Revisiting Ataturk’s legacy: Bogeyman or Visionary?

Ceylan Ozbudak

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One of the successes of the Turkish AK Party over the last ten years is that we have become an international hot spot for tourism! In 2001, Turkey hosted 10 million tourists. In 2002, after the AKP was elected, tourism increased 28% from the preceding year. Since then, we have tripled the 2002 level: In 2011, 31.4 million people visited our shores, making Turkey the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world. In 2012, as protestors rocked Madrid, and rioters laid waste to Athens, Istanbul was a flower garden of chattering children from Tokyo, solemn young men from Jeddah, laughing lovers from Lisbon, sightseers from LA --- all of whom were delighted to enjoy this place. Among these visitors were also the Arabs, our dear brothers in Islam, who, like everyone else, are drawn to the sea and the sun which drenches our southern shore; and also to Istanbul, the queen of the Mediterranean basin, and the seat of the old Caliphate.

But there is a difference between those who come to us from other lands and our Arab guests: Sometimes, when our Arab friends see the busts and portraits of the founder of our republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, they feel aggrieved for the loss of the Ottoman Empire, and they view him as the cause of this loss. Since March 4, 1924 marks the date on which the Ottoman Caliph was abolished, this seems an opportune moment to correct this notion, and to celebrate the wise political choices we are enjoying in Turkey today.

Political choices

First: Atatürk did not end the Ottoman Empire. By 1924, when he formally abolished the office of the Caliph and gave the caliphate to Turkish Parliament, the victorious Allies of World War I had already parted out the remains of the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Versailles. Turkey was on the losing side of that war, and the Ottoman dominions were torn from their hands as a reward to the Arabs for their support against the Central Powers. After that partition, the Allies occupied Turkey, and they reduced it to a perpetual colony but for a war of independence, led by Atatürk, which led to the creation of our Turkish republic. So even before the office of Caliphate was abolished, Arabs didn’t recognize the Ottoman Caliphate and rebelled against it, left their Caliph alone in a world war. Legitimacy of the caliphate was already in question

Second: It is impossible to understand modern Turkey without recognizing the Reforms of Ataturk. Before the Atatürk reforms, the last two Caliphs of the Ottoman Empire embraced a repressive fundamentalism, in desperate attempts to consolidate their ebbing powers. In doing so, they isolated Turkey from the initial progress of Europe’s industrial age. In those days, had an Arab appeared in Western garb, they would have dragged him through the streets by their ties to execution. Of course, women were also subjugated to ignorance by illiteracy and that bigoted mindset of the late Ottoman era customs, which differ hugely from the previous eras, women were considered second class citizens.

Consequences to Islam?

In 1924, Turkey adopted a constitution which installed a unicameral parliament. In the ensuing decade, education of women was promoted. To the women of Turkey, Atatürk said: “Win for us the battle of education and you will do yet more for your country than we have been able to do. It is to you that I appeal. A nation that does not educate and empower half its population can only limp, not run."

What were the consequences to Islam? Well… 90 years later, Turkey is devoutly Muslim, and has more mosques per capita than any nation. What happened to our national life? Three weeks ago, a twitpic came across my phone from a friend in New York, which showed a photograph of women locking arms in a celebration of women’s rights. Who were these women? “Female Muslim parliamentarians from AKP + CHP join in dance against violence towards women.”

Where so much of the world is torn by strife between people of different creeds and ethnic origins, you can walk down the sidewalk in Ankara and see women adorned with the hijab, drinking coffee with Jewish friends, dressed in form fitting clothing. This is a diverse, happy land where Muslim brides hire Christian girls as seamstresses to sew gorgeous head scarves for their nuptials. And yet, sad to say, our Arab friends who visit Turkey for sea tourism very often, seem to forget that Atatürk is the reason all this came about!

But was Atatürk really against religion? Certainly, his political philosophy relegates religious devotion to the realm of private devotion. However, Atatürk personally held Islam in high esteem: He described the Qur’an as the “The Most Perfect Book,” and he studied it all his life.” He frequently called for Quran recitation in Dolmabahçe Palace. He had the Qur’an translated into Turkish and he ordered the commentary by Hamdi Yazır of Elmalı, which is still frequently used today. To encourage Qur’anic studies and to protect Turkish Islam from being infiltrated by Marxist thinking, he incorporated a Department of Religious Affairs into the state. To that same end, he also founded the Imam Hatip schools, which have educated many of the imams we are proud of today. In one of his speeches he says: “The Muslims of the whole world must follow the path shown by Muhammad (pbuh), the last prophet of Allah, and fully obey all his commands. All Muslims must take the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a role model and act like him; they must obey all the commandments of Islam. Because only in this way can people be happy and regenerated.”

Speaking of the Imam Hatip schools, I am reminded of what happened to a friend of mine during a visit to Turkey. He has lived in several Arab countries and speaks Arabic. One day, he went to pray at a mosque in one of the conservative parts of Turkey, and he was very disappointed to be greeted by an imam who was clean-shaven and wearing “western clothing”. ‘Is this the man who is going to give the sermon and lead the prayer?’ he thought? What my friend then said was: ‘Then that imam opened his mouth and began reciting the Qur’an. He spoke beautifully! It was obvious that this man was well educated in Quran recitation. Suddenly, I suddenly realized that it was I who needed to rethink my attitude towards Turkish Muslims.’

Ataturk’s political reforms created a political climate for an Islam which was sanitized of all the burdensome customs which had almost nothing to do with the teachings of our Prophet as preserved in the Qur’an.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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