What if Atatürk had never existed?
Whenever I write a piece criticizing Turkey’s Kemalist heritage, I receive a lot of angry comments and even outright hate mail. The same thing happened after my latest column titled, “Dismantling Kemalism: One More Step.” Various commentators, mostly Kemalist Turks, bashed me for being ungrateful to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founder, whom I should have praised enthusiastically. “You owe Atatürk to Allah,” one gentleman put it succinctly, “and everything else to Atatürk.”
This is, of course, the official and common Turkish narrative in Turkey. And although I do have respect for Atatürk for various reasons, especially his leadership in Turkey’s War of Liberation, I believe that all this deification is irrational and counterfactual.
Let me explain why. And do this by imagining what Turkey would be like if Atatürk had never existed.
First, had there been no Atatürk, Turkey’s War of Liberation (1919-1922) would still have happened, despite the official narrative that ties it to nothing but the “Supreme Leader’s” genius. In the aftermath of World War I, when parts of Anatolia were occupied by allies, various committees “to defend the rights,” including armed units, were set up by the locals to resist. Moreover, other military heroes, such as Kazım Karabekir, were already determined to fight for the freedom of the country. In fact, they were the ones that organized the famous Erzurum Congress of 1919, which Atatürk joined later and in which the War of Liberation was ignited.
Atatürk, to be sure, became the leader of the whole war effort, and did a great job for which I am grateful indeed as a Turk. But it was a whole nation’s struggle, and it would have been carried out somehow.
The more popular arguments in favor of the you-owe-everything-to-Atatürk narrative are the ones about “the creation of modern Turkey.” Accordingly, had Atatürk and his iron-fisted regime (1925-38) not existed, Turkey, which is arguably the most developed of all Muslim nations today, would be yet another Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Afghanistan.
Well, my take is that Turkey was already much more modernized than these other Muslim countries much before Atatürk. The Ottoman Empire had initiated a modernization process way back in the 18th century. With the Tanzimat (Reform) Edict of 1839, a whole new era began with limited powers of the sultan, enhanced individual rights, economic liberalism and democratic institutions. With the Constitution of 1876, which was a pretty liberal text, the Ottoman Empire became a constitutional monarchy with an elected Parliament. That is why there was a multiparty democratic experience in the final decade of the empire, before Atatürk imposed a more backward single-party era.
Women’s status, a much-discussed issue, was already improving in the Ottoman era. Tanzimat reforms included modern schools for girls, and that was one reason why there was a Wahhabi Revolt against the empire in Mecca in 1856. The leader of the revolt, Sharif Abdulmuttalib, had claimed that “the Turks have become apostates,” by “allowing women to uncover their bodies, to stay separate from their fathers or husbands, and to have the right to divorce.”
The late Ottoman Empire had many notable achievements, such as railroads, telegraph lines, museums, universities, banks, theaters or the modern schools that raised Westernized intellectuals such as Atatürk himself.
Atatürk did not create a modern Turkey ex nihilo, in other words. Modern Turkey rather created him.