22 September 2005

Ottoman Turkey and the troubled legacy of Kemal Ataturk

Khaleej Times, United Arab Emirates
Sept 22 2005

Ottoman Turkey and the troubled legacy of Kemal Ataturk

HIS memory still haunts the Dolma Bache Palace in Istanbul where hedied, the
magnificent mausoleum in Ankara where he is buried. His portraits and busts
are prominent in Turkish embassies worldwide. The founder of the first
secular state in Islamic history is a hero to reformers and anathema to
mullahs from the Maghreb to Pakistan.

Mustafa Kemal Pasha was unquestionably an iconic statesman and nation
builder, the Washington, de Gaulle, Cavour and Jinnah of the Turkish
Republic. Yet what is the relevance and legacy of the Ataturk legend in out
time? Is the ideology of Kemalism still the dominant theme in Turkish

Kemalist ideology exalted Turkish nationalism as the core value of the new
Republic. Mustafa Kemal, after all, lived during the pathological death
rattle of the Ottoman Empire when Greek, Arab, Armenian, Bulgarian and
Serbian nationalists collided in their revolt against the decrepit state of
the sultans for the past two generations.

As the Ottoman regime imploded, Ataturk faced the Allied invasion of
Gallipolli, Tsarist Russia's depredations in the Balkans, the British and
French occupation of Istanbul and secessionist revolts everywhere from
Bulgaria to Kurdistan to the Hijaz. As a heroic general hailed as Gazi
(victor) for his military exploits at Gallipolli and Smyrna,
Ataturk had to create an instant national consciousness in the Anatolian
rump of the sultan's defunct empire.

In Ottoman times, "Turk" was a slightly derogatory term for Anatolian
peasants in the cosmopolitan salons and palaces of Istanbul. It was the
genius of Ataturk that he created a new national myth at a time when the
Treaty of Sevres threatened the very existence of Turkey on the world's
political map.

Yet Turkish nationalism in its Kemalist incarnation was exclusivist and
unwilling to accommodate demographic realities of the new Republic. It
acquiesced in the mass migration of Greeks and Armenians. It isolated Turkey
from the Arab world the Ottoman sultans had ruled for four centuries. Above
all, it created the nightmare of Kurdish secessionism since the genesis of
the Republic in the 1920's.

Kemalist ideology inflicted linguistic genocide on the Kurds - the Kurdish
language was banned, Kurds were declared "mountain Turks" and resettled in
the ghettos of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The Turkish Army generals who
acted as the guardians and enforcers of Kemalist ideology, plunged eastern
Anatolia into a generation of war after General Evren's military coup in
September 1980.

The PKK under Abdullah Ocalan declared war on the Kemalist state in the
1990's and the subsequent civil war claimed 30,000 lives. The
uber-nationalism of Ataturk and the Turkish General Staff bought only
tragedy and war to the mountains of Kurdistan, as well as led to successive
Turkish invasions of northern Iraq and threat of war with

Ataturk is hailed by the West and the Turkish secular elite for his
revolutionary transformation of an ancient, traditional Muslim society with
good reason. After all, he abolished the Caliphate, replaced the Sharia with
the Swiss Legal Code, banned the ancient Turkic dervish brotherhoods and the
Ottoman fez, emancipated women and abolished the veil, replaced the Arabic
script with Latin and even replaced the Islamic with the Gregorian Calendar.

Yet the general who had used Islam in his war against the invading Greeks
and enjoyed the same title of Gazi as Mehmet Fatih, the Ottoman sultan who
conquered Constantinople for Islam from the Byzantines in 1453, jettisoned
it as an instrument of national integration after the establishment of the

This act of theological lobotomy created an existential confrontation
between successive military regimes and Islamist politicians for six decades
after his death. The aggressively secular ethos implicit in the Kemalist
message also made it impossible for Ankara to become the natural leader in
the Muslim world. Yet not even Presidential edicts
could change the ancient religious and spiritual heritage of the Turkish

In 2005, a moderate Islamist party controls two thirds of the seat in the
Ankara Parliament founded by Ataturk. The Kemalist version of state
intervention, magnified by hyperinflation, currency collapse and the ruinous
costs of the Kurdistan wars, has also been discredited by time, the IMF and
Wall Street.

Time heals all wounds in the lives of human beings and history of great
empires. It is so ironic that the scenes of the Ottoman twilight are once
again theatres of the Great Game and East-West conflict - Bosnia, Central
Asia, Kurdistan the Levant, Palestine, Hijaz, the Balkans, Armenia. The
Turkish Republic Kemal Pasha founded still straddles the global geopolitical
axis, the vectors of war and peace in the Middle East.

The pageant of Turkish history still resonates to the power and passions of
the ancient faith which even a legendary colossus like Kemal Ataturk could
not destroy.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker. He can be reached at


AZAD-HYE sent the following letter to the author:

Dear Mr. Matein Khalid,

We would like to thank you for the time you devoted to analyze the period
related to the creation of the present day Turkey and the cost that has been
paid to sustain it.

Turkey, who is aspiring to be part of the EU, needs to take substantial
steps in this direction.

As symbolic as it may seem, there is no European country that can keep a
photo of a leader for 80 years in all governmental buildings. The cult of
Ataturk is far from being a modern European trend. It has more to do with
the era between the two World Wars. Turks may be offended if we do such
comparisons, but they have to see that it bears some reality in it.

You mentioned the linguistic genocide of the Kurds in Turkey, but we are
sure that you are also aware about the physical genocide of the Armenians in

Once again we would like to thank you for dealing with a troubled period of
Ottoman history, that has many modern day implications on national and
individual levels.

Best Regards,


No comments: