Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Struggle for Independence & Modern Turkey

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

After securing independence in the 1920s, Ataturk initiated political and social reforms which remain the cornerstones of Turkey’s secular state.

Born in 1881, Kemal Mustafa is acknowledged as the founder of modern Turkey. His later name, Ataturk, or father of the Turks, reflects a cult persisting to this day. Kemal Ataturk’s image is everywhere from bank notes and schoolbooks to hotels and shops.

Istanbul’s airport and the Bosporus oldest bridge are named after him and monuments and statues pop up in every city. Most impressive is the vast Ataturk mausoleum in Ankara where many come to reflect on the visionary leader who gave them national pride and identity.

Mustafa Kemal and Struggle for Independence, Modern Turkey History

The bright blue-eyed Mustafa enrolled in military school, originally without his family’s consent, and promptly rose to the top in World War I, as Turkey fought on the German side. A brilliant military officer, he resigned following the defeat and subsequent carving up of the Ottoman Empire by western powers.

Determined to secure Turkey’s interests and independence, Kemal Mustafa raised an army against allied forces. The Lausanne Treaty was signed on 24th July 1923 and in October of that year, the republic was proclaimed with Mustafa Kemal as first president. From then on, the former commander advocated ‘peace at home and peace in the world’ while resolving conflicts through diplomatic means.

Kemal Ataturk and Political Reforms

As a young man, Kemal secretly read enlightened French philosophers such as Voltaire or Rousseau, dreaming of a democratic and secular state on western lines. At the age of 24, he was temporarily exiled to Damascus for publishing illegal papers.

The long awaited independence brought free elections to the General National Assembly and for the president, a renewed determination to establish the supremacy of civil government over religious institutions. Sufi orders, including dervish lodges, were closed or converted into museums and a ‘unification of education’ was set up on civil lines. Religious practice and Islamic schools continued but had to recognize the supremacy of the state.

Waves of opposition followed, culminating in a failed assassination plot in Izmir in 1926. The president stood firm and Turkey remains a secular state to this day.

Ataturk’s Social Reforms, Education and Women in Turkey

Having achieved the separation of church and state, Ataturk continued his efforts towards education, introducing the easy to learn Latin alphabet. Anyone aged 4 to 40 was required to attend classes and it is said that Ataturk himself travelled across the country with blackboard and chalk. Literacy rose by 60% in two years.

Once discouraged by Islam, mixed social gatherings became fashionable and women received equal rights in matters of divorce and inheritance. They were granted the vote in 1934 and claimed 18 MPs the following year. Polygamy was abolished, European dress was encouraged as a sign of progress and the fez banned as a relic of the old empire.

No longer seen as idolatry, arts and culture prospered with new museums, research into Anatolia’s ancient civilizations and some revival of the Turkish language, exemplified by the translation of the Koran.

The first Turkish bank and early developments in infrastructure and industry are also attributed to Ataturk, recently praised by visiting US president Barak Obama as the founder of a ‘strong and secular democracy’.