The ideas and principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic, are termed Kemalism; Kemalism constitutes the official ideology of the state, and endured publicly unchallenged until the 1980s. Kemalism proper is symbolized in the six points enumerated in the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP) Statutes of 1935; these were incorporated in the constitution of 1937, which remained in effect until 1961, then only to be reformulated with slight modifications. These six principles are republicanism, statism (in economic policy), populism, laicism, nationalism, and reformism. Together they represent a kind of Jacobinism, defined by Atatürk himself as a method of utilizing political despotism in order to break down the social despotism prevalent among the traditionally minded Turkish-Muslim population, for which he blamed foremost the bigotry of the ulema (men of religion; Ar., ʿulamāʿ ).
Populism did not imply democracy in either its liberal or socialist sense, but rather a solidaristic opposition to status privileges and monarchy inspired by the French Revolution of 1789. Nationalism circumscribed Kemalist populism; its reference to the Rousseauist concept of general will evaded the head-counting requirement of democracy. Atatürk himself was to be the embodiment of the national will; hence whatever he decreed—as he was careful to adhere to formalism, this was always an act of legislation or a cabinet decision—was regarded as in accordance with the people's wishes (or rather, what they should wish).
The principle of laicism, and in particular the manner of its application, diminished the enormous popular prestige Atatürk had acquired as a victorious general in the war of independence. In fact, in wartime Islamic solidarity had been stressed to an unprecedented degree, also helping to secure the collaboration of non-Turkish Muslim elements. Therefore, steps taken toward full secularization (abolition of the caliphate, removal of the article in the constitution making Islam the official religion of the state, and almost all the modernizing reforms that departed from Islamic practice) had far-reaching repercussions. The failure to replace religious social bonds with a generally accepted civic ideology led to cleavage between the ruling westernized elite and the ruled traditional masses. Although the official formulation was content to separate the worldly from the divine and to oppose the exploitation of religion for political purposes, in reality Kemalist laicism became an instrument for control and supervision of Islam by the state.
Atatürk was not an outright atheist but a deist who believed in a rational theology, denying the absolute truth of revealed religions. For tactical reasons, at the beginning of his political career he recognized Islam as the latest and most perfect of all religions; this declaration, however, equated Islam with the natural religion he fancied.
Kemalism (or Atatürkism, in more recent terminology) arose after his death as an indirect criticism of his successor. It was used by the CHP to oppose the Demokrat Parti's concessions to believers, for example, lifting the ban on calls to prayer in Arabic. In all three military coups that marred democratic development in Turkey from 1960 on, Atatürkism was used as a pretext.
All Turkish political parties in the aftermath of 1960 paid lip service to Kemalism/Atatürkism, defining it, however, according to their own tastes. The junta of 1980 hailed it as the sole true path, obligatory for everyone. The constitution of 1982, still in effect, refers in its preamble to nationalism, the conception of the “immortal leader and unequalled hero, the founder of the republic,” and to his guiding principles.
Though there is an immense literature on Kemalism, Western authors in general assume a paternalistic (good-enough-for-the-East) attitude of appraisal. Most of the indigenous books on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk are sheer hagiography; there is, however, a novel current in Turkey evaluating his ideology more critically. See, for instance, Levent Köker, Modernlesme, Kemalizm ve Demokrasi (Istanbul, 1990), and Taha Parla, The Social and Political Thought of Ziya Gökalp (Leiden, 1985). The latter author has also begun a series of books aimed at a critical rereading of the “Official Sources of Political Culture in Turkey.”
Some of the most recent materials include Soner Cagaptay, Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk? (London: Routledge, 2006); Muammer Kaylan, The Kemalists: Islamic Revival and the Fate of Secular Turkey (Prometheus Books, 2005); Esra Ozyurek, Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey. (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006); and Taha Parla and Andrew Davison, Corporatist Ideology in Kemalist Turkey: Progress or Order? (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2004).