Metin Camcigil, Former President of ASA

What is Kemalism?
The Atatürk Society of America, many other civil societies, scholars, politicians and media people study, understand or portray Kemalism differently. One might even ask does Kemalism exist at all?

If Kemalism means a dogma, a set of dicta or a doctrine of static ideas and norms it does not exist. When suggested by a close associate to create a doctrine for implementing and enforcing a program of progress for his nation, Ataturk refused such an approach cognizant of the fact that dogmas hinder progress. Progress requires dynamism, continuous adaptation to ever advancing conditions of life. He did not want to consider any dogma on the way to progress. Furthermore, progress could be achieved only in a free environment. The foundation of advancement was clear and indisputable: a secular republican democratic system. The republican regime was a one time reform to start progress, it was already history; there was no time to waste on the way to progress, to the future. Only the future of the nation mattered for him, not ideologies. Kemalism may be defined as a pragmatic approach to reaching a goal, not as the pursuance of some static norms for a goal.

Therefore, if Kemalism means continuous pursuit of progress for catching up with, keeping up with and even surpassing the advanced level of civilization, not falling behind, not being humiliated or dominated, it very much exists. As such, it exists as an ever forward-looking ideal, not as a fossilized ideology.

Kemalism is neither more nor less than vying for a secure and respectful national existence that can only be reached and sustained by continuous progress by peoples’ sovereignty (i.e. secular republican democratic system). “I wonder whether the civilized world understands that the Turkish nation needs a little peace and a little stability in order to progress and advance, instead of a mandate system.”

Why are there then many different attributes to Kemalism? One reason maybe that Ataturk achieved independence and sovereignty, as well as the reforms to protect the latter in such a short span of time that people confuse several events, and also his means with his objectives. But the answer is not that simple. The most important question is how Turks understand and practice Kemalism. Does the majority of Turks understand it as defined above? The answer is unhesitatingly, but unfortunately, a loud and clear NO. Otherwise the Turks, with all the human qualities and material resources they are blessed with and after seventy-five years of trying, would have been already competing today with all the advanced nations. Can we say they are?

Kemalism in Turkey
The day that the Turkish Grand National Assembly declared the independent Turkish state to be a secular republic there were only three other established truly secular republics in the advanced world — France, Switzerland, and the USA. All other countries were either outright theocratic or democratic monarchies, or nationalist or communist dictatorships. Yet, those countries flourished to varying degrees in pursuit of advancement, after having embraced full secularism and democracy. Turkey, despite the foundation and encouragement given in that direction, did not fulfill Ataturk’s dream of leveling with these countries. Instead, Turkey still today is struggling to hold on to such basics for advancement as secularism and democracy, and trailing behind in education, science and technology.

Like in any socio-political issue, the reasons are many and interwoven: external, cultural, etc. Turks blame any or all the reasons for the delay in their progress. Some even blame Ataturk himself for not having completed the democratization and industrialization process. Ataturk motivated the Turks to fight and defeat the colonial powers, to resist and abolish the theocratic despotic regime, to revive a national pride, to gain national independence and sovereignty. He then inculcated the need for education, science, technology and positivist rational thinking in order to preserve this political independence and sovereignty, and to gain also economic independence. After inspiring a national pride and unity, having taken the sovereignty from the religion and given it to the people, Ataturk simply wanted them to take their lives and their future into their own hands. Being a mortal he could not carry them for an eternity. “Today’s success only opened the way to advancement and modernization. We did not yet reach that goal. Our and our children’s duty is to advance without stop. We should not be satisfied with reaching a given goal, we should always work to go further.” “Success on the road to modernization depends on renewal. This is the only means of progress for succeeding in social and economic life, in science and technology.”

Many Turks still expect salvation from Ataturk. While this expectation is legitimate, the places they look for his guidance are miscalculated. Some idolize him by erecting his statues, or hanging his pictures and they long for him and express their endless gratitude to him. But such acts are no guidance for the people. Some others, as a legacy of Ottoman tradition and in search of leadership, expect all salvation from the state. They want everything done for them by the government. The government, which the people themselves have elected, is blamed for anything that goes wrong. They overlook the fact that a parliament, a political party, a government, a local administration is as good as the people who elected it. They do not seem to realize that there are no more Ataturks, and that the people are now the leader. They never ask, the now famous Kennedyesque question of “not what my country can do for me, but what I can do for my country”.

Most Turks do not see themselves among those to be blamed. Understandably the mirror of blame is not reflective. The bitter truth is that a good number of Turkish people themselves are to be blamed for the delay in their advancement, for not having made full use of the opportunity, the light, and the direction given to them by Ataturk. They enjoyed the national independence, sovereignty and democracy, but did not persevere in progress: education, science and technology. People did not take advantage of their sovereignty to make democracy a way of life, to build upon it an advanced way of life. They do not see that the secular republican democratic system is the corner stone of people’s sovereignty; instead they challenge it.

Is Kemalism a matter for politics?
Certain people and civil organizations bring Ataturk’s actions, words, reforms and even his personal life to the political platform in order to emphasize their differences with their adversaries. Failing to have any meaningful goal or to have any vision to continue on the Kemalist road and to build upon the fundamental reforms, they resort to these devious, superficial, petty, irrelevant debates. This is when interpretations of Kemalism proliferate. As there is lack of understanding Kemalism, there is also a need for a common agreement on what constitute Ataturk’s reforms. Even to discuss as Kemalism the six principles that Ataturk once put in his party platform for instilling the fundamental reforms in the public is to say the least over simplistic and disingenuous.

The fundamental reforms are the following freedoms, because they did not exist under the theocratic Ottoman state. All other modernization efforts were the means to implement these fundamental reforms:

1. There are a people called Turks who share the same history and language irrespective of their religion or creed,
2. Turks must be fully independent like other advanced people, and must not fall under the rule of other advanced people,
3. Turks can protect this independence only by reaching and surpassing the level of other advanced people, (the need for education, and for science and technology),
4. Advancement can be achieved if the people are sovereign (secular republican democratic system).

Should these fundamentals be challenged today? While the independence and the necessity to advance are not discussed, one fundamental reform ardently debated in the last few decades is secularism. Much precious time, effort and resources are spent on this subject, instead of allocating them to education, science and technology. Why? With a rational approach, anyone would have to answer the following questions first among others: What would be the benefits for the country of reverting to a Muslim state? Was the religious order of the defunct Empire beneficial to the people? Did a theocratic regime help the Empire itself to survive foreign pressures and the advancing technology? What would a new Muslim state bring to the people that the previous one did not, if it is the same religion that does not accept any change? Was it not the religious regimes that delayed development in the old, archaic, middle-age countries all over the world, until they all collapsed? Among all the nations under the Ottoman rule did the Muslim nations serve in Ottoman armies, government or universities to help advance the Ottoman state, as much as the other nations did? Did they help the state from falling into the hands of Christian nations, or was it not them who collaborated with Christians to bring down the Ottomans? Was it not the religious rulings (fetvas) that hindered the introduction of printing hence the “enlightenment” into the Empire? If the Muslim regime is so beneficial to the people, why other Muslim states did not claim and save the Caliphate after it was abolished in Turkey? Was it not the other Muslim countries that encouraged the ousted Khalif to continue his reign under the protection of Christian Britain, instead of inviting him to their country? If Muslim regime is so good why all the Muslim states are still behind the contemporary level of civilization, and still import science and technology from other countries?

The positivist, rational and realistic answer to these questions would be: Theocracy in general, Muslim religion in particular do not allow freedom of thought, democratic society, sovereignty of people, hence advancement. People must have sovereignty in order to be able to be independent and to advance. To challenge secularism is tantamount to endangering the sovereignty of the people (democracy). Once the people are robbed of their sovereignty they will cease pursuing progress. Consequently, they can no longer maintain a competitive and strong existence in the advanced (and ever advancing) world. Religious order is an oxymoron of republicanism, nationalism, secularism, and in particular of reformism, i.e. progress. Sovereignty does not belong to any religion nor to God, it squarely belongs to the people and to the people alone “without any condition or limitation.” “Our government, our state are a state and government founded directly and solely by the people and of the people, they are called Republic. There is no longer a separation between the government and the people, the government is the people, and the people are the government. The government is now fully aware that it is not separate from the people, that the people is now the master.”

In enjoying the freedom of speech we should be able to debate anything, and politicize any subject, but should we really indulge in the luxury of redirecting our attention, our efforts, time and resources for a Mars probe to a discussion of Galileo’s or Copernicus’ theorems. It is preposterous, absurd, irrational, and unacceptable that democracy means to go so far as to killing itself, to let real fundamental Kemalist reforms annihilate themselves. Is then Kemalism politicking, or is it positivism? One would engage in such futility only if one deliberately intends to blur the meaning of Kemalism (this is politicking), or one is ignorant of the true meaning of Kemalism.

Kemalism now
The true meaning of Kemalism is not understood by most Turkish people, outside of a handful of thinkers, because it was not accurately and scientifically studied nor taught to the incoming generations. Turkish education system failed to inculcate in the nation the reasons and goals of the real fundamental reforms. The youth was and is still fed with a casual and historical recounting of the heroic wars and of the formation of the republic, instead of being taught the reasons and objectives of the wars, and of the republic: the real fundamental reforms.

The unprecedented, swift but peaceful, changes were made only and only for shaking off centuries old backwardness, and for reaching the level of the advanced world. In other words, it was all about transforming humiliation into pride. Ataturk reforms are a package, they are inseparable. Because they are the inspiration for survival in a contemporary, successful society. Can we consider independence without a national identity? Can we consider sovereignty of the people without a secular republican system? Can we think of a successful future without continuous progress, without education science and technology? There must be a time to stop debating and politicking over Kemalism and the reforms, and start doing what is expected of Kemalism: progress, education and hard work for a prosperous and prestigious tomorrow. These truisms do not require much teaching or much learning. They require positivist rational thinking, Kemalist thinking. People need to be constantly reminded how their lives would be without Kemalist reforms and if they do not stay unwaveringly on the Kemalist path. “Nations insisting on keeping traditions and beliefs unsupported by logical arguments find it difficult to progress, if they can progress at all. Nations which cannot adapt to the conditions of progress cannot see life in a reasonable and practical light.”

There ought to be an Ataturk chair and Ataturk library in every Turkish University, and Ataturk courses in all middle and high schools. The public has to meet, embrace, and learn Ataturk anew. All civil organizations and persons claiming to be Kemalist around the world should work in this direction. An advanced and strong Turkey is not only good for herself but also for the free advanced world. The Ataturk Society of America strives to help people to understand Kemalism. The point is for Turkey to regain the time and prestige lost since Ataturk’s death on the path to become one of the most advanced, most powerful and most respected countries in the world. Ataturk believed not only that his nation deserved it, but it could also achieve it. This is what Ataturk stood for his people. Can his people stand for it now?