Atatürk: The struggle for the soul of his country

| Staff Columnist

Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey by Kemal Atatürk on Oct. 29, 1923, the country has been fully entrenched in the Kemalist legacy. In 1928, the Turkish Constitution was amended to remove the phrase, “The religion of the State is Islam,” thereby making secularism the de jure replacement within the country. Four years earlier, Atatürk and the National Assembly abolished the institution of the caliphate, which had existed for longer than four centuries, since 1517. While extremely unlikely, according to some the National Assembly theoretically has the power to reinstate the caliphate, however others heavily dispute this.

Within the past 50 years, in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, the military has ousted four governments that it viewed as detrimental to the secular character of the state enshrined in the constitution. In the 86-year history of the republic, this strictly secular ideology has permeated all areas of public life, including but not limited to the education system, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and above all the armed forces. Today, however, there is increased tension, culminating with the arrests of several high-ranking military officers. According to an article in the New York Times, “The detention of top military officers in Turkey last [month] was nothing less than a quiet piece of history. The military, long considered untouchable in Turkey, was pushed from its political pedestal with startling finality.”

Not only has the military been the guardian of Atatürk’s legacy, it has also consistently been viewed by the Turkish people as the most trusted institution within the country. However, in a critical election in November 2002, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) won a plurality with 34 percent of the popular vote. Due to parliamentary rules, this plurality became a supermajority with 66 percent of seats in the National Assembly, allowing for single-party rule, rarely seen before.

The identity of the Republic of Turkey has been heavily contested during the past seven years of AKP rule, as this political party has reached out to traditional Islamic ideology, as well as to more conservative Muslims, wishing to grant religion a bigger place in public life. As the BBC noted in 2006, “[Head] scarves are banned in civic spaces and official buildings, but the issue is deeply divisive for the country’s predominantly Muslim population, as two-thirds of all Turkish women—including the wives and daughters of the prime minister and president—cover their heads.” It is important to note that the European Court of Human Rights upheld this restriction in November 2005, by a vote of 16-1, describing the Islamic headscarf, within the Turkish context, as “antagonistic to both secularism and gender equality.”

In the end, this is a struggle for the soul of the Republic of Turkey. Atatürk sincerely believed that westernization was the only way to fully modernize; for his time, he was remarkably prescient in his observations. As the renowned writer Andrew Mango stated most appropriately, “Atatürk’s message is that East and West can meet on the ground of universal secular values and mutual respect, that nationalism is compatible with peace [and] that human reason is the only true guide in life.”

Isaac is a sophomore in Arts & Sciences. He can be reached via e-mail at iamon@artsci.wustl.edu.