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Ataturk Reforms Possible

intentions alone do not explain how the reforms became possible. This paper rather looks at the conditions prevailing at the time of the reforms. It shows that due to a variety of factors, both domestic and international, the state and the society stood in opposite relations in Turkey: the former was exceptionally strong while the latter was seriously weakened and fragmented. The contingent nature of these conditions throws doubt on the re-doability of Ataturk reforms elsewhere.

Extremely impressed and overly excited, Bryan Woodman speaks to his wife on the phone. The topic is an Arab Prince, Nasir, he recently met for a business purpose. Having a PhD in economics from Cambridge, young, ambitious, and reformist, Nasir ‘could be like Ataturk.’ So Bryan Woodman told her wife, the most he could say in expressing his admiration for the Prince charming, Nasir. What does this symbolize, the mention of the name, Ataturk, in the mouth of an unlikely figure, an energy specialist in a Geneva-based investment company, in a movie like Syriana? No one probably wonders and questions the appropriateness of the name chosen to describe Nasir. For many Ataturk seems the perfect match for our problems in the Middle East. He was well mannered, well dressed, and well educated, could speak French and knew the Western philosophy and lifestyle very well. He could dance in the private gatherings and was a true gentleman to women, marrying only once. His political actions even testify better. Ataturk is an icon of everything the West has wanted to export to the rest of the world: nation building, state building, republicanism, liberation of women. More importantly, he is the champion of secularization. Therefore, in the post 9/11 world, the name, Ataturk, probably arouses even more admiration for he did what is now even unimaginable to many today. He abolished the caliphate, the symbol of political Islam, closed down the madrasahs and Shari’a courts, banned the Sufi brotherhoods, changed the Islamic law to a Western law, so and so forth. For many all other modernizers in the Middle East, from Gemal Abdel Naser of Egypt to Reza Shah of Iran failed simply because they could not become Ataturk enough in one way or another.

Mustafa Kemal, or famously known as Ataturk, was an Ottoman general, who became a war hero as a commander in the Dardanelles in the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was on the losing side when the war ended and signed the treaty of Sevr, according to which the Turks were left with a small piece of territory in Anatolia, all the former extensive Ottoman lands being divided among various Allied countries. Therefore, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk landed in Samsun in May of 1919, the country was under foreign occupation. In the following three years under his leadership what is now Turkey (except Hatay province) was cleared off from foreign forces through a combination of war and diplomacy. Starting with the abolition of the sultanate in 1922, Ataturk then led a series of reforms, an important part of which was to rewrite the Turkish history. According to this, the new Republic of Turkey was truly like a phoenix, a legendary bird coming into being from the ashes. This official attitude had three mutually reinforcing historical assertions. First, the new republic was a radical break from the past, a novel and original state on its own. Second, the republic owed its existence to the genius of one-man, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Third, and more importantly, the new republic denied any credit to the Ottoman period, claiming that she inherited nothing, but an extremely backward society from the past, implying furthermore whatever good contemporary Turkey now enjoys was all product of the new republic.

And, it worked quite successfully. This new image of Turkey was well accepted at home, understandably because the new state propagated its official history with all means available: “state rituals, school textbooks, national monuments, which were constructed to serve the myth of Mustafa Kemal as the sole prophet of the Turkish nation and national holidays, such as 19 May or 30 August, which ritualized the celebration and commemoration of important events.” More surprisingly perhaps, this new image of Turkey was wholeheartedly accepted abroad. It was probably best reflected in the image of Ataturk himself. Academicians and journalists alike have this image of Ataturk all over as a stubborn idealist, driven only by ideas and ideals with no practical concern at all in other realities all around, a dedicated missionary, who followed not his self-interest, but what he thought as good for his country, a miracle maker turning an Islamic country into a Western society, an extremely magnetic person, whose mystical aura, under which a whole nation united, still has an enduring effect over the central Turkish state institutions, especially, the army, an unbelievably and absolutely powerful figure, nothing but whose likes and dislikes determined the whole historical course of a nation. Thus in every comparison we, as scholars, intellectuals and journalists, made we created an Ataturk, a sort of a Feurbachian figure, who has all attributes we think our hopeless Middle East needs.

No question Ataturk was a phenomenal transmitter between the West and Turkey of the former’s institutions, lifestyle, and philosophy into the latter. And, he was quite successful in that. His legacy clearly marks Turkey off from the rest of the Islamic world. Without taking into account his reforms, it is almost impossible to explain and understand, for example, the process and associated problems of democratization in Turkey, contemporary Turkish-Kurdish problems, contemporary issues of religion and politics in Turkey, and Turkey’s drive toward European Union.

Having said that, all forms of unchecked nostalgic and romantic ideas about him will not help us to understand and, if possible, derive lessons from his example for our contemporary world. This paper is an attempt to bring Ataturk from the Olympus Mountain back on the ground, addressing more specifically the following question: what made Ataturk reforms, apparently so radical, possible in the early 20th century Turkey? This has at least two immediate payoffs. First, academically, we will have a much clearer understanding of an important historical period in the history of the Middle East. Second, practically, we will be much more realistic about the do-ability of similar reforms elsewhere. The paper is organized as follows. In the coming section I visit the explanations proposed to account for Ataturk reforms. The underlying logic in these explanations is to show the possible intentions could motivate the reforms. The objection I raise in this paper is that understanding the intentions is not enough to explain the reforms. Rather we need analyze how conducive the conditions were to undertake the reforms. Then, I discuss two conditions that were present in Turkey during the time of Ataturk reforms: a strong state and an extremely weakened society and religious community.

What Has Been Proposed?

The following Ataturk reforms have been generally considered as touching religion and religious institutions in Turkey and as secularizing the Turkish state and society. Historically first introduced, major reforms came in March of 1924: the caliphate was abolished, (3 March), the madrasahs (3 March), the office of Sheikh al Islam (3 March), the ministry of religious affairs and pious foundations (3 March), and the shari’a courts (8 March) closed down. A second major set of reforms came in November of 1925: hat reform and dress code were introduced (25 November), Sufi orders closed down and their activities banned (30 November). In October of 1926, the Swiss civil and the Italian penal codes were adopted. In November of 1928, the new Turkish alphabet, adopted from Latin alphabet, was introduced, replacing the Arabic one. And, finally, in November of 1934, religious nicknames and titles, such as, haci (one who went to pilgrimage), hafiz (one who memorized the Qur’an), hoca (religious teacher), molla (religious student), were banned.

As to why Ataturk undertook these reforms, most explanations put forward the following simple story. Because he was extremely impressed by the West, Ataturk wanted to transform the Turkish state and society into something they had never been: western, or modern or secular. For this to happen, he had to cut the ties to the Ottoman past, which had been Islamic. With this master project in mind, Ataturk introduced his reforms. Then, the whole explanation discusses how the aforementioned reforms contributed to the master project guiding Ataturk’s actions.

Bernard Lewis’ The Emergence of Modern Turkey is probably the best study to be shown as exemplifying the explanations of this sort. Lewis signals this right at the beginning, in Preface saying “the theme of this book is the emergence of a new Turkey from the decay of the old.’ Only in Chapter VIII of the book, titled ‘the Kemalist Republic, he sets out to explain the logic of Ataturk reforms, each reform being an attempt to break the ties with the past. For him, for example, transferring the capital from Istanbul to Ankara was an act against the new Turkey’s past. “For nearly five centuries Istanbul had been the capital of an Islamic empire… Turkish Istanbul, with its mosques and palaces, its divines and courtiers; Pera, the Levantine suburb… these were intimately associated with the past… And so a new capital was chosen, symbolizing and accentuating the changes that were taking place.” Likewise, the caliphate was the link with the past and with Islam. “It was precisely for that reason that he [Ataturk] was determined to break it.” Hat reform, banning “the tall, red, challenging fez proclaiming at once his refusal to conform to the West and his readiness to abase his unimpeded brow before God,” was “vivid and profound, the forcible transference of a whole nation from one civilization to another.” The alphabet reform, with which “Mustafa Kemal… was slamming a door to the past as well as opening a door to the future,” destroyed the last symbol “that bound her [Turkey] to the Orient and set her apart from the Western community of nations -the Arabic script.”

The Emergence of Modern Turkey was first published in 1961, in the heyday of modernization school. More than forty years later, two Turkish scholars would still speak in the same language. “Mustafa Kemal and his supporters imagined a new state modeled on the basic principles and outlines of the European style national state. For them this required a cognitive and political negation of the old regime and an establishment of a new era.” There have been fancier attempts in the same spirit. For example, Serif Mardin (1991), a famous Turkish sociologist-historian, argues that Ataturk disliked the Ottoman street, Mahalle, so much that his reforms eliminated the components of the Ottoman street in the new Turkish society. Likewise, Volkan and Itzkowitz (1984) claim, for example, that the alphabet reform reflected Ataturk’s psychological urge to liberate her mother, who was equated with the Turkish nation in his mind, from the forces of oppression, obscurantism, and superstition. Hence, the reform saved the nation, replacing the dead mother now, from the same devils.

In contrast to this dominant, excessively idealistic view of Ataturk reforms, there have been, however sporadically attempted, studies proposing alternative explanations grounded more in rationalism or in strategic circumstances of the period. Unlike the idealistic view’s approach of one-overarching explanation for all reforms, these studies analyze each reform on its own. A discussion of a few examples will suffice for our purpose here.

Behind the adoption of the Swiss Civil code in 1926, for example, Dora G. Nadolski sees Turkey’s desire to establish full control over its own legal system by destroying the last vestiges of the capitulatory system. Under this system, as G.L. Lewis puts it, “foreigners were not subject to Turkish laws; they paid no taxes, their houses and business premises were inviolable, and they could be arrested or deported only by order of their own Ambassadors.” This system not only let foreign powers to intervene in internal affairs of Turkey, thus challenging her sovereignty, but also privileged foreigners and non-Muslim Ottoman citizens, who took foreign passports, in the commercial life of Turkey. The capitulations were first abrogated in 1914 unilaterally. However, they were re-imposed again after the First World War to be re-abrogated in the treaty of Lausanne, now recognized by France and Britain. Nadolski (1977) argues that the abrogation was still not complete. It was because the Mecelle, codification of the Sharia based on the Hanefite fiqh and replaced by the Swiss Civil code in 1926, was not itself a complete civil code for “it did not contain that portion of the Shari’a which treats procedures of family, marriage and inheritance.” As a result, secular court systems would not be able to deal with cases related to these issues. This would remain as a possible venue for the foreign power to intervene in lawsuits involving non-Muslim foreigners in Turkey. In any case, Turkey was obliged to adopt a Western law system for its minorities according to the treaty of Lausanne. Rather than keep a dual system, the new regime preferred a unitary legal system within its territories. In short, the adoption of Swiss Civil code “meant the abandonment of the dual court system, religious and secular, final abrogation of the remaining vestiges of the capitulatory system, and the abolition of the Mecelle.”

How well did Turkey in implementing the Swiss Civil Code? The International Association of Legal Sciences met in 1955 to discuss this issue, and Hilmi Ziya Ulken summarizes the finding: “of the 937 articles of the Swiss Civil Code, only 335 by 1955 have been used effectively, that in the case of two-thirds of the articles no circumstances to which they are applicable have emerged.” Surprisingly, the Swiss Civil Code, was hardly implemented in two areas: family law and land laws, two areas which almost all scholars single out as the Code turning the country truly into a Western or secular one. Why is there a discrepancy between the declared objective and the realized outcome? Here is not the place to speculate on the reasons. However, it is an important question to answer because Turkey’s performance in fact may indicate the pragmatism, not idealism, of Turkish rulers in adopting the Swiss Code. It should be also noted that there were minor changes introduced into the Swiss Code before adopted in Turkey. As noted by Gotthand Jaschke, one change is a telling one. The Code banned marriages between couples if they were milk-bred by the same woman (in Turkish, sut kardesleri), which was clearly from the Islamic law.

For the alphabet reform, not only the Turkish reformers themselves but also a few scholars like Uriel Heyd (1954) and Frank Tachau (1977) noted the inefficiency and the inability of the Arabic script to render Turkish words and expressions as correctly as possible. There are a few inefficiencies to be noted. First, there are no letters in Arabic script for certain sounds of Turkish, like p as p in put, j as g in mortgage, ç as ch in chat and ğ. This problem was easy to solve for some other symbols, like پ for p, ژ for j, چ, for ç stood for them. More serious problem was with the Turkish vowels. In Arabic vowels are not written. Even for a native Arab speaker this may pose a trouble in cases where the endings of words change in accordance with grammatical functions they have in a specific sentence. Two factors alleviate the problem for native Arab speakers. First, Arabic is an extremely structured language. Second, there are basically three vowel sounds in Arabic. Turkish does not enjoy the same advantages. For example, there are eight vowels in Turkish, a as in a in father, e as e in red, ı as e in open, i as ee in beet, o as o in no, ö as e in her, u as oo in pool, and ü as u in nude. There were some introductions into the Ottoman script to represent the Turkish vowels, و, ى, and ا used in the place of vowels. However, the solution was not complete; for example, لؤ could be pronounced as either lu, lü, lo or lö, Finally, لى as li or lı. In addition to the confusions that may arise with the vowels, there are not only letters in Arabic script that have no corresponding sound in Turkish, like ع and ق, but also quite a number of letters that are close enough that will sound like one sound to a native Turkish ear. For the example of this latter group, ض, ز, ذ, and ظ, all sound very close to the Turkish letter z as z in zip; ط and تvery close to the Turkish letter t as t in top; ه , خ, and ح, very close to the Turkish letter h as h in hot; س and ص very close to the Turkish letter s as s in sand. Therefore, in an age of the modern states educating their citizens en masse, the alphabet reform seems quite efficient step to take. In fact, literacy level rapidly increased in Turkey, which can be attributed in part to the alphabet reform.

When we analyze each reform within its own particular context, paying particular attention to domestic and international factors involved at the time of the reform, we face a rather different picture of Ataturk reforms, a different set of factors at work. For many this is not surprising because different paradigms, grounding the motivations of actors in different factors, be it idealistic or materialistic or individual-psychological or structural, are at work in different analyses. In this paper I neither offer another explanation, challenging the existing explanations of Ataturk reforms, nor visit the old debates among various paradigms. In fact, I firmly believe that this debate has been a healthy one for our understanding of politics, therefore, should continue. Rather I want to offer here a complimentary analysis, focusing instead on the factors that affected the reformer’s opportunities, making the reforms possible.

Why is this latter analysis important? Any analysis, just focusing on the motivations of Turkish rulers in introducing the reforms, suffers from at least two weaknesses. First, such an analysis portrays, either implicitly or explicitly, an image of Ataturk who was absolutely powerful and extremely magical. His personal wishes, likes and dislikes will matter more than any other reason. Not only logically, but also historically this is unacceptable if we are not a sort of a Carlylian hero-worshipper. Any reading of his long speech, called Nutuk, delivered in 15-20 October 1927, will show conclusively that his authority was not well established up until 1927. His speech later became the official Turkish historiography, in which Mustafa Kemal discredited not only the sultan in Istanbul, but also his former colleagues, who actually fought in the independence war, and emphasized “his own role and the novelty and originality of the national movement he had led.”

Second, and more importantly, such an analysis will invite us to make more speculations on why some other reform suggestions, as logical as those already introduced and implemented, were not implemented or never introduced in the first place. The most notable example was Ataturk’s personal initiative to turkify the language of basic Islamic rituals, like adhan, preaching in the Friday prayer and the Qur’an recitation. In this vein, in the month of Ramadan in 1932, he visited Istanbul to promote the recitation of the Qur’an in Turkish. He personally participated in the programs held in 22 January 1932 in Yerebatan Mosque, then in the Sultanahmet Mosque on 29 January of 1932. The most impressive program was held in Ayasofya mosque on 3 February 1932. Not only the Qur’an, but also the adhan was recited in Turkish, the whole program being aired in the radio. The final novelty was introduced on 5 February 1932, Ataturk personally asking Hafiz Sadettin Kaynak, who later became a famous composer, to deliver the Friday prayer preaching in Turkish, Kaynak wearing western clothes rather than traditional religious garbs. The adhan in Turkish had been successfully implemented until 1950 when the Democrat Party lifted the ban on the adhan in Arabic. In Turkey, preaching in the Friday prayers is still held in Turkish except for the final parts which are in Arabic. But, for reasons unknown to us, Ataturk simply did not pursue the idea of the Qur’an recitation further, devoting his time to the purification of Turkish language from Persian and Arabic from then on.

There were other reform potentials in Turkey. For example, the language of Islamic prayer, namaz, could also be turkified for there were suggestions along this line. In fact, in 1926 a certain imam of Goztepe Mosque in Istanbul, Celalettin Efendi, led the prayer in Turkish, upon which he was fired from the Directorate of Religious Affairs. But, apparently, Ataturk was not interested in the idea for we do not know any attempt on his side to promote the prayer in Turkish. Ataturk also did not pursue the idea of banning the veil for women, which Reza Shah of Iran and King Emanullah of Afghanistan, both being contemporary of Ataturk, pursued in their countries. In fact when King Emanullah was overthrown, Ataturk was reported to say “I warned him to proceed slowly on the issue of women’s veil.”

What Made Reforms Possible? Unlikely Conditions

Like any other politician, whose authority was not inherited, but obtained, Ataturk faced opposition at every stage from his landing in Samsun on. He was not alone in the leadership cadre of the independence movement. This can readily be seen through a comparative reading of memoirs, written by individuals like Kazim Karabekir, Halide Edip Adivar, Ali Fuat Cebesoy, Riza Nur, Rauf Orbay, who wrote their own narratives of the independence war in response to Ataturk’s Nutuk. In contrast to one-man leadership of Nutuk, these narratives show “the agency and significance of a plurality of leaders and common people who took part in the Independence Struggle and the process of nation building in the twenties.”

Ataturk and his clique, therefore, competed with other political rivals both during and after the war of independence. During the war, for example, some former Unionists attempted to replace Mustafa Kemal with Enver Pasha, Ottoman minister of war during the First World War. Only Ataturk’s successful command of the Turkish forces in the war of Sakarya killed the dreams of Enver Pasha. There was even more serious challenge to Mustafa Kemal and his clique in the Turkish parliament. There emerged a group in the parliament, consisting of 118 deputies opposing Mustafa Kemal, the remaining 197 deputies supporting him. After the war, Mustafa Kemal organized his supporters into a political party, the People’s Party, and called for an election. The opponents could not organize into a single party and lost the elections. Out of 118 deputies only 3 could get into the second parliament. It was this second parliament, which declared Turkey as a republic and elected Mustafa Kemal as its president.

Opposition to Mustafa Kemal even continued in the second parliament, now led by much more formidable opponents. In November of 1924, the first leaders of the independence war, Rauf Orbay, Refet Bele, Ali Fuat Cebesoy, and Kazim Karabekir, commanding great reputation and respect both in the army and among the masses, formed an opposition party in the parliament. The party was joined by others, who resigned from Ataturk’s party. According to a calculation, the percentage of military officials in this party was 44 percent, in contrast to just 18 percent in Ataturk’s party. Especially, the Istanbul bureaucracy, who was not happy to lose their privileges with the shift of capital to Ankara, was behind Rauf Orbay, himself a war hero during the First World War. In the memoirs of these individuals one strongly feels how marginalized they saw themselves in the post-Ottoman Turkey by those, who joined the war of independence late yet were close to Ataturk. In the meantime, a massive Kurdish rebellion broke out in the Eastern Anatolia in February of 1925, giving Ataturk and his clique, controlling the government and the parliament, an opportunity to accuse the opposition party of inspiring the rebellion. The party was closed in June of 1925. One year later an assassination attempt on the life of Mustafa Kemal was thwarted in Izmir. An extra-ordinary court was formed, entirely run by the deputies of Ataturk’s party. The court ruled the execution of 19 former Unionists and jailed Rauf Orbay. Partly due to public outcry, Ali Fuat Cebesoy and Kazim Karabekir were released. Only after the trials ended, resulting in the complete exile from active political life of all possible political rivals, Ataturk and his clique could feel secure in their positions. As a side note, it is rumored that toward the end of his life, Ataturk wanted to heal the broken-hearts of his friends, but no meeting between him and his former colleagues and then rivals materialized as far as we know.

An interesting anecdote is illustrative of his approach toward dealing with the opposition. It was during the committee meetings in the Turkish parliament in 1922. The issue was whether to abolish the Sultanate or not. The ulama members of the committee engaged in a hot scholarly debate about whether the caliphate and the sultanate could be separated. Enraged by these never ending debates, Mustafa Kemal interrupted the committee meeting and asked for permission to speak up. Granted, he bluntly said: “Sovereignty and Sultanate are not given to anyone by anyone because scholarship proves that they should be; or through discussion or debate. Sovereignty and Sultanate are taken by strength, by power and by force. It was by force that the sons of Osman seized sovereignty and Sultanate of the Turkish nation; they have maintained this usurpation for six centuries. Now the Turkish nation has rebelled, has put a stop to these usurpers, and has effectively taken sovereignty and Sultanate into its own hands. This is an accomplished fact -the question is merely how to give expression to it. This will happen in any case. If those gathered here, the assembly and everyone else could look at this question in a natural way, I think they would agree. Even if they do not, the truth will still find expression, but some heads may roll in the process,” in the final sentence, waving his hand toward the members around their necks.

Ataturk was indeed a man of his word, not failing to resort to force if his authority was challenged. And, as I briefly described above, his authority did not go unchallenged. Yet, there is a feature common to all opponents of Ataturk. They had no societal power base, their influence coming mostly from their positions in the state apparatus. The elimination of none of the potential rivals in fact led to massive protests from the society. Only Seyh Said rebellion, which broke out in 1925 in Eastern Anatolia, does not fit into this category. It was a massive rebellion, led by a Kurdish Nakshi Seyh. Yet, it is better to consider this rebellion not as a domestic opposition to Ataturk, but to the whole idea of Turkish state by the Kurdish populations in Eastern Anatolia.

In this nature of the opposition we can clearly see two important mutually reinforcing conditions, which, in my opinion, made the Turkish reforms possible. First, by the time Ataturk came to power, the Turkish state had already eliminated all possible societal power bases, thanks to the Ottoman modernization. The Ottoman modernization had been driven by the necessities of the international military environment. With Russia alone, the Ottomans fought four major wars in the 19th century in 1806-1811, 1828-1829, 1853-1856, and 1877-1878. Internal rebellions especially in the Balkans paralyzed the Empire throughout the same century. The Ottomans’ survival as an independent political entity depended among other things on the intricate working of balance of power. Territorial losses and commercial concessions followed up every defeat in the field, the magnitude of which ultimately depended on the will of other powers involved. Though severely shaken by the tidal waves of every international military confrontation and internal problem, the Ottomans survived the 19th century.

Against this background of ever-increasingly hostile international environment, uninterruptedly from the period of Mahmud II (1808-1839) on, the Ottomans tenaciously pursued reforms by all available means in the military, the administration, state finance, education and the legal system. After abolishing the Janissaries in 1826, Mahmud II established a new army upon European model. The successive Ottoman statesmen later expanded the army in size and updated it with the newest technology. In this vein, the Empire heavily imported arms supplies from Germany, Britain and France. Thus, the Ottoman Empire became “one of the most important markets for armaments in the world.” The Ottoman statesmen also hired foreign military personnel in the army, opened new military colleges, modernized the new reforms, and introduced conscription. If exhausted all domestic resources, the Ottoman statesmen sought for external financial resources from foreign governments and international financial institutions to continue the reforms. Eventually, the Ottoman government became so indebted that it declared bankruptcy in 1878, and deferred the collection of certain revenues to a European controlled institution, the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, in 1881.

The success of the Ottoman modernization can be best seen in her performance in the First World War. The Ottoman Empire entered the war in November of 1914 on the side of the Central Powers. The Empire was the least populous and the most economically backward among the major powers of the war. In the words of a military historian, “By 1914, the Ottoman Empire had fallen far behind the European Great Powers in every category of resources necessary for the conduct of modern war.” Yet, the Empire fought in the war quite impressively. By far superior, Russia could not finish the war and succumbed into a revolution in 1917. Only when it became evident that the Germans lost the war, the Ottomans stopped fighting. As late as 1917 in the war, the Ottomans were still holding the southern frontiers against the British and the French. During the World War, the Ottoman Empire could mobilize more than two million troops, and could fight in five frontiers spreading over a vast area. The state could mobilize all resources of the country for the war efforts, not only through forceful means, but also through voluntary organizations.

The strengthening of the state went in tandem with the weakening of other societal institutions. In fact, the Ottoman modernization truly started after Mahmud II eliminated two powerful groups in the Ottoman society: the janissaries and the local strong families, or the ayans. The bloody suppression of Seyh Said rebellion in 1925 was a part of this process of demilitarizing the society, by and large completed among the Turkish populations by the 1920s and was to be completed among the Kurdish populations by the end of the 1930s. Religious institutions also weakened in the face of ever-strengthening Turkish state. This was natural because the Ottoman modernization did not remain within the field of military, but spilled out into education and legal system, two strongholds of religious institutions. Neither Mahmud II’s reforms nor later reforms in fact meant a frontal attack on the privileges of the religious institutions. The Ottoman reforms did not eradicate all livelihoods of the Sunni Ulema; instead they created a new space for the newly educated classes in parallel existence with the one existing for the Ulema. Religious courts and schools continued to work along with the state courts and schools, and primary education continued to be the virtual monopoly of the Ulema. More importantly, the effects of state building in the legal system and education were so gradual that the Ulema did not feel threatened by the process. It took almost 80 years for the state to create its own courts and schools to compete with the Ulema. The Ottoman statesmen also sought the cooperation of the Ulema class. For example, almost all laws adopted from Europe during the 19th century were prepared by the Ulema class. The Ulema also took duties in the newly established state institutions. For example, the religious judge had also served as the head of the secular courts. At the beginning of the 1920s, the religious institutions were too dependent on the Turkish state and too disunited among themselves to form a common front against the reforms.

Ataturk’s career also enjoyed the destructive changes the Turkish society underwent in the last decade prior to the independence war, which further weakened the potential of societal opposition. The Turkish society had to bear the costs and consequences of five different inter-state wars in this period: Trablusgarb war with Italy, two Balkan wars, the World War and the War of Liberation. The economic and human cost of the World War was especially deadly to the Turkish society, the Ottoman armies fighting from the beginning all the way to the end of the War over a vast area covering the Balkans, the Caucasus, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. Waging a war on such a great scale took its toll from the Anatolian population: more than 2 million men mobilized during the four years of war. The human costs of the period on the Turkish society are best reflected in the changing population statistics: the Empire’s population in Anatolia was about approximately 15.3 million in 1913. According to the official census of 1927 the population of Turkey was 13.6 million. This rough measure probably underestimate the total population because two factors have partially compensated this loss: the massive Muslim migration from the Balkans and the Caucasus to Turkey; and the population boom in the peaceful period between 1922 and 1927. According to an estimate by Kemal Karpat, an Ottoman historian, 18 percent of the Muslim population in Anatolia was wasted in wars from 1914 to 1922. The majority of these losses were mostly males of working age, possibly decreasing the rebellion potential of the Turkish society. In 1935 of Turkey, for example, men constituted 67 percent of women aging between 40 and 65, the generation upon whom the costs of the wars mostly fell.

Another destructive change of this period, the emigration of non-Muslims and immigration of Muslims, brought a double advantage to the Turkish state. This completely changed the religious composition of Anatolia. Before the World War, non-Muslims constituted 18 percent of the overall Anatolian population, but in 1927 they made up only 2.6 percent of the overall population. This might increase the influence of religious authorities in Turkey. But, this did not happen because the incoming Muslims were mostly peasants; therefore, they settled down in rural areas of Turkey. This just increased the ruralness of Turkish society further. The rural population, composing just small propriety owners producing a diverse menu of products for their own private consumption, had always been disunited in Anatolia due to the lack of large landowners. The only development uniting this society was the invasion of their country by foreign forces, which led to an uproar of nationalism. The war of liberation mobilized all segments of the society under the leadership of civil-military bureaucracy. Yet, this was a temporary unifying force, which faded away like other examples of all-mobilizing nationalism that were witnessed thirty years later, mainly in African settings. The incoming Muslims, simply inserted into this body, further fragmented the societal structure.

Religious homogenization in Turkey also brought a change in the occupational composition of the Turkish society. In the process of Ottoman integration into the capitalist economy, it was mainly the Christians, the Greeks and the Armenians, who were the main beneficiaries having international commercial networks. Coupled with the fact that the incoming Muslims were mostly peasants, this period simply got rid of the moneyed classes in Turkey. It fell upon the Turkish state now to create a new Muslim bourgeoisie class, which was manifestly declared in Izmir Economic Congress in 1923. Ayse Bugra’s State and Business in Turkey clearly shows how the contemporary giant companies of Turkey owed a great deal to the support of the state throughout every stage of their developments. Therefore, it would pay dearly to ally with the state during that period of time if you are enterprising businessmen. The opposite might also be true. If you are a dissident, the Turkish state was capable of undermining your wealth. The life of Said Nursi, a dissident religious scholar of the Republican Turkey, testifies how much the Turkish state had been capable of. For example, he began to write his Qur’an commentary, titled Risale i Nur, in 1925 when he was exiled to Barla, a small town in inner Anatolia. He and all of his students were too poor to publish his commentary in print that they had multiplied it by hand-writing for three decades. Only 32 years later, in 1957, the first piece of his commentary went into print.

As the group which was most touched by Ataturk reforms, the religious community was also deeply affected by the destructions of the period. I have already noted that by the 1920s the community became too dependent on the state as they became involved in modernization. In addition to this, the wars brought their own destructions. From biographies of prominent religious scholars, we learn that many religious scholars and Sufi Sheikhs actually fought in the wars, mobilizing their students as military units. Seminary students and young members of Sufi orders had also been recruited into the army by the state, halting the religious education in this period. Inevitably these developments disrupted the religious networks across the country. It should not be surprising when Abdulhakim Arvasi, one activist Sufi Sheikh of the Republican Turkey, said when the Sufi Orders were closed down, “the Government did not close down the Sufi lodges. The Sufi lodges closed themselves down. The Government closed something already emptied.” Mobilizing and personally commanding his own seminary students in the First World War against the Russians and Armenians, Said Nursi vividly depicts in heartbreaking words how his seminary was in ruin after the war in contrast to its lively atmosphere before the war. Because his feelings may express the shock his colleagues felt at the end of the war, I quoted it in length.

“After being saved from captivity in Russia during the Great War… I felt a weariness at the civilized life of Istanbul and a disgust at its glittering social life. A feeling of longing for my native land drove me there, and thinking, since I am bound to die, let me die in my own country, I went to Van. Before everything, I went to visit my medrese in Van, the Horhor. I saw that the Armenians had razed it during the Russian occupation, like the rest of the buildings of Van… My true friends, brothers, and close students of the medrese were embodied before my eyes. Some of those self-sacrificing friends of mine had become actual martyrs, while others had died due to that calamity had become in effect martyrs. I could not restrain myself from weeping… My heart was lacerated. I was so affected that if I had had a thousand eyes, they would have all wept together. I had returned to my homeland from exile; I had supposed that I had been saved from exile. But alas! the most lamentable exile I experienced in my homeland… “If there was no separation from friends, death could find no way to our spirits so that it might take them.” That is to say, what kills man most is separation from those he loves. Yes, nothing had caused me as much suffering and sorrow as that situation. Ten years later I still weep when I imagine that situation… Yes, the ruins of the houses at the foot of the ancient citadel, thousands of years old, and the town ageing eight years in eight hundred years, and the death of my medrese, which had flourished and been the gathering-place of friends, all indicated the vastness of the immaterial corpse of all the medreses in the Ottoman Empire, which had died; the great monolith of Van’s citadel had become a gravestone to all of them. It was as though my students who had been together with me in the medrese eight years previously were weeping in their graves together with me. Indeed the ruined walls of the town and its scattered stones were weeping together with me. I saw them to be weeping.”


The Ataturk reforms took place at a very opportune time in Turkish history during which two mutually reinforcing conditions met. First, the state emerged as the most powerful institution, with no other institution militarily, economically, and organizationally matching that level of effectiveness in Turkey. Second, the society and religious institutions emerged as fragmented and weakened as they had never been before. One century of Ottoman modernization, successive destructive wars, massive population displacements, and the role of the reformers in saving the country from foreign occupation brought about these two conditions, which were conducive to the successful introduction and implementation of reforms. The highly unlikely nature of these conditions to meet again throws serious doubt on the re-implementability of Ataturk reforms elsewhere, which drastically reduced the role of religious institutions in Turkey.

In spite of this pessimistic conclusion, Ataturk and Turkish reformers still give us a valuable lesson about what not to do in introducing reforms in the Islamic world. And, this lesson is unfortunately missing in popular accounts. That is, like his Ottoman predecessors, Ataturk did not lead a frontal attack upon religion. Quite reverse, he behaved quite respectably when it came to religious sensitivities of the Turkish society. A recent debate in Turkey may shed a light on this. The debate sparked around the presidency of Abdullah Gul, whose wife, Hayrunnisa Gul, is veiled. Certain groups, including the opposition party Republican People’s Party, in Turkey strongly criticized his nomination for the presidency by the ruling party, Justice and Development Party. How could a woman with headscarf be a first lady in Turkey? In response to the criticisms, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who nominated Abdullah Gul for the presidency, announced that Latifa Hanim, Ataturk’s wife, was also veiled. In counter-argument, the descendants of Latife Hanim, Mehmet Oke, argued that Latifa Hanim was in reality not veiled before marrying to Ataturk. Once she married with Ataturk, upon request from Ataturk, she veiled herself, as a respect to the sensitivities of the Turkish society. Unfortunately, Ataturk’s marriage did not last long. So, we do not know how his wife’s dress would change in due course.

In addition, if the texts of the reforms passed by the parliament are read carefully, one will not fail to notice how respectable a language is used about the religion of Islam. One such law is the law numbered 429, which abolished the Ministry of Shari’a and Pious Foundations. That law also grants the authority to undertake religious services throughout Turkey to the newly established the directorate of religious affairs. The text of the law uses the term, ‘Din-i Mubin-i Islam,’ a highly praising term to describe Islam. The establishment of the Directorate of Religious Affairs itself is telling enough. Those Ottoman religious scholars and Sufi Sheikhs who were willing to cooperate were employed in this directorate. The directorate also incorporated research institutes, such as, Heyet-i Itfaiyye, Tedkikat and Te’lifat-i Islamiyye, Heyet-i Müşavere, Tedkik-i Mesahif, formerly under the office of Seyhulislam. The directorate pioneered some scholarly projects. Most of these projects undertaken between 1928 and 1947 by famous religious scholars were the first in their genre. For example, under grant from the directorate, Muhammed Hamdi Yazir wrote a nine-volume Qu’ran Commentary in Turkish, titled Hak Dini Kur’an Dili or famously known as Elmalili Tefsiri in Turkey. This is the first Qur’an commentary written in Turkish, and so far unsurpassed in quality. He also translated the Qur’an into Turkish for the directorate. The Encyclopedia of Islam, published in Leiden between 1908 and 1938, was also translated into Turkish as Islam Ansiklopedisi. Two scholars, Babanzade Ahmed Naim and Kamil Miras, translated Sahih i Buhari, a collection of hadith, into Turkish in twelve volumes with explanations, known in Turkish as Sahih-I Buhari Muhtasari Tecrid-I Sarih Tercumesi ve Serhi. Omer Nasuhi Bilmen, another famous religious scholar, wrote a practical religious guide, titled Buyuk Islam Ilmihali, and an important jurisprudence book in six volumes, titled Hukuk-u Islamiye ve Istihalat-I Fikhiyye Kamusu.


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