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The Kemal Ataturk Story

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

The leader of the Turkish National Movement proved an inspiration globally, even among those who counted themselves his critics

Turkish general Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) became the hero of his nation after securing the Ottoman Turkish victory at the Battle of Gallipoli (1915), defeating the Entente Powers—Britain, France and Russia—who sought to weaken the Ottoman Empire by taking control of the Turkish straits during the First World War.

As leader of the Turkish National Movement, Ataturk dissolved the Turkish Khilafat and ended Turkey’s participation among the victorious Allied powers. This victory came to be known as the Turkish War of Independence. After that, he abolished the Ottoman Empire and founded the Turkish Republic in its place.

As the president of the newly formed Turkish Republic, Ataturk initiated a rigorous program of political, economic, and cultural reforms with the ultimate aim of building a modern, progressive and secular nation-state. He made primary education free and compulsory, opening thousands of new schools all over the country. He also introduced the Latin-based Turkish alphabet, replacing the old Ottoman Turkish alphabet. Turkish women received equal civil and political rights during Ataturk’s presidency. In particular, women were given voting rights in local elections in 1930 and a few years later, in 1934, full universal suffrage.

Secularism and Mustafa Kemal

His government carried out a policy of Turkification, trying to create a homogeneous and unified nation. Under Ataturk, non-Turkish minorities were pressured to speak Turkish in public; non-Turkish place-names and last names of minorities had to be changed to Turkish renditions. The Turkish Parliament granted him the surname Ataturk in 1934, which means “Father of the Turks”, in recognition of the role he played in building the modern Turkish Republic. He died on Nov. 10, 1938 in Istanbul, at the age of 57.

In his book Ottoman Turkey, Ataturk, and Muslim South Asia (OUP 2014), M. Naeem Qureshi tells the story of Ataturk with fascinating detail. For the Muslims of British India, Ottoman Turkey, with its pretense of being the last great Muslim power and claimant to the universal caliphate of Islam, had always held a special attraction. Whenever the Ottoman Empire was threatened by western encroachments, reverberations in Muslim India were prompt and intense. This pan-Islamic reaction reached its climax after the First World War when Allied statesmen gathered round the conference table to divide the severed limbs of the Ottoman Empire among themselves.

Mustafa Kemal inspires Jinnah

Thus began, in December 1918, the famous Khilafat movement in India that attempted to save Turkey from the ignominy of fragmentation. The movement—led originally by Abdul Bari, the head of the Farangi Mahal seminary in Lucknow, and two Delhi-based physician-politicians, Dr. M.A. Ansari and Hakim Ajmal Khan (1865-1927)—was born in the embryo of the All India Muslim League (founded in 1906). But, soon, a separate body known as the Central Khilafat Committee was formed in Bombay under a wealthy businessman, Seth Jan Muhammad Chotani, to concentrate solely on the Turkish issue. Mohamed Ali Jauhar and his elder brother, Shaukat Ali, the two firebrands who later took over the movement, were at that time in British captivity, undergoing the rigors of detention for their pan-Islamic exuberance since 1915.

In 1932, British author HC Armstrong (1892-1943) wrote his biography of Kemal Ataturk titled Grey Wolf. Its portrayal of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk almost created a diplomatic row between Turkey and Britain. But the impact of its sensationalist narrative was such that it immediately caught the imagination of the British public and became a bestseller. Four editions appeared within four months of its first publication and the demand never seemed to cease. Armstrong’s unrestrained tone was so attuned to the British taste of the 1930s that even Mohammad Ali Jinnah, later the founder of Pakistan and then living in London in self-exile, read Grey Wolf with much interest and talked about it for days with passion.

Armstrong presents young Mustafa Kemal as an “inherently thin-skinned”, “ill-natured” and “unpopular” loner with a tough constitution of unlimited vitality. He was never sentimental or romantic; he was rather oriental in his mentality. After getting a commission in the Ottoman army, he joined the revolutionary branch of the Vatan Party. Fundamentally he was a revolutionary, says Armstrong, with no respect for God, man or institution. For this, he was constantly kept under surveillance by the sultan but he mostly managed to elude his pursuers. Since he was a man of action, he did not appreciate the abstract notions of CUP [Committee of Union and Progress] leaders like Enver Pasha, Jemal Pasha, and Talat Pasha, whom he contemptuously dismissed as “puny little men, unfit to rule”. In turn, he was distrusted by them and was never initiated into their inner circle. Thus, when the Young Turk revolution took place in 1908 by CUP, Mustafa Kemal and his friends were purposely kept out.

Kemal emerges as leader

During the First World War, Turkey was on the German side but Mustafa Kemal wanted his country to remain neutral. The Istanbul triumvirate was pro-German and decided to push him out of the way. Enver sent him to southern Turkey under a German general. There Mustafa Kemal commanded and fought extremely well, and Armstrong praises him profusely for his military skill, his organizational ability, and his indomitable courage and tenacity of purpose.

After Istanbul was occupied by the Allied forces, Mustafa Kemal got the opportunity he was looking for—to organize resistance unhindered. The Greek occupation of Smyrna in May 1919, says Armstrong, was a clear signal that Turkey had been damned to ruination. Resistance was the only hope left. Kemal hurried out of the capital in time to escape the sultan’s change of mind. Armstrong is at his best when he tells us how Mustafa Kemal organized the national resistance against the Allies.

According to Armstrong, Mustafa Kemal’s greatest asset was his ability, charisma, and clarity of thought. To him, democracy was the rule of the many-headed, the muddle-headed, the fools; the only sound form of government was the absolute rule of one man. None, not even those who stood by him in the early days of the revolution, escaped his scathing criticism. “He sneered at and ripped to pieces,” says Armstrong, “all the accepted ideals and morals. Morals were a cover for hypocrites or the folly of fools; ideals were dust in the mouth.”

Subsequently, Armstrong takes a sudden somersault and, without mincing words, shows Mustafa Kemal as someone “who had no fine feelings and no loyalty to men, ideas or institutions. He was more animal than man: the wolf”. Hard, without sentiment or scruples, without morals or guiding principles of conduct except his animal desires. His “mood decided his outlook; he was more often ill-natured than pleasant, and, if displeased, harsh and merciless.”

Turkey and Kemal’s health

Armstrong is one of the few writers who examine the relationship between Kemal’s ill-health and politics. And this is his forte. His insight into the leader’s deteriorating health and its impact is vivid: “His doctor repeatedly warned him that he must go slow on work and drink less, and lead a regular life with someone to look after him; he was living on his nerves: even his energy and the stout constitution inherited from clean-living parents could not stand the strain indefinitely. The old kidney trouble came back repeatedly. He suffered from malaria, which came up from the marshes round Angora (Ankara). It was Fikriye, a distant relative who had been entrusted to his care, who saved him from a complete breakdown. The second woman in his life, Latife, an upper-class, educated girl, who replaced Fikriye and whom Kemal eventually married, but he allowed neither of them to have any control over him.

“The drink,” maintains Armstrong, “stimulated him, gave him energy, but [also] increased his irritability.” Then the author proceeds to make by far the most damaging indictment without giving the source of his information: “Both in private and public he was sarcastic, brutal and abrupt He flared up at the least criticism. He cut short all attempts to reason with him. He flew into a passion at the least opposition. He would neither confide in nor co-operate with anyone. When one politician gave mm advice, he roughly told him to get out. When a venerable member of the Cabinet suggested that it was unseemly for Turkish ladies to dance in public, he threw a Quran at him and chased him out of his office with a stick.” At another place, Armstrong highlights Kemal’s credulity: “Irreligious, scoffer at all beliefs, all gods, Mustafa Kemal was yet doubly superstitious. He was afraid of Fate and Chance.”

Kemal explains his worldview

Armstrong also recalls Mustafa Kemal’s address to the Grand National Assembly where he supposedly told the members: “I am neither a believer in a league of all the nations of Islam, nor even in a league of the Turkish peoples. Each of us has the right to hold on to his ideals, but the Government must be stable with a fixed policy, grounded on facts, and with one view and one alone—to safeguard the life and the independence of the nation within its natural frontiers. Neither sentiment nor illusion must influence our policy. Away with dreams and shadows! They have cost us dear in the past.”

On another occasion, Armstrong writes that Mustafa Kemal proclaimed loudly that he would not lead Turkey into the folly championing the East against the West or Islam against Christianity. He reiterated: “We have but one principle: to see all problems through Turkish eyes and to guard Turkish interests.” The author maintains that Mustafa Kemal thought “he, and he alone, could create and organize this new Turkey and bring to it success and prosperity.”

Kemal’s chance came when the British, rather clumsily, invited the Sultan—and not Ankara—to send delegates to the Peace Conference. The reaction was naturally strong and Mustafa Kemal decided to act at once. He proposed to the GNA [Grand National Assembly] that the sultanate and the caliphate be separated. The special committee, to which the matter was referred, was hesitant but they hastened to fall in line when Mustafa Kemal threatened them with dire consequences. The GNA sat at once and a vote was forced on it by a show of hands. Although only few hands went up, the chairman declared the vote unanimous. There was an uproar and pandemonium but the law was passed. The sultan, fearing for his life, took shelter with the British on board a battleship. His nephew was made the caliph but the title allowed him only spiritual powers.

Kemal and religion

This heralded the end of the caliphate. According to Armstrong, Mustafa Kemal had confided to his friends that “he would root out religion from Turkey.” Religion was for him, writes Armstrong, “the cold, clogging lava that held down below its crust the flaming soul of the nation.” He would throw that crust aside and release the volcanic energy of the people. “It was the poison that had rotted the body politic. He would purge the state of that poison. Until religion was gone, he could not make of Turkey a vigorous modern nation.”

Armstrong goes on to quote Mustafa Kemal: “Islam, this theology of an immoral Arab, is a dead thing”, suggesting hereby that it might have suited the tribal nomads of the desert but not his vision for a modern progressive state. Armstrong alleges that Mustafa Kemal denied the existence of God, saying that it was one of the chains by which priests and bad rulers bound people down. In any case, “a ruler who needed religion to help him rule is a weakling. No weakling should rule. So far as the priests were concerned, they were like parasites and the people would chase them out of their mosques and monasteries to work like men.”

India and Kemal’s abolition of Khilafat

The curtain came down in November 1923, when the Aga Khan and Syed Ameer Ali, two Indian Muslim leaders who lived in England, wrote to Turkish President Ismet Inonu conveying the fears of the Muslim world vis-à-vis the uncertain position of the caliph and pleaded with him to restore the latter’s powers. The letter was taken to be a sinister conspiracy engineered by the wily British against Ankara. There was an outcry; the GNA was convened in a secret session where “speaker after speaker condemned the conspirators,” the priests, and the caliph.

It was agreed that the time had come for Turkey to look after its own interests, ignore the Indians and the Arabs, and divest itself of the leadership of Islam. Intense propaganda made the caliph look like a scoundrel. The army and the party were sounded out and they agreed. The opponents were threatened with dire consequences. Some begged Mustafa Kemal to become the caliph himself: but he was clear about following through with his next step. On March 3, 1924, he presented a bill in the GNA that in essence meant the abolition of the caliphate, the religious courts, codes, and schools. The opponents were cowed down by threats and the bill was passed without debate. The same night, Abdul Mejid was banished from Turkey along with his family. “There was no demonstration, protest or resistance,” maintains Armstrong. Mustafa Kemal had won.

Mustafa Kemal’s personal life

Mustafa Kemal was now supreme. But he was ill and tired. The old kidney trouble weighed him down. Armstrong adds: “To dull the pain he drank heavily which made him morose and irritable … In the hour of success he went slack. Fits of depression carried him down to black depths of despair, where he lost belief in himself, his mission and his star.” His private life gave him no relief. He had no one to whom he could open up his intimate self and so get peace of mind. His mother was dead, differences with Latife would soon result in divorce, and Fikriye would commit suicide. After that, claims Armstrong, Mustafa Kemal “became shameless. He drank deeper than ever. He started a number of open affairs with women, and with men … Power brought out in him the brute and the beast, the throw-back to the coarse savage Tartar—the wolf-stock of the central steppes of Asia.”

Then, suddenly, a change occurred. “He became reserved, secluded, and difficult to see. It happened, when devastated by years of incessant wars, Turkey lay in ruins, the economy was in tatters, and discontent spiraled rapidly.” The opposition grew bolder and began to attack Mustafa Kemal himself. It appeared that he was losing his grip. “Tired, ill, debauched and besotted with drink,” Mustafa Kemal’s opponents were sure “he was done.” But the Kurdish revolt flung him back into action. Once more he was in the driving seat and persisted as a hero in the Turkish and pan-Muslim political pantheon.

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