Turkish History: Kemalism
by Mitchell Abidor

Mustapha Kemal Atatürk and Kemalism

When Mustapha Kemal led the Turkish armies to victory over the British-backed Greeks and preserved Turkey’s territorial integrity in the 1919-1923 War of Independence, he was perfectly placed as a popular hero to assume power in post-Ottoman Turkey. And once he did so he made changes as revolutionary as any in the post-World War I world.

Kemalism is, like fascism and Bolshevism, a direct outgrowth of the war, but it is sui generis. Though fascism and communism had obvious affects on the daily life of the citizens of Italy and the USSR, they aimed first and foremost at changing the social economic, and political structures of the country. Mustapha Kemal on the other hand, aimed his measures at changing the details of daily life in order to then completely change Turkish society. Class structures remained intact, but life was made new.

Though there were officially six principles of Kemalism (republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism, secularism, and attachment to the Revolution) to all intents and purposes there were three: secularism, modernism, and nationalism, which Ataturk combined in unique ways, the elements sometimes blended, sometimes in seeming contradiction yet remaining internally coherent. Kemal’s genius was in welding these elements into a revolutionary doctrine that he was able to employ to change Turkish society in ways that were almost unimaginable.

The first arm of Kemalism was secularism, and upon assuming power he almost immediately dismissed parliament’s imam, saying, “We do not need such things [prayers] here. You may perform them in a mosque.” All religious bureaus of the government were closed as well, and finally the title of caliph was abolished and members of the royal house banished from Turkey. In doing all this Ataturk established a rule that has remained central to Kemalism ever since: that religion has no role in the Turkish polity. Mustapha Kemal was an admirer of the French concept of laicité, (and well before the French government did so he imposed a ban on headscarves in public places) and he applied these secularist principles with uncompromising rigor.

As in the war on the fez.

Though originally worn by Mediterranean sailors, the fez had become a symbol of Muslim piety. And so Ataturk banned it, starting by ordering civil servants to wear Western headgear, and causing an uproar himself by wearing a Panama hat on a journey to the Turkish hinterlands.

The symbolism of the banning of the fez was obvious to all, just as the banning of the headscarf has been in France: religion would no longer be a visible part of Turkish life, and the reaction on the part of the religious was furious. Mustapha Kemal did not budge, and his revolutionary Independence Tribunals went out into the countryside to enforce the ban and quell rebellion, going so far as to execute the recalcitrant.

The war on the fez leads to the second element of Kemalism, modernism, or as Mustapha Kemal termed it, “civilization.” The fez represented all that was old-fashioned and retrograde. The Panama hat was of the moment, and Ataturk intended to drag Turkey immediately and completely into what he considered the modern.

Reversing the course taken by the great French Revolution, which developed a republican calendar replacing the Gregorian, Mustapha Kemal imposed the latter, abolishing the religious-based calendars in use. Not only were dates changed but even the telling of time was overturned, the 24-hour clock being adopted in place of a clock based on the hours from sunset. In May 1928 the Arabic numerical system was abolished, replaced by the Indian. Even popular music was swept up in the Kemalist wave: Turkish music was banned from the radio airwaves, and western music imposed both on the radio and in the conservatories. Finally, in 1934 last names were imposed on a populace that had none, and it was then that Mustapha Kemal became Atatürk, “Father Turk,” a name belonging to him alone, not even to the other members of his family.

In the summer of 1928 a resolution was passed stating: “To deliver the nation from ignorance the only course is to abandon the Arabic letters, which are not suited to the national language.” On November 1, 1928 a law was passed establishing the new Turkish alphabet employing Latin letters with diacritic marks, a law that took effect just a few days later. The law not only prohibited books written in Ottoman script, but even mandated that all private correspondence be written using the new alphabet starting June 1, 1929. Atatürk didn’t only recommend and support these measures; he traveled the country teaching the use of the new alphabet.

Turkish writing was now brought into sync with that of most of the western world, but in doing so there were a couple of serious unintended – or perhaps intended – consequences: Turks were now cut off from their own past, unable to read documents from the Ottoman centuries. Even Atatürk’s early writings – including his most important writing, the Nutuk, his six-day speech spelling out the course of his career and the Revolution – were lost in this fog.

This reform is directly tied to the final element of Kemalism, nationalism.

Not content with abolishing the Ottoman alphabet, Mustapha Kemal fought against Ottoman Turkish. “We are going to defeat Ottoman. Turkish is going to be a language as free and as independent as the Turkish nation.” The fate of the language and the nation were one and the same, and in order to raise the Turkish nation to its deserved place it had to be purged of the artificial accretions onto its language from Arabic and Persian. Commissions and congresses examined the language, removing words with Arabic or Persian roots and replacing them with neologisms of Turkish origin. And as with everything else Atatürk did, the reform was applied immediately and applied with rigor. Just as the fez had been a visual invasion of Turkish public space by religion, muezzin’s calls had now be done in Turkish rather than Arabic. Atatürk in this way established not only the primacy of Turkish; he also established the primacy of the state over religion, its ability to impose its will on that counter-power.

Language reform was also an element in a less attractive part of the nationalist program: the assumed superiority of the Turks. For Atatürk Turkish was not only a language, it was the original language, as was put forth in the Sun Language Thesis. Ancient Turks supposedly looked up at the sun, said “Aa,” and human speech began. Atatürk was intimately involved in this entire endeavor, participating in congresses, holding meetings at his home, and even developing loopy etymologies: he is supposed to have found Turkish roots for the words Amazon (Ama uzun – But it’s long!) and Niagra (Ne Yagora – what tumult.) Ridiculed by experts and since abandoned, it was nevertheless dear to Ataturk and he felt it essential to his revolutionary enterprise.

This linguistic national superiority was part and parcel of the national superiority Mustapha Kemal granted the Turks. The theories of the little-known 19th century Polish émigré convert to Islam Mustapha Celaleddine, which through comparative philology proved the centrality of the Turks to western civilization were expanded on, and the Turks were now viewed as the inventors, the source, of western civilization.

It is this final element that rescues Mustapha Kemal from any accusation of his suffering from a national inferiority complex. Yes western ways, dress, and music were better than the Turkish, but as his linguistic and historical theories demonstrated, in imitating them the Turks were doing nothing but adopting ways that would always have been theirs had they not been led astray by Arabs, Persians, and Islam. Turkey, for Atatürk, was a western country that didn’t know it was one. Kemalism made Turkey what it should have been. What it still is.