Kemal Ataturk, Revolutionary and Founder of Modern Turkey

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Mustafa Kemal’s ambition was to liberate Turkey from ancient beliefs which he believed made it backward and prevented it from joining the modern world.

Kemal Ataturk, an army officer born in Salonika in 1881, attained the chance to realize his ambition after 1918, when the Turks were defeated in World War One, and the victors, Britain and France, planned to set about dismembering the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

Mustafa Kemal’s Harsh Methods

Kemal vowed to prevent them and he was not fussy about the means he used: they included skulduggery of virtually every kind. First, he swept aside the timid Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet VI, who fled the Turkish capital, Constantinople, on November 1, 1922, convinced that he was going to be assassinated by Kemal’s personal band of thugs.

Kemal’s next step was to bully into silence the opposition of the Turkish parliament before declaring Turkey a republic on October 29, 1923, with himself as its first president. On March 3, 1924, it was the turn of the Turkish religious leader, Caliph Abdul Mejid, to be bundled out of the country after Kemal had manufactured “evidence” that he was plotting treason against the state.

Kemal Delivers a Series of Shocks

The summary expulsion of the Sultan and the Caliph, both of them revered as semi-divine, caused an enormous furore. However, the shocks Kemal had in store proved even more traumatic for they struck directly at the habits and ideas that had been central to everyday Turkish life for many centuries.

His particular targets were the theory and practise of Islam which he viewed as obstacles to the “westernization” of Turkey and its people. However minor, nothing that did that, Kemal resolved, would be allowed to survive.

For example, after 1925, Kemal decreed that the Turks were to discard their traditional dress – baggy trousers, embroidered jackets and fezzes – and start to wear European-style suits, shirts, ties and hats. This was virtual heresy to the devout Turkish Muslim, for the President was not only demanding a change of wardrobe, but a change in religious belief.

The Notorious Headgear Law

Traditional Turkish dress and in particular the brimless fez, had long ago been adopted as a deliberate sign differentiating Muslims from the detested Christian “infidel” of Europe.

The idea that Turks should now dress like Christians produced an uproar of violent protest and, as was fast becoming routine, government reaction was brutal in the extreme. Strong-arm bands of riot-breakers, specially picked by Kemal himself, broke up the crowds and arrested the ringleaders. Many were hanged, many more were forced into hiding.

Traditional Laws for Women

The furore was even more intense after Kemal took steps to emancipate women who, for centuries, had been considered congenitally inferior to men. As a result, women were treated in ways that made this lowly status evident.

If, for whatever reason, men failed to control their women as they were expected to do, this reflected badly on their own honor. If only for this last reason, male reactions were brutal in the extreme.

The reforms were, of course, intended to free women from the constraints of the past, but in the event, it proved dangerous, and sometimes fatal, for western habits and forms of dress to become available in the new Turkey of President Mustafa Kemal.

Brutal Punishments

Women were thrashed with whips for the immodesty of unveiling their faces in public, failing to cover their hair or for wearing cosmetics, short skirts and high heels.

Parents forecast divine retribution for daughters or other female relatives who defied the limitations placed on education for women and sought to study for the professions, or undertook jobs in business companies.

And the more conservative-minded were utterly horrified when, in 1935, seventeen women were elected as members of the Turkish parliament. The President, however, made no bones about his own response to these extreme conservative reactions. When the seventeen arrived to take up their seats in the parliament, he was there in person to welcome them.

From his own viewpoint, this was a very gratifying occasion, a sure sign that his ruthless will to reform was producing the results he most ardently desired.

Twelve Years of Thoroughgoing Reforms

By this time, the struggle between the zealous Kemal and the reluctant Turks had lasted twelve disputatious years and there was no doubt about who was winning the dispute.

During that time, Turkey had acquired most of the trappings of a modern, western state, including the Gregorian calendar, the Latin instead of the Arabic alphabet, Western-style codes of law, health, hygiene and welfare services, scientific agricultural techniques and colleges of adult education where Kemal, in his favorite role of teacher, participated in instructing the illiterate how to read.

In addition, Kemal has also introduced surnames, something previously unknown in Turkey, choosing one for himself that typified his own concept of the role he had played in Turkey’s transformation: he became Ataturk, “Father of the Turks”


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  2. Atillasoy, Yuksel: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: First President and Founder of the Turkish Republic (New York, NY: Overlook, 2002) ISBN-10: 1585670111/ISBN-13: 978-1585670116