A Quest For The Historical Atatürk

Written by Mustafa Akyol on August 6th, 2011

[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News, with reader’s comments]

When a lonely shepherd guided his flock out to pasture near the village called Yukarı Gündeş in eastern Turkey, in 1997, he committed a “highly disrespectful [act], an act of treason,” according to a Turkish parliamentarian. For this parliamentarian, along with thousands of other Turks, were present in that middle-of-nowhere place to witness a miracle: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s silhouette, they believed, was miraculously falling on a hill and creating a magical scene which the reckless shepherd and his clueless sheep inadvertently disrupted.

That story is related at the very opening of a new, meticulous and powerful book by Şükrü Hanioğlu, a professor of history at the University of Princeton. Titled “Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography,” the book, in the words of its author, is an effort to find “the historical Atatürk,” through a lot of “demythologizing, historicizing and contextualizing.”

Atatürk’s origins

That, I would say, makes the book a potential eye-opener for the average Turk, who is “educated” to believe that everything that is good in Turkey is created by Atatürk, but Atatürk himself, in a figurative sense, is “uncreated.” In other words, the standard Turk looks at Atatürk as the giver of wisdom, but he never questions the origins of that wisdom.

Throughout the book, Hanioğlu shows a much more realistic picture, by demonstrating that Atatürk’s ideology was a product of his day and age, and especially “a generation of materialism.” Inspired by the German doctrine of “Vulgarmaterialismus,” many among the Young Turks, the political elite that dominated the Ottoman Empire in its final years, were convinced that religion was nothing but silly superstition and that it had to be replaced by science. (One particular Young Turk, Beşir Fu’ad, had even committed suicide in 1887, “just to prove that life was an experimental ‘scientific’ phenomenon.”)

Yet this anti-religious strain within the Young Turk movement would come to act, Hanioğlu notes, only when one of their disciples, Mustafa Kemal, became the new ruler of Turkey in 1923. Kemal’s distaste for all religion, but especially Islam, was all too evident in his personal notes and even a few of his public works. A chapter for the high school textbook prepared under his supervision described Islam as the “Arab religion,” which “loosened the national ties of the Turkish nation.”

Ersatz religion

I know this secularist worldview of Atatürk is applauded by many, especially in the West, as a grand leap forward to Enlightenment. But the warning by the late Richard J. Neuhaus, that the eradication of religion from the public square would soon result in “ersatz religion” filling the vacuum, is worth considering here, for that is exactly what happened under the Atatürk Revolution.

In his book, Hanioğlu exposes this ersatz religion as well, by noting that Atatürk intentionally created various cults: “a Turkish cult of reason,” “an institutional cult of the Republic,” “a personality cult surrounding Mustafa Kemal,” “and a further cult around his own Republican People’s Party.”

Even racism entered the scene. An official history textbook prepared under Atatürk’s supervision promoted “abandoning superstitions” based on “Jewish myths,” and focusing rather on “the deep racial roots” of the Turks. Hence Atatürk promoted extravagant theories that defined the Turks as the seed of all ancient civilizations and the best of the “brachycephalic Alpine race” (the term referred to a particular skull type). No wonder, with Atatürk’s orders, many “racial” studies were carried out, in which Turkish skulls, of the living or the dead, were measured. The Kemalist researchers were particularly delighted, when, in 1935, they opened up the tomb of Sinan, the great Ottoman architect of Armenian or Greek origin, to measure his skull and to discover that he “was not only culturally, but racially Turkish.”

Hanioğlu’s Princeton-University-Press book reveals many such little-known facts about the ideas of the man who founded the first Turkish Republic. And it gives many reasons to think that we might need a second one.


2 Comments so far ↓

  1. Kathy Weemer says:

    Nice Review Mustafa, the Turkish Republic is still a mystery to me, I think that I will grab a copy of the book based on your review. Sounds riveting.


  2. nyoped says:

    It is no surprise (nor a bad thing) that many 19th and 20th century politicians did not trust religious institutions. Several founding fathers (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison) of the United States were self-proclaimed deists. Founded by secular leaders United States was the first democracy among so-called Christian
    nations. It is no surprise that the first democracy among so-called Muslim nations was Turkey. Ataturk, the founding father of Republic of Turkey, was a secular leader. By the way him not trusting religious institutions does not make him a Nazi-lie [1] as the author implies. It just makes him a son of enlightenment age. Very much like Thomas Jefferson.

    What is the big deal with Ataturk calling Islam “Arab religion”? It is an Arab religion. Besides Thomas Jefferson rewrote the whole bible.

    I am lucky that I happen to live in two countries that were found by leaders like Jefferson and Ataturk.

    The assertion that “eradication of religion from the public square would soon result in ‘ersatz religion’ filling the vacuum” is slippery slope fallacy [2]. Religious people (especially political ones) are so eager to “prove” the necessity of religions. However, it takes more than a few slippery slope examples to prove the assertion that belief in a magic man in the sky is necessary for the good of society.

    [1] Godwin’s law (also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies) is a humorous observation that states s an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.

    [2] Slippery slope is an informal fallacy. A slippery slope argument states that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant effect, much like an object given a small push over the edge of a slope sliding all the way to the bottom

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