MUSTAFA AKYOL > What if Atatürk had never existed?

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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.


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Mike Newman

11/25/2012 8:31:38 PM

If Atatürk had never existed, God would have to create another one. But it would take for God for a very long time. By then Europeans would have massacred almost all the Turks in Anatolia and other places Ottomans ruled. They already massacred many millions of them in the wars to destroy Ottoman empire during its last two centuries. Ataturk has been a real gift from God to Turks, a once in a many millenniums kind of gift.

runner runnerup

11/23/2012 9:40:50 AM

Mrs. Turk Oz, you wrote; ´When he was done brought us a paper and it said " when you speak you only repeating what you know but when you listen you may learn something" ´ Tthat´s why the Turkish Education System still is more about memorizing than about education. These Executive programs are more about certificates on the office-walls than about developing skills. You should be careful, when trying to label Mr. Aykol; every society needs persons like him for reflection and feedback.


11/17/2012 9:40:33 AM

I WILL IDOLIZE ANYONE WHO HAD THE TEMERITY TO THINK AND UTTER THE FOLLOWING SENTENCES: I am not leaving a spiritual legacy of dogmas, unchangeable petrified directives. My spiritual legacy is science and reason. Teachers are the one and only people who save nations Following the military triumph we accomplished by bayonets, weapons and blood, we shall strive to win victories in such fields as culture, scholarship, science and economics. Our true mentor in life is science.

Geir Fugleberg

11/17/2012 8:52:22 AM

Nobody can claim that Atatürk was a perfect democrat by contemporary standards,but that aplys to almost all of his contemporarys in the period between the wars. Atatürks aceivement was ground shattering.-a total revolution of a backward society,this acheivement was carried thru with a minimum of illegality and bloodshed compared to comparable historical proseses anywhere else. The pride that turks should feel for having had this man among you,like the shame for smearing his memory is unmeasurabl

Hasan Kutlay

11/16/2012 10:56:38 PM

Oz_man, why shouldn't I be grateful to a national hero who was the leader of the Turkish independence war? This part of the world is not like cozy superpower America. This part of the world has suffered and continues to suffer from the brutality of foreign suppression and from wars over territory. A national hero who stood succesfully against that, is valuable in this part of the world. Go and try to criticize Ben Gurion or Gandhi and see what reaction u will get from Israeli & Indians.

mara mcglothin

11/16/2012 5:50:27 AM

Oz_MAN While I think Washington and Jefferson were great men, they aren't in the same league as Ataturk! I am an American and while I am thankful for the many statesmen that created the democracy we call America, it is nothing like the achievements of Ataturk in such a short time. I wish he had lived longer. So I was never "indoctrinated" to believe Ataturk was Superman, I do believe that he will have an ever lasting place in history whether you acknowledge it or not.

Hasan Kutlay

11/15/2012 3:56:00 PM

Turks/Muslims are backward and i will say why, look at them: some like Akyol live in the 19th century & get their inspiration from the 19th century or want to go back to that momentum, some secular muslims live in the 1930's, some live in the year 1453, another one still lives in the 7th century. ALL backward. And look at Europeans: no one looks backward, gets inspirations from past or preoccupied with past, nor still lives or wants the past back.

Oz_man .

11/15/2012 3:00:08 PM

I tell you what is a laught thinking Ataturk is Superman and assuming that Turks should be greatful go him. Do Americans idolize Washington or have statues of him in their homes? Turkey was formed in spite of Ataturk not because of Ataturk.

Hasan Kutlay

11/15/2012 3:58:55 AM

The ottomans in 19th century conducted top down social engineering modernist reforms, just like ataturk. Never heard u complaining about them becoz of their topdown social engineering approach. Ataturk installed a one party system, but definitelly not a backward regime. He continued modernist reforms of late ottomans. he wasnt backward, he was an enlighted man, u r backward and reactionary. U life in the past,want the past back. Progress means for you going back to history.u r backward, not he.

Ahmet Mesela

11/14/2012 10:02:57 PM

I wonder who employs Akyol to write anti-Atatürk articles all the time? If Atatürk didn't exist, Turkish people would be under foreign rule because the Sultans Akyol adores so much betrayed the Turkish people. Turkey, as we know it, would not exist. What kind of question is "What if Atatürk didn't exist?" .... Don't you know how much he has done for Turkey? Stop writing garbage please...
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