn against both their neighbours and the West, which they blame for the deficiencies of their own making. They attack the civilisation to which their subjects aspire and which they are incapable of delivering. Instability, conflict, hostility in, and on the part of, many newly-independent countries have become a major preoccupation for the civilised world.

Like many of his successors and imitators today, Mustafa Kemal was a proponent of modernisation. He made no bones about his objective of catching up with the West or, as he termed it more accurately, the level of contemporary civilisation – for although that level had been achieved primarily in the West, it could already be witnessed outside its geographical confines. Mustafa Kemal too had great difficulty in satisfying the aspirations of his people. But he did not attribute the difficulty to the West. This was in itself a remarkable achievement. As I have said, the Turkish people had been threatened in its home by ethnic adversaries championed by Britain and France – Russia was out of the running after the Bolshevik revolution. There was moreover a history of antagonism between Western Christendom and Islam, of which the Turks had become champions since the 10th or 11th centuries. Many of Mustafa Kemal’s supporters saw the West, and its civilisation, as the enemy. The Turkish poet Mehmet Âkif included in the lyrics of the Independence March, the Turkish national anthem, a verse in which civilisation, meaning Western civilisation, is described as “a monster with only one fang left”. Another Turkish poet, Mehmet Emin (Yurdakul) had written “Oh proud brow of the West, I have not forgiven you. Even if I were alone to survive, I would still be your enemy.” Quoting this poem in 1923, after winning his country’s independence, Mustafa Kemal said: “Even if only one of us were left, we would uproot the will to oppress from the hearts of our enemies, and we would then say that we no longer harboured any feelings of revenge. This will be our motto.”

The foreign policy of the Turkish Republic established by Atatürk was thus marked by the absence of any feeling of revenge, of any hang-up or complex vis-à-vis the West. What Atatürk wanted was equality of treatment and of esteem. Having achieved it, he co-operated with the West in upholding the settlement which followed the First World War.

He also sought and achieved friendly relations with all his country’s neighbours on the basis of the renunciation of territorial claims against each other and of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Good relations with the Great Powers – including Bolshevik Russia – and with neighbours were buttressed with co-operative undertakings. Atatürk was not a neutralist. He willingly entered into alliances, where he believed these served the cause of peace. Nor was his an anti-imperialist in the sense in which the word is applied today. He had fought for, and had won his country’s independence and territorial integrity. This had been achieved by the Turkish people, which he led, through its own efforts. Other peoples could do the same and prove themselves to be nations capable of self-rule. It was up to them. In the meantime, the young Turkish republic had no quarrel with empires which maintained law and order and provided civilised government outside its borders.

In any case, Atatürk believed that independence was only the first step. The aim should be to enter the mainstream of universal human civilisation. Independent statehood was the framework within which civilised standards should be established. Moreover, independent states could establish links that went beyond alliances. Thus in the 1930’s Atatürk worked for a union of countries in the Balkans, and even toyed with the idea of resigning the presidency of the Turkish Republic to become the President of a Balkan Union. This shows the falsity of the argument that Atatürk’s attachment to national independence would have precluded his country’s membership of today’s European Union.

Atatürk described his policy as “Peace at home and peace in the world”. The slogan may sound glib. In fact it represents the reality of Turkish policy since the proclamation of the republic. The Ottoman state had been at war throughout most of its long existence. The Turkish republic, on the other hand, has enjoyed unbroken peace. Even if he had no other achievements to his credit, Atatürk would have deserved his place in history as the man who brought peace to Turkey. Unlike most other countries, the Turkish republic has not wasted its resources in war. True, the needs of self-defence, the requirement to deter aggression have been costly, but, particularly since the Second World War, these costs have been reduced by means of co-operation with like-minded Allies.

One of Atatürk’s most important principles was national self-reliance. Once again, he expressed it in a slogan: “Turk be confident, be proud and work hard”. President Clinton mentioned it in his speech in Ankara last year. Rightly so. It expresses the essence of Atatürk’s refusal to blame others for the country’s difficulties. In his vision, the enemy was not the foreigner, but what he termed “ignorance”, and what we might call today the narrow skills base on which the young republic had to be built. In the Ottoman state there had been division of labour on ethnic lines. The Turks were soldiers, administrators, landlords and peasants. The professions were manned largely by Christians and Jews, who provided also most craftsmen and tradesmen. The creation of a Turkish national state required that Turks should master the skills which had earlier been monopolised by minority communities. If “contemporary civilisation” was a key concept in Atatürk’s political philosophy, so too was the need to acquire modern knowledge and to promote both cultural and scientific progress. He was a rationalist who believed that knowledge, positive scientific knowledge, was the only true guide in life, and that, therefore, the dissemination of knowledge and the promotion of education in positive science were the engine of progress. This approach can be challenged, but there is little doubt that it fits the needs of today’s knowledge-based society.

The political principle of secularism followed naturally from Atatürk’s rationalist philosophy. The model in this case was French laïcisme, the principle of separation between church and state, which was implemented in France at the beginning of the 20th century. In Turkey, different circumstances – including differences between Islam and Christianity – led to a different interpretation of secularism. The state retained control over organised Islam. But religious dogma was not allowed any influence over the formulation of public policy or the conduct of public affairs. This had far-reaching consequences for the life of the country.

The most important was gender equality. True, it is easier to proclaim equality than to ensure it. But one has to start by establishing a principle, and then carry on by implementing it to the best of one’s ability. Atatürk’s approach meant that any discussion of Islamic views on the place of women in society became irrelevant. If believers wanted to reconcile public policy on gender equality – and other matters – with their private principles, they could do so. But they were not allowed to challenge public policy. Atatürk said repeatedly that society could not realise its full potential for progress, if women, who represented half the population, were denied full participation in public life.

It is sometimes said that the emancipation of Turkish women had begun before the republic – that Ottoman ladies were well-educated and exercised considerable influence behind the scenes, that women took part in the war effort during the First World War, that women were active in the economy, being always prominent in agricultural work, and later providing labour for manufacturing. This is true, but it did not amount to full participation in social life. Moreover, as long as the principle of gender equality was not enshrined in law, manifestations of it could be challenged one by one. It is also true that decision to give the vote to women in local government elections in 1931, and then in parliamentary elections in 1934, had no political effect so long as the country was ruled by a single party and the government selected all the candidates for political office. But it had a practical effect in allowing hand-picked women to become town councillors and members of parliament. These women in political positions joined the growing number of women working in the public service, the judiciary, and the professions. Atatürk put out of court arguments that women were equal but different – the kind of argument that justifies apartheid whether on grounds of gender or race. Equality was unqualified in principle. Implementation followed suit. The history of more than sixty years of official gender equality is what distinguishes Turkey from other countries inhabited by Muslims. The principle has had important practical consequences. The proportion of women in the professions is higher in Turkey than in some Western countries. The main step in emancipation of women was taken when Turkey adopted the Swiss civil code in 1926. But Switzerland was to lag behind Turkey in giving women the vote. True, in Turkey as in the West, much remained to be done to ensure full legal, let alone, social equality. And Turkey has been slower than some Western countries in updating family law. But it is catching up, as witness the recent changes in the civil code.

In all his reforms, Atatürk sought to remove barriers between his people and the people of developed countries. In Ottoman times, foreigners living in Turkey were subject to their own laws on the grounds that Muslim law was not applicable to them. This barrier was removed when the Turkish republic adopted Western law: the Swiss civil code, the Italian penal code, German commercial law. The calendar of the common era was adopted in spite of its Christian origin; so too was the Christian weekend, thus ending the practice according to which Muslims stopped work on Fridays, Jews on Saturdays and Christians on Sundays. Most importantly, the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic one in writing Turkish. Arabic is rich in consonants, but poor in vowels and its alphabet was not suited to the Turkish language which is rich in vowels. This was one reason for the change, but the main one was to facilitate intercourse with developed countries, most of which used the Latin alphabet. The change had been advocated earlier by some Ottoman intellectuals, but it had failed on religious grounds. Arabic, it was argued, was the sacred language of Islam, the language in which the Koran had been revealed, and its alphabet was, therefore, part of the Muslim heritage. Moreover, changing the alphabet would sever a link with the past, and create a break in literary culture. But the vast majority of Turks were illiterate; few could understand the Koran in Arabic. The official Ottoman language, which was a mixture of Turkish, Arabic and Persian, written in Arabic script, was unintelligible to the common people. The change of the alphabet was accompanied by a language reform which sought to eliminate the gap between the language of the bureaucrats and the common spoken language and to update terminology, basing it either on easily understood Turkish roots or international terms. As a result, most Turks first learned to write in the phonetic Latin alphabet, literacy improved, and rulers and ruled began to communicate more easily.

Perhaps the most controversial reform was in the dress code. Dress is a classifier. It distinguishes peoples, genders, classes and groups. Here too Atatürk sought to remove barriers. “The dress of civilised people is good enough for us,” he said, rejecting the idea of a separate, national dress code. Where some foreigners regretted the passing of picturesque Turkey, Atatürk stressed the common humanity of his people. Admiration for the picturesque implies differentiation, sometimes even condescension. One can easily forget the prevalence of racist ideas – in the West and elsewhere – in Atatürk’s lifetime. The Oriental, the Asiatic were commonly held to be different from, or inferior to, the Western and European. And how do you distinguish the Oriental? Most easily, by his dress – the fez or turban on his head, his baggy trousers, the veil covering women’s faces. Atatürk had no time for this distinction or its external signs. He established a common ground on which his people would compete and, he believed, could compete, with the most advanced nations, if given the chance, a chance he was determined to give them.

The motive for all these changes was not imitation of, but participation in a universal civilisation and culture. The object was not only to reach what we call today the frontier of knowledge, but in the fullness of time to help advance it, to contribute to the progress of science, of arts and letters, as well as to the economic well-being of the country and the region.

Atatürk’s reforms amounted to a cultural revolution. They changed the way of life and the outlook of his people, at first in the cities, then in the countryside. Legal change was instantaneous, real change inevitably proceeded more slowly. But it was lasting, and its effects are obvious today. Where in Atatürk’s time, Turkey relied on foreigners and minorities for most modern skills, it now exports skilled staff. Turkish contractors rebuilt the Russian parliament after it had been bombed by President Yeltsin’s supporters; Turkish bankers work in financial services in London and elsewhere, Turkish designers devise international fashions. Of course, one must not exaggerate. The Turkish people is far from realising its full creative potential. But I have seen enough progress in my own lifetime to be convinced of the ability of the Turkish people to adopt and to contribute to the way of life of civilised people everywhere. What Atatürk did was to remove the barriers to the expression of this ability.

It was said of the English architect Christopher Wren who rebuilt London after the great fire of 1666, “if you want to see his monument, look around you.” There are many monuments to Atatürk in Turkey, but the truest one is the Turkish republic as it is today and Turkish people everywhere. Today some 65 million Turks live longer lives and enjoy a much higher standard of living than the 12 million or so original citizens of the republic founded by Atatürk. Atatürk’s reforms, his insistence on education, on rational administration, his attachment to peaceful policies have made a major contribution to this achievement. But so too has another and much more controversial aspect of Atatürk’s practice.

Atatürk was a revolutionary, but he was a conservative revolutionary. His insistence on the universality of civilisation and culture places him in the conservative camp in opposition to cultural relativists and multiculturalists in today’s intellectual debate. So too was his insistence on law and order. He was a soldier by training, and by temperament he was authoritarian. True, he not only listened to advice, but sought it out before taking decisions. True also, as a good general, he realised that he could not run everything himself, and knew how to delegate to the point that, particularly in his later years, he took little part in the day-to-day running of the country and its armed forces. As one of his Turkish biographers put it, the basic ideas, the new ideas came from Atatürk, their implementation he left to others. But there is no doubt that he presided over a disciplined state, which throughout most of his presidency was ruled by a single party, which he had fashioned himself.

This leads us to the main criticism made against Atatürk today, the criticism that he did not believe in democracy, that he inhibited its development in Turkey and that he perpetuated the authoritarian tradition of the Sultans, and then of the military officers who took power in the Ottoman state after the Young Turkish revolution of 1908. To rebut this accusation, defenders of Atatürk point out, first, that a revolution, and particularly a cultural revolution seeking to change a people’s entire way of life, cannot be brought about by democratic vote, and, secondly, that Atatürk twice allowed the formation of opposition parties, but was forced to end the experiment when these attracted opponents of his modernising reforms and threatened the new secular, republican order. Thirdly, defenders of Atatürk draw attention to the fact that in his lifetime democracy was not as widespread as it is today. European nations much richer and better educated than the Turks – Germans, Italians, then Spaniards – not to mention the Balkan nations and, of course, the Russians, had all fallen prey to authoritarian rule. If Italy, the home of the Renaissance, could not maintain democratic rule, how could one expect it of Turkey, which the Renaissance had by-passed?

There is force in all these arguments. But, in the light of Turkey’s history since the death of Atatürk in 1938, I think one can go further, venturing into the controversial ground of democratic theory and the relationship between democracy and good governance. It is a relationship that today’s orthodoxy takes for granted. But let us look at Turkey’s development and see how free parliamentary politics have worked out in practice.

Turkey witnessed its first genuinely free parliamentary elections in 1950, twelve years after Atatürk’s death. The fifty years which followed saw great progress, particularly in the economy, as the creative energy of the Turkish people freed itself from official constraint. But the development of Turkish democracy has been repeatedly interrupted – by full-blown military coups in 1960 and 1980, and more limited military interventions in politics in 1971 and, more recently, in 1997. The purpose of these interventions was not any desire on the part of the armed forces to exercise direct political power. The purpose was to prevent a breakdown of law and order as a result of political conflict. One reason law and order were threatened was that politicians sought to exploit religious sentiments in order to gain votes, and, in so doing, threatened the secular nature of the republic. But this was not the only, or even the main, reason. This, I believe, is to be sought in the readiness of politicians to satisfy the material expectations of the voters beyond the country’s available resources, in other words their readiness to debauch the economy in order to gain power. Politicians everywhere tend to make impossible promises. The trouble in Turkey was that they tried to fulfil them. After 1950, democracy brought in what is often called populism, but what can be described more clearly as the politics of demagogues. Again, as in many democratic countries, free elections introduced the spoils system into government. Political appointments are inevitable, and even proper, in a democracy. The problem lies in their extent, and the extent to which the spoils system affects good governance. There is another danger: where a political party in power fills the public service with its supporters and distributes among them contracts and other benefits of state patronage, it tends to cling to power by fair means or foul, lest its supporters lose their livelihood.

The Turkish armed forces staged the first coup in 1960 because the party in power, after over-spending to the point of bankruptcy, tried to stay in power by silencing the opposition. They intervened in 1971 because politicians were unable to prevent the rise of terrorism, and then again in 1980 when a civil war threatened. And, if I may venture into controversial current politics, I shall add that in 1997 the armed forces helped to ease out a government dominated by political Islamists because political demagogues had lost touch with domestic and international reality, and good government was becoming impossible. The purpose of all these interventions was to restore law and order and safeguard the public service. And each time, when the purpose was achieved, the armed forces returned to their barracks. Each intervention was followed by reforms: democratic reforms after 1960, economic reforms, which allowed Turkey to open out to the world market, after 1980; and the wide-ranging reforms in government and the economy, extending both democratic freedoms and the free market, after 1997 – structural reforms which Turkey is implementing today.

Thus, the history of Turkey since 1950 shows that, in spite of the great advances in material well-being and in education since the days of Atatürk, the establishment of democracy is fraught with difficulty. I believe that in his time it would have been an impossible task. A ruined country had to be rebuilt, millions of refugees had to be resettled, a national identity had to be instilled, skills had to be taught, a modern order had to be established. It was a painful process, and, had free politics been allowed, the pain would have been exploited by demagogues of all hues – religious fundamentalists, Marxists, fascists, ethnic and tribal networks of interest. Democracy requires agreement on fundamentals. When Atatürk set to work, there was no such agreement. His purpose was to create it: to nurture a new country and a new nation.

In a proclamation to the nation after a rising in 1925, Atatürk said: “The essential condition for happiness, for work, and especially for economic and commercial development, is that peace, tranquillity, security and law and order should be beyond the reach of any violation. That is why the honour and prestige of the law-enforcement agencies and of the army of the republic should be one’s primary consideration.” Atatürk was a follower of the French philosophical school of positivism, whose motto was “order and progress”. (Incidentally, this motto has found its way into the national flag of Brazil). Order, he believed, was a prerequisite not only of progress, but of civilisation itself. There is, of course, a price to pay for order – in the constraint of individual liberty. Atatürk’s Turkey paid the price: it was a disciplined country, run by an authoritatrian government, but not a totalitarian one. The opposition was suppressed, but there were no concentration camps, and political prisoners were few. Individuals enjoyed considerable freedom in their private lives. There was even a lively debate on political principles. In any case, the price of disorder is greater. The ideal is, of course, democratic order. But that, I believe, was impossible in Atatürk’s time. If it is becoming possible in Turkey today, sixty years after his death, it is largely thanks to the widespread acceptance of his reforms. And even today there are dangers in forcing the pace. We have before us the awful example of Iran, where the government of the late Shah, much criticised by human rights activists in the West, has been replaced by a more tyrannical form of clerical government. Of course, Turkey is not Iran, one reason being that Atatürk was a much more successful reformer than his imitator Reza Shah Pahlavi. But with regard to Turkey too, human rights lobbyists must ask themselves the question whether the reforms they urge will enhance or diminish good governance, and law and order, without which freedom cannot flourish. They must remember also that it is the people of Turkey which would pay the price of reforms that did not work, and that the decision in the matter should therefore be left to the democratically elected Turkish parliament.

Many, if not most, newly-independent countries experience civil war before they settle down. Greece in 1830, Ireland in the 1920’s, many African countries more recently are cases in point. Thanks to Atatürk, Turkey has escaped this fate, and by escaping it, it has been able to achieve unbroken, cumulative progress. The universal sense of proud achievement which marked the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the republic in 1998 showed that Atatürk’s insistence on national solidarity has borne fruit.

Dictators and authoritarian rulers who were Atatürk’s contemporaries have been pushed off their pedestals one by one: Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and King Amanullah of Afghanistan, Generals Metaxas in Greece and Antonescu in Romania have few defenders today. Atatürk alone continues to command respect as the father of his nation and an inspiration to others. The foundations which he laid for his republic have proved their strength. With all its problems, Turkey is the most stable, and also the most free country in the vast Eurasian belt between the Balkans and the Far East. Its growing prosperity is based not on a single natural resource, like oil, but on the skills of its people. It is these skills which Atatürk sought to advance by eliminating all barriers to the spread of knowledge. Nor is this his only legacy. His message is that nationalism and world peace are compatible, that human civilisation is one and indivisible and that all peoples are capable of participating in, and contributing to it, that every effort should be made domestically and internationally to preserve peace and the rule of law, that independence is barren without good governance, that reason should govern human relations, that hatred between nations is irrational. It is an optimistic message which will always be challenged. But today’s world needs it more than ever.