Atatürk Society of America’s (ASA) twentieth anniversary is an opportune time to reflect on the current state of Atatürkism, because ASA stands for Atatürkism. Such reflection summarized below brings forth the need for civil society initiatives like ASA. ASA deserves well-earned congratulations for relentlessly disseminating Atatürkism.
I need to explain Atatürkism. I argue that Kemalism, the term used in academia and media, does not constitute a fair, comprehensive, and objective discourse about Atatürk. Kemalism, as a study of Ataturk’s style of leadership and his politics, is a very narrow and superficial approach to an understanding of his monumental work. Especially, when the term is used sometimes scornfully to represent one-man rule. It is unfortunate that the discourse did not develop on the concept, the reason, the purpose, shortly, the philosophy of what Atatürk accomplished or, at least, intended to accomplish. A true understanding of Atatürk’s work is through Atatürkism.
There should not be any doubt that Atatürk was motivated by the impoverished, humiliated, and exhausted conditions of his countrymen due to intermittent wars stretching over sixty five years, (beginning with the Crimean War in 1853 to the end of WWI in 1918, all caused by Russia’s and Britain’s expansionist policies). Disturbed by endless Ottoman concessions to the European powers and half-hearted modernization efforts in futile attempts to ward off European aggression, he fought for a fundamental change. He reasoned that Turks had to acquire at least the same knowledge and skills of the dominant powers, in order to regain national pride and peace. Progress for the objective of “joining the contemporary civilization”, meaning reaching the level of advanced societies, underlies all of his reasoning and actions. This is his political philosophy, this is Atatürkism.
Why then are we still in pursuit of Atatürkism eighty years after the Atatürkist reforms? Atatürk expected the people to desire progress naturally, because dignity is a human trait. Accordingly, he attributed all the liberation and reformation actions to the people, at every step of the way, even if those acts did not emanate from the public. It worked; with constant encouragement, Turks quickly took giant steps on route to progress during Atatürk’s time. However, after the extraordinary times of WWII which followed his demise, Turks started wavering during the fast pace of the new international post-war era, from 1945 to 1965. Religion was introduced in politics for seizing the votes of uneducated masses. Religious education became the nemesis of the Atatürkist philosophy, of progress. The gradual replacement of modern education with a religious one created pious generations that are unambitious, fatalistic, carefree, relying on mediocre leaders, and faulting countries that pulled ahead of them (conspiracy theories, xenophobia). Education, domestic and foreign policies, economy, legal system, social peace all fell prey to devout generations that long for Ottomanism instead of aspiring new achievements. It was easy for the Turkish society to revert to the old times, since raising at least two modern generations to sustain a reform, to anchor it in the society, never materialized. The society mostly became unfit for modernization. Atatürk seeded an uncultivated land, a society unprepared for the benefits of progress.
Now, pre-reform conditions returned to Turkey, conditions reminiscent the ones caused by external wars of the Ottoman period referred to above, but self-inflicted this time by internal politics. Namely, a despotic leader rules the country with a police force (reminiscent of Sultan Abdulhamid) in contempt of laws and with corruption, the army and the economy are weakened, and minority insurgency is rampant. A good portion of citizens is systematically kept insensitive to ominous reality by the anodyne effect of religion imposed not only by officials but also by public pressure. The entire population is spectators to unfolding events to replace Atatürk’s name in the hearts of Turks with that of the current ruler. Turks do not rise against being ranked internationally very low in democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, civil society activism, scientific publications, technological innovations, and manufacturing (the Turkish economy’s recent upsurge is based on a simple and crude economy of construction and trade).
This state of affairs explains why we are in pursuit of Atatürkism. Since there will not be another Atatürk to pull the Turks out of the quagmire. Turks, individually, need to internalize Atatürkism, i.e. “progress towards joining the contemporary civilization”, and to this end, to adopt modern education and civil responsibility (to be not only a diplomate, but to be an informed, analytical, learned, enlightened individual). ASA strives for a resurgence of Atatürkism in Turkey, for the revival of a majority that looks forward to the laurels of the future, rather than to those of the ancient history. Liberal, and progressive Turks must rally behind ASA.
ASA’s cause was helped in the past by experienced politicians like Senator Robert Byrd, Newt Gingrich, and Secretary Chuck Hegel, and by world-renowned academics like Profs. Bernard Lewis, Leslie Lipson, Andrew Mango, Talat Halman, Behram Kursunoglu, and Türkan Saylan, to name a few. Speeches, lectures, panel discussions, and books by these prominent people helped disseminate Atatürk’s philosophy. I am lucky to have served once as President of ASA, thus been given the opportunity to partake in ASA’s laudable fight.
August 2015, sociopoliticalviews.blogspot.com (with permission)