Amb. Baki Ilkin Deputy Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry
President of the Atatürk Society of America,
The Members of ASA,
Ladies and Gentleman,
I am very pleased to be back in Washington and to have the opportunity to address Turkish Americans and American friends of Turkey once again. Although I seem to have missed the Cherry Blossom time, the mere sight of this beautiful city is always a stimulant for the mind and the soul! But most of all, I am very happy to be reunited with many good friends that I have made while I was here.
I want to thank the President of the Atatürk Society of America, Mr. Camc¹gil, for organizing this meeting and inviting me to give an address on Atatürk. I am also grateful for the special award the Society has kindly bestowed upon me and my wife. We will cherish it as a constant reminder of the wonderful work done by members of this Society as well as other Turkish Americans to promote Turkish-American friendship and to keep Atatürk’s memory alive in the United States.
The date of May 19 holds a special significance for Turks. It is the day in 1919 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk arrived in the port city of Samsun on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, to launch the War of Independence against the powers which had invaded Turkey at the end of the First World War. It is also the date Atatürk has later adopted as his own birthday. At the same time, May 19 can be regarded as the turning point in Turkish history when Turks started becoming fully aware of their nationhood. Accordingly, this special memorial day has since been celebrated by Turks, both at home and abroad, as a tribute to Atatürk. It is therefore, a great privilege for me to be able to share some thoughts regarding the founder and the first President of the Republic of Turkey on the eve of such a meaningful day.
From a broader perspective, the landing of Mustafa Kemal in Samsun can also be viewed as the birth date of Turkish democracy. Attempts at democratization in the past had been based on the balance of power between the Sultan and representatives elected for rather than by the people. The idea that the people were the sole source of sovereignty developed with Atatürk’s arriving in Anatolia and his starting to organize a national resistance. It did not happen all of a sudden, either. A struggle had to be waged to establish the will of the people as the fundamental pillar of the new state to be created.
The path to Turkish independence was marked by many important milestones. Atatürk played a crucial personal role in all of them. The Erzurum Congress of July 23, 1919 accepted a 10-point declaration, which aimed at preserving the unity of the country. Another Congress held in Sivas in September that year confirmed the resolutions adopted at Erzurum. Among the most important conclusions of both meetings was a decision to reject the mandate or protection of any foreign country. When elections were later held for the Ottoman Parliament in İstanbul, most of those elected were people who agreed with the decisions of the Erzurum and Sivas Congresses.
These developments are among the most important highlights of recent Turkish history. They are also turning points for Turkish democracy. When the news reached Ankara that the British had raided the Parliament in İstanbul on March 18, 1920 and that the parliament had dissolved itself, Atatürk invited those members of parliament who had not been arrested to Ankara, the place that was to be the seat of the Turkish Parliament and the center of Turkish democracy. On April 23, 1920, together with 232 representatives elected from different regions of the country, they participated in the first session of the Grand National Parliament of Turkey.
It was only three weeks back that the Ottoman Parliament in İstanbul had disbanded itself. Turkey was no longer willing to live without a parliament. More importantly, Turks had attained the consciousness of a nation. Even in those early days, Atatürk realized the importance of building a sense of nationhood as a prerequisite for establishing a contemporary state. Turkish intellectuals and thinkers had been seeking an identity since the second half of the 19th Century. What the Young Turks were after was a national spirit. With Atatürk Turkey completed this process much more rapidly, and the new Turkish state and Turkish democracy were established upon this national consciousness. In other words, the Turkish nation found its national identity with Atatürk.
Atatürk did not want to enter the War of Independence solely by relying on the support of commanders with whatever troops remained from the Ottoman Army. He conducted the war relying on the will, consent and political support of the people.
The will power of Mustafa Kemal and the members of the Grand National Assembly was not to be broken, even when the government in Istanbul, controlled by the British, sentenced Mustafa Kemal to death and sent troops for his capture. Nor was it extinguished when the Sheikh ül Islam (that is the top religious authority in İstanbul) declared all members of the resistance as enemies of Islam and issued a decree saying that it was the duty of all Muslims to kill the resistance fighters. Mustafa Kemal and his friends were confident, because they derived their power from the people and not from the Sultan. Actually most of the clergy had confidence in Mustafa Kemal and not in the Sheikh ül Islam in Istanbul.
On November 1, 1922, the Grand National Assembly abolished the sultanate. The Ottoman Empire, established in 1299, had come to an end. The empire that Western countries and Russia had tried so hard to destroy for centuries had been dissolved by the Turks themselves in order to establish a modern and contemporary state. Following the conclusion of the Lausanne Peace Treaty on July 24, 1923, the time had come to name the new state. Upon the suggestion of Mustafa Kemal, the Grand National Assembly proclaimed the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923.
From its very inception, the young Republic faced daunting challenges. As a result of constant wars that lasted for almost 10 years, a large portion of the population of the country had been lost, as many as four million people according to some estimates. The surviving population was exhausted, resources were depleted and whatever industrial base the Ottomans had managed to create was destroyed. The country’s international trade was down to one third of its level of the previous decade. By the end of the War of Independence in 1923, only a quarter of Turkey’s cultivable land was being used for agriculture.
When Atatürk established the Republic, the educational standards of the country were also very poor. In 1927, the literacy rate was only 10.7 percent. For women, this rate was only 4.8 percent. Then, an unparallelled education campaign was initiated. Adopting the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic facilitated the spread of education. By the time of Atatürk’s death in 1938, the literacy rate had more than doubled.
But history shows that high standards in education do not always guarantee peace and prosperity. Positive, responsible and constructive leadership is also essential. In particular, the wars that took place in the first half of the 20th century among countries with well-educated people demonstrate that increased education is not sufficient to create a high level of civilization in a society. As Churchill said, “the leaders of those countries with the best-educated people have turned Europe into hell.” While Atatürk relied on an uneducated, mostly illiterate people and on their common sense and high values when establishing a new republic, some leaders in Europe were forcing their well-educated people to live under repressive regimes.
The scope and depth of the reforms instituted in Turkey in the span of ten years is truly breathtaking. No other country on Earth has ever attempted to achieve so many profound changes in political, economic, cultural and social spheres and none succeeded in completely transforming itself within such a short time. The abolition of the monarchy and the caliphate (that is the religious leadership of the Muslim world), the banning of religious lodges that had impeded progress for centuries, the secularization of the society, the revolutions in the fields of education and dressing, the switch to the Latin alphabet and the Gregorian calendar, the introduction of Western units of weight and other measurements, the adoption of modern laws based on the European models, the granting of suffrage to women, as well as other reforms, raised Turkey into the ranks of the most advanced contemporary nations, and, as in the case of women’s rights, even put it ahead of them.
The reforms of the Atatürk period were indeed revolutionary both in content and implication. They were far more advanced than all the reforms the Ottoman Empire had tried to achieve since the early 19th century. When compared to other nations, it is difficult to find a similar example in recent history that was so comprehensive and profoundly influential on the government as well as on the lifestyle of the people. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy said; “It is without a doubt that another example can’t be shown indicating greater successes than the birth of the Turkish Republic and ever since then Atatürk’s and Turkey’s broad and deep reforms undertaken as well as the confidence of a nation in itself.”
Atatürk regarded Western civilization as a system of values in which there were no religious or cultural barriers. The countries that aspired to modernize themselves could and should be able to join freely. He worked constantly to prepare Turkey for this world of contemporary civilization. The reforms of Atatürk were, in effect, a project of civilization. In a broad sense, Atatürk’s revolution was a cultural one. He even said that the foundation of the Turkish Republic would be culture.
Allow me to quote from Andrew Mango’s authoritative biography of Atatürk which came out in recent years: “Atatürk’s aim was not imitation but participation in a universal civilization, which, like the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, he saw as the onward march of humanity, regardless of religion and the divisions it caused. He believed that the struggle for genuine independence should be waged by each nation for itself in the name of an overarching secular ideal of progress common to all, and therefore leaving no room for antagonism towards the most advanced nations. He was an anti-imperialist only in the sense that his ideal was a universal commonwealth of civilized people. Above all, he was a builder, the greatest nation-builder of modern times.”
In addition to being an outstanding soldier and a skillful nation-builder, Atatürk was also a first-rate statesman, with an exceptional record of success. His biggest achievement was the reversal of the unacceptable peace settlement known as the Treaty of Sevres that was imposed on the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The powers that emerged victorious from the First World War were determined to sign yet another harsh treaty with the Turks, similar to the one they had attained at Sevres on August 10, 1920. However, the Turkish National War, under the leadership of Atatürk, achieved not only a military victory but also a glowing diplomatic success. Indeed, the Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed three years later, rendered the Sevres Treaty null and void, consolidated Turkey’s independence and sovereignty within its current borders and enabled it develop in peace and stability.
Both during and after the War of Independence, Atatürk argued for and implemented a realistic foreign policy. He denounced pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism as adventurist and self-defeating policies. Unlike some contemporary leaders, he refused to be tempted by expansionist or irredentist urges. While he freed Turkey from the yoke of capitulations and secured the independence and sovereignty of his nation, he also saw great benefit in maintaining close cooperation with the West, yet this time on the basis of balance and equality.
All of these facts also demonstrate that Atatürk was a man of unusual foresight, intellect, wisdom and charisma. One of Atatürk’s contemporaries, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, had this to say about him: “The centuries rarely produce a genius. It is our bad luck that the great genius of our era was granted to the Turkish nation.”
In the words of Lord Kinross, who is the author of the first comprehensive English-language biography of Atatürk, “Atatürk was one of the greatest statesman of everyone who has lived and died throughout history…He would act beyond himself by seeing 20-30 years into the future.”
At the same time, he had enormous courage and stamina. On many occasions, he stared death in the face and was wounded in battle while personally commanding his troops at the front lines.
Perhaps his most outstanding quality, however, was his ability to develop an ambitious yet achievable vision for the future of his country, which was in turn driven by his profound love for and trust in the Turkish nation.
It can be safely argued that Atatürk was the most successful of the 20th century leaders, who attempted to change the destiny of their peoples. Of all the revolutions of the past century, only the one in Turkey achieved its goals, and it still maintains its dynamism and vigor. Of all the revolutionary leaders only Atatürk still continues to beacon as a guiding light and show the way forward for his people. Only his name is still respectfully remembered by his own nation and others around the world. The reason for this longevity is simple: Atatürk’s ideology was one of humanity and civilization; his guide was intellect, logic, knowledge and science, and the source of his power was the will of his people to rise to the ranks of the most advanced nations.
All of Atatürk’s reforms are very important, but perhaps the most important of all was the reform in democracy. The right to sovereigny that had been in the hands of a dynasty for more than 600 years to the people now belonged to the people. It is also difficult to find another revolution which tried so hard to remain legitimate. Even under the most dificult conditions, Atatürk remained loyal to the principle of supremacy of law and legitimacy of the regime.
The Turkish nation did not leave him alone in this quest for democracy and modernization. With total conviction they adopted his reforms and embraced democracy. And they did not forget him, either. While some revolutionary leaders of the 20th century and those before them have long been forgotten, Atatürk’s legacy still remains a towering presence in modern Turkey. Every year, more and more people, including hundreds of thousands of children, visit his mausoleum in Ankara, to pay their respects.
Today, the Republic founded by Atatürk against great odds stands as strong as ever. This year, we will celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of modern Turkey, which has become an important regional power in its own right. The country that had entered the 20th century as the “sick man of Europe” has entered the 21st century as a powerful, industrialized and modern country boasting a young and well-educated population, a fully functional democracy, a fast growing economy, a strong army, and credentials that place it on a path towards European Union membership. We are constantly raising our standards in every field, and will continue to do so.
The Turkish nation will keep marching along the path of civilization that Atatürk laid before it. Because the legacy left by Atatürk is still cherished by the Turkish people as the strongest guarantee for its survival and progress. It is a legacy of enlightenment and humanism. A legacy of peace at home, peace in the world. A legacy of freedom, democracy and modernism. As a matter of fact, it is a universal recipe for any developing nation which wants to be part of the civilized and prosperous world. The Turks are keenly aware of it. And they will, as before, continue to protect, uphold and build upon Atatürk’s undying legacy.
Thank you very much.