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Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal

By:
M. Naim Turfan
Source:
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Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), was the founding father of the Turkish Republic. Born of modest Turkish parentage in the cosmopolitan Ottoman port of Selânik (now Thessaloníki in Greece) into a markedly Muslim environment, Atatürk opted for a military education, graduating from the academy as an infantry staff-captain in 1905. A participant in the Young Turk movement, his early military career ran concurrently with his secret, illegal political activities against the despotism of Sultan Abdülhamid II—itself a misconstrued attempt to invigorate the empire against a slow throttling by the Great Powers. Atatürk and his comrades diagnosed the grievous condition of their society as caused by its political structure and prescribed a restructuring.

Early Military Career.

Atatürk 's obsession with partisan politics was typical of the Young Turk officers who in 1908 secured the restoration of the 1876 Constitution and thereby the transfer of power to the officer corps. He saw no contradiction between his military profession and his founding, joining, and propagating of various revolutionary societies in the Arabian and Macedonian provinces. Only when he perceived that factionalism based on military membership in political societies would undermine the discipline—and therefore the fighting capacity—of the armed forces did he advocate that the military disengage itself from partisan politics and from the officer corps, thus allowing it to assume an autonomous position and hence a commanding role. Unheeded, somewhat excluded, and overshadowed by higher-profile officers in the tumultuous aftermath of 1908, Atatürk devoted himself to military writing and fighting. He was active in quelling uprisings in the capital (1909) and Albania (1910), as well as in the defense of Ottoman Libya against Italy (1911–1912). It was the disastrous Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, however, that really accelerated his conversion to Turkish nationalism, not yet wholly eliminating his Ottomanism but salving his wounded Volksgeist.

Atatürk emerged from World War I a brigadier-general, acknowledged as one of the youngest and most outstanding commanders and accorded prestige and popularity at home. Yet with the finality of their defeat, the Turks faced the problem of preserving their existence against the victorious Allies’ attempts to dismember what remained of the empire. Atatürk shared the officers’ belief in the efficacy of the regular military to resist such pressures and in their own indispensability to the life of the nation; he therefore assumed decisive military and political leadership. His supervision and centralization of spontaneous and widespread local resistance by establishing an alternative national assembly to represent the resisting Turkey was founded upon his conviction that a nation's right to full independence is fought for, not granted—a postulate central to the National Struggle of 1919–1922 and demanding the absolute loyalty of the professional soldiers to it.

The Republic.

With the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, President Atatürk concentrated on advancing his nationalist revolution. Through a series of predominantly political reforms, relentlessly pursued despite internal and international opposition, Atatürk, from 1927 a retired field-marshal, endeavored to establish an inherently capitalist nation-state based on the principle of popular sovereignty; the state 's moral substance would be a conscious synthesis of indigenous and universal elements. The social order he envisaged for Turkey was fashioned after long reflection on the Ottoman disorder through which he had lived. This social order assumed a modern state inclining toward social democracy, in which ideas that had taken root in Reformation Europe would be grafted onto the liberated Turkey through the complementary concepts of contemporaneity and nationalism.

Atatürk considered contemporaneity to derive from the rationalist essence of civilization, holding contemporary civilization as equivalent to, but not identical with, civilization in western Europe. He strove to cultivate rational enquiry as the ultimate authority in society, in order to gain individual self-awareness and thence national unity. Linking civilization with the idea of progress as both technological development and moral improvement, his view of contemporary world civilization to which all nations might contribute involved recognition of the multiplicity of its origins, including medieval Islamic civilization. Simultaneously, he sought to nurture that sense of loyalty to country—which was already beginning to overcome traditional loyalty to the sultanate during the National Struggle—into an intense Turkish nationalism, whether combined with the traditional bond of Muslim society or, preferably, replacing it; nationalism would be the Turks’ rediscovery and reassertion of their Turkishness—based on assimilation no less than on birth.

To Atatürk, contemporaneity, fostering the integrative tendency of contemporary world civilization, involved a break with the past, while nationalism with its self-assertive tendency served as a counterbalance, providing continuity with the past through even the most drastic social change. The conjunction of contemporaneity and nationalism thus forms the core of his holistic view of the political universe, underpinning all the reforms he initiated, and it relates directly to his belief in the power of ideas—developing the individual so that the individual can change the society. He aimed to educate individuals to undertake control of their own affairs, to stimulate a nationalist economy free from foreign dominance, and, significantly, to secularize the polity. For this, he would extricate the state from the cumbersome dichotomous structure in which social institutions were partly regulated by şeriat (sharīʿah law), and unify those institutions under state authority alone.

Atatürk and Islam.

The depth of Atatürk's religious conviction is still unclear; what is certain is that his drive toward secularism (called lâyiklik or lâiklik, a Turkish adaptation of the French word laïcisme) in Turkey was not conceived as an attack on Islam, which he considered the most rational, natural, and therefore final religion. He believed the decay of the Muslim world and its falling under oppression to be the fault of Muslims, dominated by their own wrong thinking. His idealist philosophy ascribed this to Muslims’ historical retreat from rationalism to implicit acceptance, rendering themselves submissive and defenseless. He argued that the weight of rigid orthodoxy that had turned Islam from a reasoned belief to blind faith must be lifted from society, not only so that Muslims might advance but for Islam itself, which needed to be cleansed of irrational and inflexible accretions. Then, too, since Islam is essentially a rational religion in which knowledge preponderates, individuals might reach the divine by using their intellect. Atatürk's persistent attempts to have the Qurʿān and the language of worship rendered into an authorized Turkish version for general use were thus aimed at religious enlightenment. He wanted for Turkey a secular society of Muslims wherein the maintenance and advancement of Islam would rest upon the voluntary adherence of individual believers: nonreligious government for the religious rather than religious government, in what would inevitably be a secular state.

Assessment.

Atatürk lived his life determining how to impose the possible but not attempting to impose the not-yet-possible. Given the dearth of religious scholars of sufficiently revolutionary caliber, he abandoned his earlier belief that a secular state must nevertheless provide some kind of infrastructure for the regulation and instruction of Islam. His consequent withdrawal in the 1930s to the thesis that the government of such a state has no role in the people 's religious development, and to the legal implementation of this, was perhaps misconceived. It created the paradox of the unlettered hoca (religious teacher) who lacked adequate state-supported education yet was blamed for perpetuating ignorance and bigotry among the faithful.

Atatürk's attempted reform of Turkish religious life comprises, with his other social reforms, a consistent political philosophy. His ultimate objective, in a formula admitting of general application, was the achievement of a genuine and modern nationhood, responsible for and answerable to its citizens individually and collectively, which would survive, conscious and assured, in the contemporary world. See also KEMALISM; OTTOMAN EMPIRE; TURKEY; and YOUNG TURKS.

Bibliography

  • Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal. A Speech Delivered by Ghazi Mustapha Kemal, President of the Turkish Republic, October 1927. Leipzig, 1929. English version of Atatürk 's famous six-day speech, covering the years from the 1918 Armistice (without the original documents). Essential for an understanding of the man and the period.
  • Aydemir, Şevket Süreyya. Tek Adam: Mustafa Kemal (Unique Man: Mustafa Kemal). 3 vols. Istanbul, 1963–1965. The most perceptive life of Atatürk in print; the book still awaits a critical editing and translation into English.
  • Çağaptay, Soner. Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is A Turk?London, 2006.
  • Gökman, Muzaffer. Atatürk ve Devrimleri Tarihi Bibliyografyas (Bibliography of the History of Atatürk and His Reforms). 3 vols.Ankara, 1981–1983. Comprehensive bibliography that includes Atatürk 's speeches, statements, declarations, treatises, diaries, letters, handwritten and dictated notes, and unsigned articles, together with secondary material in numerous languages.
  • Iğdemir, Uluğ, et al.Atatürk: Biography. Translated by Andrew J. Mango. Reprint, Ankara, 1981. This is a complete translation of the entry “Atatürk, Gazi Mustafa Kemal” in İslâm Ansiklopedisi (13 vols.), vol. 1, fasc. 10, pp. 719–807 (Istanbul, 1949–1986). The authorized biography, an encyclopedic compendium of information; dated but factually sound.
  • Kazancıgil, Ali, and Ergun Özbudun, eds. Atatürk: Founder of a Modern State. London, 1981. Informative though somewhat uncritical collection of scholarship on Atatürk.
  • Kinross, Lord (John Patrick Douglas Balfour). Atatürk: The Rebirth of a Nation. Nicosia, 1981. Originally published in London in 1964, this is still the most readable biography in English. While there have been numerous workaday lives of Atatürk, there is still no scholarly biography.
  • Mango, Andrew. Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey. Woodstock, N.Y., 2002.
  • Özyürek, Esra. Nostalgia for the Modern State: Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey. Durham, N.C., 2006.
  • Tongas, Gérard. Ataturk and the True Nature of Modern Turkey. Translated by F. F. Rynd. London, 1939. Though long out of print, this study by a contemporary is still one of the most incisive in its approach to Atatürk  's revolution. Nevertheless, the ideas behind the revolution require further examination. The author of the present article, for example, has already written elsewhere (in English) on the political thought of Atatürk and is currently preparing a book-length study.
  • Turfan, M. Naim. “Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, 1881–1938.” In The Routledge Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Political Thinkers, edited by Robert Benewick and Philip Green, pp. 12–14. London and New York, 1992. Readily accessible and recent sketch.
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