Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues, and Students:
My acquaintance with Turkey and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk began in 1963. I had just turned 13 and was going into the 8th grade – not much younger than Abigail. My world was swimming pools, day camps, and riding my bicycle. However, when my father accepted the job as director of the American Lisan ve Ticaret Dershanesi, part of the international YMCA, we moved from East Texas to Istanbul and I was propelled into a very different culture. Our excitement was tempered by the fact that no one I knew had ever been to Turkey; most of my friends, in fact, had only a hazy idea where it was. I had never met anyone from Turkey and knew nothing about the language, religious faith, or living customs.
In my classes I talk about the emergence of the United States from the isolationism of the 1950s and about the international climate of the early 1960s, changes in the cultural and societal landscape – satellites like Telstar, rockets, and color TV – Cold War tensions between the two big alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It was a different world then; now in 2004, the Soviet Union is no more and many European countries have facilitated economic cooperation and currency through the EU. However, in the 1960s, there were no computers, no cell phones, no E-mail. In fact, in 1963, there were only two trunk lines to Turkey so international phone calls had to be booked well in advance. Getting there required a couple of days and several changes of airplane. You can imagine the excitement and adventure of traveling to Europe for the first time, but while we were all thrilled with the prospect of living in Turkey for at least five years we had obtained only sketchy information about the people and the culture.
This doesn’t mean I was completely uninformed about other cultures and their history. In 7th grade, Texas school children learn Texas history and geography. However, the only other histories that were commonly taught were either American history or the standard fare of pharaohs, Greek Gods, and Julius Caesar – mostly the history of Western Civilization. I read a lot of books, mostly biographies and histories, but in my library there was a scarcity of information about the Middle East, so I moved to Turkey without any background knowledge of the Hittites, the Seljuks, the Ottomans, or Atatürk.
Given my typical American mid-Western sensibilities, imagine my surprise and fascination when I was whisked away from my small house in a small town in East Texas to an apartment on the Bosporus in Istanbul. My school was in an old frame house where an early president of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, had been born late in 1875. My journey to school took me “up the hill”, across the campus of then Robert College, and down into a small village to school. Near my home were Greek and Roman ruins, Ottoman cemeteries, and it was a short walk to Rumeli Hisar, the fortress on the Bosporus built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452. However, Turkey in 1963 was far removed from its ancient past.
Atatürk was then as he is now, very much a presence in the lives of every Turk. He is spoken of with reverence and affection as befits a man who took the surname, Father of the Turks. We noticed photographs of Atatürk in every school, every shop, every business. On our way to my father’s office, we passed Dolmabahce Palace, where Atatürk had lived and died in his last few years. His picture was on the currency, too. So we were curious about this man, his life, and contributions to Turkey. What had he done to inspire such respect and affection that he was still such a constant and unifying factor in people’s lives so many years after his death?
Our first experience with Atatürk’s reforms was through the Turkish language. Naturally, our first goal was to learn enough Turkish to be able to shop in our local village of Bebek, on the Bosporus and near Robert College, now Bosporus University. A lovely lady named Semiha Altuner came to teach us how to communicate in Turkish. We often shopped in Bebek, the local village, and learned how to buy food and other necessities. Later, we rode the bus and took the dolmu? downtown to shop on delightful Istiklal Caddesi or at the exotic Kapali Car?i, the Covered Bazaar of legend and the world’s first shopping mall. Navigation was easy as signs were in modern Turkish, which has a Latin alphabet and is entirely phonetic.
The demand for language reform had begun in the late nineteenth century. The issue of language reform became overtly political, as Turkish nationalists wanted a language that would unite rather than divide the people. Before 1928, educated Turks had taken almost twelve years to become literate in the medieval Arabic orthography. As part of an effort to improve literacy, Atatürk eradicated Arabic lettering and set about to educate Turks in the new system. The goal was to create a language that was more Turkish than Ottoman, more modern, more practical, and easier to learn than the old language. The new alphabet eliminated the 612 Arabic characters and were replaced with 29 Roman style letters with diacritical marks. Atatürk himself demonstrated the new alphabet, theatres showed educational comedies about it, and schools delayed their openings while teachers learned the new script and acquired new books. Printing presses worked overtime to produce books in the new script. The transition occurred on January 1, 1931.
Prior to the writing reforms approximately 9% of Turks were literate. By the mid 1930s almost 75% of men and 43% of women were literate. Turkish has continued to evolve as a language and has changed from 1931 to 2004 as much as English has changed from the time of Chaucer to the present day. Today the literacy rate is approximately 82%. Additionally, the Turkish language has bridged the language gap that used to exist between the different classes in Turkish society. Atatürk founded a linguistics institute with the objective of cleansing the language from the Arabic and Farsi vocabulary that crept into the original Turkish language over the centuries of interaction with those nations. This objective has largely been achieved.
Education was very important to Atatürk . Atatürk insisted that “our most important duty is to win a victory in the field of education” and indeed over 22% of the national budget of Turkey goes to education. Education is free in Turkey through high school. Most students, boys and girls, wear school uniforms. Education in the Ottoman Empire was through the medrese and was centered around Koranic instruction. Today Turkey’s schools are strictly secular and teach modern skills, such as foreign languages, sciences, and computer technology.
In 1923, Atatürk stated, “If our nation now needs sciences and knowledge, men and women must share them equally. Obviously, society creates a division of labor, and in this division women should carry out their own duties as well as contribute to the general effort to improve the happiness and well-being of our society.”
Atatürk adopted a form of Swiss Civil Law in 1926, which affected the rights and status of Turkish women. It replaced religious marriage with civil marriage and gave women rights to inherit property and gave them equality in terms of divorce and guardianship of children. In 1968 I was married in a Turkish civil ceremony in Istanbul at the Be?ikta? Belediye, Our marriage ceremony was the same as for all Turks, presided over by a Turkish judge, and in conformance with the laws of the state.
Kemal Atatürk made the advancement of women a central aim of his plan to modernize Turkey into a western style democracy. Atatürk himself was the father of several adopted daughters; one of them, Sabiha G?kçen, attended the same school I later attended in Istanbul, and later became Turkey’s first female pilot.
This is the 70th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Turkey as Turkish women obtained the right to vote in 1934. At that time they were also eligible to run for Parliament and to participate in government. Atatürk encouraged women to become full citizens and to participate on equal terms with men. On March 1, 1935 eighteen women deputies were elected to the Grand National Assembly. In the years following, as many as 102 women have been elected to parliament. Many of them have come from the teaching profession.
After two years at the Community School, I attended a private Turkish high school in the village of Arnav?tkõy, called the American College for Girls (ACG). It had a male counterpart on the campus of Robert College. I was one of only five non-Turks at the school. Today both of these schools have merged into the modern co-ed high school of Robert College on the grounds of the former American College for Girls in Istanbul. Many of my teachers were highly respected professional women. I certainly got the sense that my friends at school expected to have careers of their choosing. Most of them planned to attend universities in Turkey, England, or the United States.
In 1965, I started school at ACG wearing a school uniform of a navy blue skirt, white blouse, and burgundy blazer with gray, white, or blue socks. I was thrilled to move from the orta school to the lise and have the opportunity to wear fashionable clothes. My friends’ attire would have been acceptable anywhere in the U.S. or in Western Europe.
After Atatürk reforms began, women were encouraged to abandon their headscarves and emerge from seclusion. Many women, like Halide Edib Adivar, attended colleges and universities and took advantage of their rights and freedoms. My friends at school went on to become active in the public sphere, teachers, lawyers, and writers. It is certainly significant that a Turkish woman, Tansu Ciller, a 1967 graduate of Robert College who attended American universities for her Masters degree and Doctorate, became the first female Turkish prime minister in1993. She later served as Turkey’s first female Minister of Foreign Affairs, the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of State.
Dr. Bayhan Çubukçu was the director of the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Istanbul until last year. She is a distinguished scientist who was interviewed last year by an American journalist, Heather Rossiter. Dr. Çubukçu estimates that 50% of scientists in Turkey today are women. Dr. Nur Serter, Vice-Rector at the University of Istanbul, stated that the various campuses at her university have approximately 26,000 women enrolled. These women demonstrate the work and contributions envisioned by Atatürk. Certainly there are variations based on location, educational level, and socio-economic factors. This is true in many countries.
As part of Atatürk’s goal to modernize his country, he encouraged his countrymen and women to adopt surnames and to adopt Western dress. He himself changed his name from Mustafa Kemal to Kemal Atatürk. The wearing of the fez was outlawed because Atatürk viewed it as a symbol of the anachronistic Ottoman past, even though it had been instituted a century earlier to replace the older style of headgear, the turban.
Atatürk also thought that Turkey should adopt the Western calendar to facilitate business with Europe. The traditional holy day, Friday, was changed into a weekday with Sunday becoming the official day of rest.
Not all of these reforms were immediately embraced by the traditionalists. One of the most radical elements of the Atatürk reforms was the separation of Islam from an official role in the operation of the Turkish state. Atatürk insisted on the abolition of the caliphate and this guaranteed the end of any connection between the state and religion. For the first time in Islamic history, no ruler was also the spiritual leader of Islam. This is still the case and has shaped Turkey’s national identity as a modern secular state. Atatürk ‘s ideas of a secular state owe their roots in the Enlightenment and one recent scholar, Garrett Ward Sheldon, has tied these ideas to Thomas Jefferson. This viewpoint is echoed in the Turkish constitution and its ideas of basic civil rights and universal suffrage.
Certainly the idea of secularism, one of Atatürk “Six Arrows,” was the basis for many of the early republican reforms. It became one of the defining ideals of the new Turkish nation. Although my father worked for the YMCA, in Turkey its function was to educate young Turks in language and business skills, not to teach any form of religion. Though some accused him of being anti-religious, Atatürk believed that freedom of belief was important.
As an educator it would be impossible to ignore the democratic leanings of Atatürk’s reforms while comparing him to his contemporaries Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. That was the basis of the lesson plans developed last summer for use in Fairfax County high schools. Our students generally have some familiarity with the three dictators and the ideas of communism, fascism, and nazism. However, Atatürk has been overshadowed by these sinister figures when he clearly deserves recognition as a major figure in the history of the modern world. M. Orhan Tarhan, writing in the Turkish Times, a publication of the Turkish American Association, stated that ”the genius of Atatürk was to find all of the things that have to be done to convert an Islamic country to a modern nation” and to do it at a time when there was no precedent for such an action. The Atatürk Model made drastic changes in the makeup of Turkish society and life.
Looking westward, Atatürk compared the decaying Ottoman state to the flourishing western nations with their ideas of rule by the people. Studying the prominent scholars of the French enlightenment, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and their belief in the social contract, separation of powers, and freedom of expression as well as their belief in reason over religion and tradition, Atatürk understood that reforms would forge a modern democratic state. Atatürk’s model threw off the restrictions and archaic beliefs of the Ottoman past to develop a state that could hold its own with Europe and the United States in the 20th century. Turkey today remains a member of NATO and is hoping for membership in the European Union.
Atatürk’s foreign policy was, “Peace at home, peace in the world.” In his State of the Nation speech on November 1, 1928, Kemal Atatürk stated, “It is quite natural and therefore simple to explain the fact that a country which is in the midst of fundamental reforms and development should sincerely desire peace and tranquility both at home and in the world.’ Indeed, Turkey has avoided a large scale war for over 80 years. Aptulahat Aksin, first Turkish ambassador to Syria, stated that Atatürk generally disliked military alliances and pacts believing that they caused insecurities in neighbor nations, which would be contrary to Turkey’s interests. In Atatürk’s time Turkey’s position was non-alignment due to its need to accomplish internal reforms and create a strong, modern state. Turkish foreign policy has not fundamentally changed its traditional focus since then. Turkey’s goal is and always has been to become “an equal member of the Western world of nations.”
Kemal Atatürk was unique. He was convinced of Turkey’s need for drastic and substantial change in order to ensure its ability to withstand the pressures of the modern world order. However, he did not look to the communists or the fascists for the model, he looked to the successful democracies of the West. He understood clearly that Turkey needed to distance itself from Islamic government to forge itself into a modern state and he understood that a modern state needs all of its citizens – male and female. The fact that Atatürk is still revered in Turkey much as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are in the United States is due to his continuing vision for his country. I remember the somber ceremony each year when we all filed into the school auditorium on November 10, the anniversary of Atatürk’s death, to reflect on his legacy to his country in a few minutes of silence punctuated by the mournful sounds of the ferries’ horns on the Bosporus. I hope that today we have fulfilled part of the UNESCO resolution on the Atatürk Centennial in 1981 that “we should acquaint the world with the various aspects of the personality and deeds of Atatürk whose objective was to promote world peace, international understanding, and respect for human rights.”