Metin Camcigil, Former President of ASA

The following views do not represent those of the Atatürk Society of America. They constitute the personal views of the President, and are intended for a constructive purpose.

The ASA was founded with the objective of studying and enhancing awareness of the original reforms of the Turkish Republic. In this publication of the Society I have on occasion tried to analyze the nature and importance of the reforms and to highlight that they were a continuing process. In this essay I venture to claim that the reforms have in fact been let to die because they are allowed to become subject to political exploitation, and because of the public’s ignorance of their nature and importance. While the reforms were conceived and put into effect by Ataturk, he went to great length to attributing them to the people. A part of the population quickly embraced them and still believes in them today; a small portion was always against them; and a majority remained ignorant of them.

First, let me recall what I understand from the Turkish reforms: “to elevate the people to the level of contemporary civilization”, for which a reformist mentality, a rational inquisitive mind is necessary, instead of a fatalistic culture. Sometimes reforms are shortly referred to as modernization, or wrongly as Westernization, and other times disparagingly as xenomania copying the Western culture. Ataturk Biographer, Dr. Andrew Mango, in his address in Washington DC in September 2000, superbly described the reforms as “The motive for all these changes was not imitation of, but participation in an universal civilization 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”. Among his numerous speeches in which he tried to persuade the public of the necessity of progress Ataturk said in an address in 1925 “Turkish people must show and prove that they are civilized in their mentality”.

Second, let me also recall that the reforms were meant to be continuous, not a one-time élan frozen in some kind of dogma. If there is an ideological dogma about these reforms it is their dynamism. The substance of the reforms, the “contemporary civilization” is in itself a dynamic, an ever-evolving concept. Ataturk repeatedly and unambiguously wished for the continuity of reforms, and he willed them to the youth, to the coming generations so as to ensure their perpetuity: “If we will remember how this victory was won we will easily appreciate the importance and greatness of the duty that falls upon the nation to protect and preserve it. We need to further it, not to keep it constant or, God forbid, to reverse it”.

The Progress Report
Now let us see whether in fact the reforms succeeded, i.e. whether the Turkish people really reached the “contemporary level of civilization”, in other words whether they now have a reformist mentality, a participation in the universal civilization, science, arts and letters. According to the UN statistics supplied by the Turkish Statistics Institute, illiteracy is around 20%, of the school age children about 60%attend school, average schooling is 3.5 years, the ratio of high school graduates to population is approximately 40%, the ratio of university graduates is about 25%, almost 40 % of the population lives below Turkish standard of living. According to the UNESCO statistics the number of researchers in Turkey in 1996 was 291 per million population. This figure is behind that of Iran’s or Bulgaria’s, Greece’s, Poland’s, etc. Citations of Turkish scientific literature and the number of Turkish patent holders are also minimal. In other words Turkish participation in contemporary civilization is very small indeed. Conversely, there are currently more mosques in Turkey (approximately 73.000) than schools including elementary to university levels (approximately 60.000).

Another measure to judge the degree Turkey participates in universal civilization would be to evaluate the way Turkey is perceived by foreigners. We should also gauge how much she contributes to international affairs, and whether Turkish interests are taken into consideration in international affairs. Such an assessment may be dismissed outright considering the bias and animosity of foreigners towards Turkey, and their ignorance of Turkey’s realities. Nevertheless, one should recognize them with a civilized open mind. It is common knowledge that Turkey has been consistently kept out of the European Union to which it applied 38 years ago. If we were to leave aside Turkey’s full participation in the Korean war to resist the communist advance in the Far East, she was skillfully kept on the sidelines by major economic powers in the development of the Turkic states when she tried to assert her influence after the demise of communism. She was also kept on the sidelines of international committees formed to find solutions to the problems in the Balkans and the Caucasus despite her attempts and direct interests in the areas, because Europe has its own interests in the Balkans and Russia in the Caucasus.

Some random observations of foreign pundits are as follows:
The Oxford Companion to Politics, 1993, in its entry for Kemalism by Prof. Feroz Ahmed states “Kemalism as a coherent system lost its capacity to inspire.”

Under the entry for Reform, the same publication does not find the Ataturk reforms even worthy of mention, although it gives as examples of failed reforms those by Marx, Roosevelt, Deng Xao-Ping, Thatcher, Gorbachev and even by Reagan ! and Mitterand!.

German historian J. Glassneck wrote ” In retrospect we can say that reformist tendencies of Turkish governments died with Ataturk’s death. His death was a turning point in Turkish history”.

Gustov A. Sonnenhol wrote in Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, (a collection of German articles written to commemorate Ataturk’s 100th birthday, published by Ataturk Research Centre, 1997, p.72) “Examples of oriental attitude are: Absence of dynamism, absence of individual entrepreneurship, fatalism, i.e. subservience, adversity to modernity, degrading attitude of work, social awareness limited to alms giving, to family and clan, to revere status, disregard for the future, absence of concept of time, concern for only today, expectation of big returns in short time, disdain for modern day materialism, month long fasting and day long religious obligations are obstacles to social transformation and economic development.”

More recently the American columnist Stephen Rosenfeld wrote in the Washington Post “…the Turks must still generate a political will to unequivocally join the modern world. Politics is still too much a splinter party, personality-driven exercise, an old man’s game in the country with the youngest population in Europe. Where is an Ataturk when Turkey, again, really needs one?”

In its December 23, 2000 issue The Economist put Turkey last, behind all imaginable countries, in its so-called The EU Enlargement Barometer (index of suitability to be an EU member).

These few examples may suggest that despite the fact that Turkey identified itself with Europe in the last 80 years, she did not do much since Ataturk’s demise to improve her standards of education, social services, municipal services, health services, law enforcement services, shortly her standard of living. Effectively reforms were lost and forgotten. One cannot dismiss such views simply as being discriminatory and prejudiced. While there is some truth in their discriminatory attitude, there must also be some truth in these observations. The truth may be that Turkey never made that cultural change, the change in mentality, required by the reforms to break the barriers of tradition and to become one of the forces behind the advancement of mankind.

Some facts
The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire is commonly attributed to three main factors:

  • Overbearing autocratic administration,
  • Corruption in administration,
  • Constant interference of foreign powers in domestic affairs.

Despite all reform efforts that cost a lot of pain during at least the last eighty years of the Ottoman period as well as during the eighty years of the republic, these factors do not seem to have gone away. Under Ottoman administration autocratic rule was the natural consequence of the theocratic system based on religious authority. Although the relation to religion was severed and a secular system was established with the republic, the paternalistic style of administration did not change much. This style has its roots not only in the centuries old practice but also in the circumstances in which the republic was born. The Independence War was won on the strength of national sovereignty and national unity. The republic came on the heels of that victory, and national sovereignty and unity were represented in a centralized single authority – the Parliament that won the victory. The state authority was concentrated in the Parliament. Separation of powers did not really exist. This was necessary and key to the success of the republican system to take roots. Yet today the executive is still designated by the legislative organ, and the judiciary by the executive. There is no real system of checks and balances, and the transparency required by a real democratic system.

I will refrain from dwelling on the question of whether the state of corruption has changed, because I find even the discussion of it too demeaning and too political. I will rather leave this matter to the reader’s judgment. I cannot help however noting how current is a journalistic report published during the early Republican period. The Parisian newspaper Temps printed a report from Turkey by P. Gentizon on February 5, 1928 about the functioning of the new government, and it concluded as follows: ” If she (Turkey) wants to westernize at all cost she should not take only laws, attire, airplanes, etc. from Europe, but also the most obvious and the most tangible sign of civilization: a good administration. Otherwise, she will be condemned to remaining Asiatic.”

As to the meddling by foreign countries in the domestic affairs, Turks have to accept the reality that this is the order of today’s world and not limited to Turkey alone. Globalization in almost every field of human activity exposes countries to the entire world, and almost instantaneously thanks to the cyberspace technology. Turkey, therefore, has to learn to live with this transparency and with the consequent critical review. Avoidance of criticism would only be possible by keeping pace with the advanced world and by accepting the generally recognized world standards. Instead, there seems to be a tendency among some Turks to lean toward xenophobic nationalism that was never intended by the National Pact (Misaki Milli), nor by the Nationalism principle of the original Republican Party program.

I would add to these three factors the following thoughts, all of which I believe not only contributed to the demise of the Ottoman Empire, but continue to this day to hold Turkey back from making the necessary strides to take its front row seat in the international theater.

The time factor
One important point to note is that any cultural transformation would require a long time to allow for its thorough absorption by all strata of society. The Western world made the cultural transformation from theocratic, medieval culture to the modern culture in an agonizingly long period from 1500 to 1900, going through the renaissance, reformation, industrialization, nationalism, and finally democracy. The Western transformation over the centuries had the benefit of great thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Turkey’s only fortune as a social, as well as a political, thinker was Ataturk. Turkey had to cram all these centuries and all the stages into a few decades. “Absorption” was not possible. It gave way to “reflux”.

Societal division
The Ottoman society, despite its ethnic and religious diversity, did not have classes. There was no aristocracy, clergy, or industrial based economic classes. If any classification could be made, it would be bureaucrats, military and rural masses, not in a conflict relationship with each other but in a relation of the ruled and the ruler. The republican reforms introduced within a short span of time succeeded to change the mentality of only a fraction of the society. Not having followed up on the reforms with the initial ardour and momentum the rest of the population stuck to its traditional ways and beliefs. Thus two cultures were born. The reforms created two classes in conflict with each other: the reformist and the reactionaries. The divide is in the cultural status, in mentality, no matter of what economic, social or urban and rural background. Under the democratic system this division became pervasive. It can be observed not only in politics, but in the government, in business, in education, etc. Therefore Turkish administrations and Turkish development oscillate, while averaging a straight line in the long run without registering much advance. Both people and the state swing between reformist actions (rational mentality and progress) and traditionalist moves (reforms are denounced as copying the West and Western values, they are considered xenomania). This societal division affects national unity. A loose social fabric causes today’s instability in domestic politics, and the uneven distribution of wealth and education.

Absence of political will to continue with the reforms
As mentioned in the Introduction above, reforms were meant to be dynamic and progressive. The Turkish word for reform “Inkilapcilik” makes this particular meaning very clear, and does not have an equivalent in the English language. Ataturk not only ingeniously found the historical and social source for Turkishness and for the new Turkish culture, he was also extremely successful in raising awareness of it in the general public. This culture had to be cultivated and developed further for the sake of national unity and progress. The 1937 Republican Party program defined the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture as follows: ” To establish organizations and train people who will perpetuate from generation to generation, understand and explain the ideology of the country’s problems.” The duties of a reformist administration could not be defined any clearer than that. In practice, Halkevleri (Peoples’ Homes) carried out that function admirably. When they were closed down in 1952 soon after the introduction of multiparty rule there were 478 Halkevi and 4322 Halk Odasi (Peoples’ Hearths) in operation.

“The History of Independence” and “Ataturk Principles” courses in schools were always taught in a traditional historical perspective, instead of as a social study, the study of social and cultural transformation of the nation. The generations needed to be taught the relation of the reforms to the current events and to future expectations. Consequently, the reforms did not trickle down to the youth and to the rural masses in a systematic and deliberate way. The responsibility for this rests with all the politicians that followed Ataturk, including his close associates. Turkey having been spared from the devastation of WWI and the European countries having been adversely affected by it, the post-war development was a golden opportunity for Turkey to press on with the cultural change and join the world development at an equal footing and in step with Europe. Instead, it was for her the beginning of a quagmire of politics. Back paddling started with cheap politics. Reforms were abandoned for politics. In this adverse atmosphere many traitors emerged from within (as Ataturk predicted), even from among the youth and so-called intelligentsia, who outvoiced and outweighed the burgeoning vibrant and forward looking progressives.

Absence of civil responsibility – Fatalism
While the responsibility for not having pressed forward with the reforms and not having educated the masses squarely rests on the administrations, the reformed section of the population can also be accused of not having exercised their democratic right and betraying Ataturk’s will. They did not fulfill their duty of watching over the administrations for any deviations from the reforms, and of passing on the torch of change to the rest of the population. This may be characterized as perfidy. The average Turk today seems to think that if the Western living conditions, especially consumer goods and entertainment, are equally available to them while they retain their own traditional ways, they have reached “the contemporary civilization”, and there is no need for further change. They even wish to hold on to their traditional values in order to assert their identity, as proud distinguishing elements. For example they see obedience to the “Boss” as a cultural virtue that must be respected and preserved. It is a Turkish trait to be compliant and obedient to the “Boss”. The culture is such that people always look for and look up to leaders, whether family leader, community leader, clan leader, party boss, business boss, and ultimately God. They are used to and they want to be led rather to lead. They expect their security, their livelihood to be taken care of by the “boss”. This trait is the consequence of the theocratic regime that first took hold of the people when Sultan Selim assumed the Caliphate in 1517 after his invasion of Egypt. While this trait was a key element in the military victories of the Empire it is a an obstacle today in conforming to the modern day individualistic society and democratic regime. Centuries long theocratic rule made the people submissive to authority, and stunned competitiveness and the will for leadership. The fatalistic religion that governs every detail of personal as well as political life made them stoic rather than inquisitive, challenging, researching, creative and independent thinking. The world never hears the Turkish people’s voice on national issues, or standing for or against any international issue. In order to have “full independence” (in Ataturk’s words) and to gain respect in the world, Turks have to participate in and contribute to it. This in turn requires a fundamental change of mentality: to be an independent and rational thinker.

Bruce Cunningham, remarked at one meeting of the European Association of Turkish Academics (I believe it was in 1999) that Turks were committed to Ataturk’s democracy, that the fundamentalists would not be allowed by the secular majority to take over the country, the economy is so strong that it sets the politics aside. New leaders will emerge and Turkey will equal Russian influence in the 21st century.

Optimism is cheering, but it can be deceiving. False confidence will give way to unguarded slackness. Pessimism may be discouraging, but alerting; if it does not go so far as resignation and rather produces constructive solutions.

There is no denying that with the extraordinary start in 1920s and 30s and the great human potential Turkey should have been in a more advanced and powerful position today in the international scene. This is what lies in the heart of every good Turk and a wise non-Turk. The above-mentioned obstacles could be overcome if Turkish people would reclaim the reforms as their own and change their mentality in the following directions:

1-Not seek or expect any leader to revive the reforms. They cannot find a better leader than Ataturk. He has already given them the necessary leadership and paved the way for the future. They must stop relying on incompetent, divided, weak administrations, and stop being submissive to divisive leaders; they must instead take matters in hand, get in the driver’s seat, lead rather than being led, exercise their sovereign rights responsibly and knowledgeably, assume their civil responsibility. Public position and determination is the most powerful element in national issues domestically and internationally; people’s voice must be expressed and be heard;
2-Form a united national front through appropriate NGOs, make a Social Pact, complementary to the National Pact, for a common understanding of the reforms and a dedication to pursue them with priority in order to catch up with the “contemporary civilization”, to contribute to universal advancement, and for a national mobilization for a unitary and quality education in all corners of the country;
3-Make the political establishment stop seeing the civil establishment as a threat to its authority, and accept the civil organizations as the partner in reforms; impress upon the political establishment to make the necessary structural and operational changes for a transparent, decentralized system with true checks and balances, and for an independent judiciary. The parliament, as well as the government, must share the administration of the country with civil organizations in order to give more opportunity to the people to participate in the struggle for progress. This is the key to success of advancement in truly democratic countries, like the USA.

The same people who were motivated by Ataturk to take up arms again after almost ten years of incessant and debilitating wars, and to achieve drastic reforms with an unprecedented pace immediately after the independence must surely be able also today to regain civil courage to take control over their own destiny, to fight against the retrogressive elements, and to assert their dignity in the international community. Common history full of sufferance and common destiny should provide the necessary unifying force. The people must claim ownership of the reforms and make them work. We must be able to call them Turkish reforms as Ataturk wished them to be. Ataturk summed it up: “Masses can be led by any one to right or to wrong direction, if they are composed of uneducated people. People must have control over their own destiny, if they want to better themselves”