Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is the George Washington of today’s Republic of Turkey. After he gained his military reputation by repelling the 1915 Allied invasion of the Dardanelles, he first directed Turkey’s 1920-22 “War of Salvation” and then became Turkey’s first president. He immediately embarked on a fifteen-year campaign to modernize Turkey, which included the empowering of women, abolition of key Islamic institutions, and introduction of Western legal codes, dress, calendar, and alphabet. His adopted surname means “Father of the Turks.”
Nabil Al-Tikriti, Associate Professor of History at the University of Mary Washington, earned a Ph.D. in Ottoman History from the University of Chicago. In addition, having served in various field capacities with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) since 1993, he has just been elected to a three-year term as a member of MSF-USA’s Board of Directors.
Q: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is the founder of the Republic of Turkey. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, he first won victories over the Allied forces sent against him, and later transformed Turnkey into a modern, Westernized, secular state. What were the elements of Turkish political, cultural, and religious life that he believed were outmoded?
Mustafa Kemal, following his upbringing as part of the Young Turk movement, his experience in the Great War, and the bitter legacy of sectarian violence which he witnessed, had come to believe that religion’s place in society needed to be constrained and controlled. He also came to believe that the monarchy and caliphate were holding back the progress of the Turkish people, and that a homogenous national republic would be the only way to compete in the modern world.
Q: It was a dangerous world politically that Atatürk brought his young nation into during the 1920s. Would you explain some of the powerful adversaries competing for control of Turkey?
Up to and following the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, major international players competing for control of Anatolia included Russia, Britain, France, Greece, and Italy. At the same time, domestic and regional groups who competed for control of Anatolia included Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, and pan-Hellenic nationalists, Ottoman loyalists, and pan-Islamic activists. Out of this combustible mix Mustafa Kemal managed to organize a national resistance movement that definitively controlled the country by 1923.
Q: What was Atatürk’s particular genius?
Individuals can only change so much due to the social constructs within which they are born, but the truly talented make what they can out of what they inherit. Atatürk, who successfully combined intellectual curiosity, strategic cunning, a highly competitive nature, and command decisiveness to maximize the cards he was dealt with in life, was one such truly talented individual.
Q: Atatürk dissolved the Caliphate, the core of one part of Islam. Is restoring the Caliphate still a goal of some Moslems?
Indeed, there are active movements to revive the Caliphate, although the majority of the Muslim world seems to believe that the authority of this institution resides in the collective wisdom of the community as a whole. Considering that roughly 20% of the world’s population identifies with Islam, the challenge of creating a unitary authority is probably well beyond any currently active group.
Q: After decades of guarding its independence jealously, Turkey wants admission to the European political and economic community. What has brought about this change of direction?
Consistent with both its Ottoman European past and Atatürk’s more recent legacy, Turkey has long supported continental convergence. However, more recently Turkey is reconsidering its interest in the European Union, which appears to itself be on the verge of unraveling. At this point, continued interest in EU admission is contingent on Europe’s monetary stability, respect for human rights worldwide, and tolerance for social diversity.
Q: What is Atatürk’s legacy?
At the end of the day, Atatürk’s legacy is undeniable. The Turkey that he left behind is today the envy of the Middle East, a sovereign power able to speak with equal coherence to parties representing a number of ideological, cultural, and religious commitments throughout the world.