The most attractive feature of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s life, one admired both in Turkey and internationally, is how he embraced modern philosophical ideals and applied them to his own country despite tremendous resistance. The life of Ataturk, in a very real way, is symbolic of the ever-present conflicts that exist between traditional values and modern evolutionary approaches to social and political forms of organization.
Although he is commonly referred to both popularly and in the academic literature as the Father of Modern Turkey, it is fair to extend this characterization by designating Ataturk as one of the founding fathers of all modernizing societies facing barriers imposed by those preferring more traditional forms of political and socioeconomic organization. His actions as the first president of the modern Turkish republic, to be sure, have been emulated by other leaders around the world seeking to create modern nation-states in order to compete with the technologically-superior countries commonly referred to as the West.
Any understanding of Ataturk’s impact on Turkey, and within the context of international modernization struggles and conflicts in subsequent times, demands an understanding of his fundamental beliefs regarding modernization in Turkey, how he implemented these ideas in practice, and how he thereby came to symbolize the evolutionary pattern of societies and political systems in historically traditional societies.
As an initial matter, in order to understand how Ataturk developed his political philosophy, it is necessary to understand that his thought was influenced by many sources. Specifically, he was battling against the traditional political theories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire while simultaneously struggling intellectually to determine how to create a new Turkish Republic using certain political approaches favored by the West.
He spent a great deal of time in France and was deeply influenced, for example, by the French Jacobins and their belief in the development of a more secular state that was independent of the Catholic church; indeed, one scholar notes that Ataturk and the Young Turk group of which he was a part “concluded that, just as the Catholic Church was said by French liberals to pose a threat to the French Third Republic, so Islam presented a threat to modern Turkey” (Candar 88). The development of a secular state was thus the most important foundational element of Ataturk’s political philosophy.
This would not be easy, however, because Islam was the dominant religious influence and it was a widely held conviction. More, as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, many foreign countries invaded and Ataturk was compelled to unify and defend what would become modern Turkey against imperial invaders. He was therefore required to fight both an internal battle designed to create a unified modern nation-state while also fighting external enemies determined to make claim to lands the Ottoman Empire could no longer protect.
Ataturk succeeded in both respects. The remarkable feat about unifying the people who would become and remain the modern Turkish republic is that “there was no such thing as a Turkish ethnicity. Turkish was, if anything, a language group. The Turkish-speaking warrior hordes that poured out of Central Asia beginning a thousand years ago were of mixed blood” (Fromkin 14). He thus created a national identity from an extraordinarily diverse group of tribes and people.
This national identity, moreover, evolved in sharp contrast to the dominant Islamic identity which preceded Ataturk’s reign. On assuming power as Turkey’s first president, for instance, he made the decision to delegitimize the religious role of the sultan and to completely redesign the Turkish nation-state. His rationale for this substantial departure from the past was that “After assessing the failures of the empire, Ataturk believed that the decline could be attributed, in part, to the inability to compete with the West” (Vertigans 42).
Borrowing from the West, he worked tirelessly to establish a modern bureaucratic system, to remove Islam from the political system, and to prepare Turkey to compete and develop with the stronger western powers using the same basic administrative and political institutions. While much of the modern Middle East struggles with radical Islam, and some countries have political systems dominated or deeply influenced by Islam, modern Turkey remains comparatively moderate in terms of the role that Islam plays in political life.
This fact can be traced directly to Ataturk and is considered one of the most enduring aspects of his leadership. Indeed, “Instead of being neutral on the question of the religious practices and beliefs of its citizenry, the Kemalist state seeks to remove all manifestations of religion from the public sphere and put them under the strict control of the state” (Yavuz 60). Modern Turkey, in sum, is an advanced Islamic country, its political system controls and moderates Islam, and it is an ally of the United States and being considered for admission to many organizations comprising the European Union.
All of this was accomplished despite internal opposition from traditionalists in a diverse land and from imperial aggression from abroad. In the final analysis, though Ataturk certainly used murder and oppression as political tools, he is in the bigger picture a figure to be admired because he unified a country, he created a new national identity, and he created a secular state in a region dominated by Islam.
Ataturk serves as a model for transcending religious domination of political institutions and for demonstrating that national identity and national unity do not depend on an underlying ethnic purity. Modern countries struggling with the move from traditionalist systems to modernity would be well-advised to study the leadership practices and the political philosophy of Ataturk. Works Cited Candar, Cengiz. “Ataturk’s Ambiguous Legacy.
” The Wilson Quarterly Autumn 2000: 88. Questia. Web. 2 June 2010. Fromkin, David. “Ataturk’s Creation. ” New Criterion Apr. 2000: 14. Questia. Web. 2 June 2010. Vertigans, Stephen. Islamic Roots and Resurgence in Turkey : Understanding and Explaining the Muslim Resurgence /. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. Questia. Web. 2 June 2010. Yavuz, M. Hakan. “The Case of Turkey. ” Daedalus 132. 3 (2003): 59+. Questia. Web. 2 June 2010.