Kemalism is dead, but not Ataturk
Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk (1881 - 1938).
May 2nd, 2012
11:18 AM ET

Kemalism is dead, but not Ataturk

Editor's Note: Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a GPS contributor. You can find all his blog posts here. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Soner Cagaptay.

By Soner Cagaptay – Special to CNN

Has Turkey’s twentieth century experience with Kemalism - a Europe-oriented top-down Westernization model - come to an end?

To a large extent: Yes.

Symbolically speaking, nothing could portend the coming end of Kemalism better than the recent public exoneration of Iskilipli Atif Hoca, a rare resistance figure to Kemalism in the early twentieth century. However, even if Kemalism might be withering away, ironically its founder Ataturk and his way of doing business seem to be alive in Turkey.

But first the story of Iskilipli Atif Hoca: In November 1925, Ataturk carried out perhaps the most symbolic of his reforms, banning all Turkish males from wearing the Ottoman fez in order to cement his country's commitment to European ideals. Ataturk wanted make Turks European head to toe and the abolition of the fez embodied this effort.

Most Turks acquiesced to Ataturk’s reforms, not just to the “hat reform” but also to deeper ones such as the “alphabet reform,” which changed the Turks’ script from an Arab alphabet-based one to its current Latin-based form, further connecting the Turks to European culture.

Ataturk was able to achieve these reforms with minor resistance thanks to the weight of his persona. After all, Ataturk - who had just liberated Turkey from a massive Allied occupation - was considered nothing short of a father to all Turks.

Some Turks, however, objected to his reforms.

Enter Atif Hoca, a cleric in the small central Anatolian town of Iskilip, who refused to adhere to Ataturk's “hat reform.” Atif Hoca defended his use of the fez, couching his objections in Islam. He rallied to protest against the reforms and began publishing essays in local papers. He was executed in February 1926, becoming a rare icon of resistance to Kemalism.

Recently though, Atif Hoca’s legacy has been reversed in the public eye. In February 2012, the government decided to name a public hospital in Iskilip - Atif Hoca’s hometown - after him. This dedication carries remarkable symbolic significance, as it is tantamount to honoring one of the best known anti-Kemalists to date, as well as signaling Turkey’s move to a post-Kemalist era.

Kemalism appears to have lost its influence, not just symbolically but also politically. In the past decade, Turkey has undergone a complete transformation. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won three consecutive elections since 2002, with increasing majorities. The AKP, representing a brand of Islam-based social conservatism, has since replaced Turkey’s former Kemalist ideology and secular elites. Turkey seems to be moving to a post-Kemalist era.

Though, this is not to suggest that Ataturk is out, too. On the contrary, Ataturk shapes the Turkish mindset in the post-Kemalist Turkey. The legacy of Turkey’s liberator is too powerful to resist even if Turkey is seemingly "moving on" from his ideology.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Ataturk’s legacy is that he wanted to restore Turkey’s great power status. To this end, Ataturk envisaged stripping Turkey of its Ottoman legacy and instilling in it a set of European standards and beliefs so that Turkey could successfully compete against its historic European rivals. In other words, Turkey could become more powerful than Europe only by becoming entirely European itself.

Turkey’s new elites have a different view of how to make the country powerful, not by abandoning the country’s Ottoman past or secularizing its religious values, but by embracing them. Though, the ultimate goal remains the same: Become powerful enough to compete against the Europeans. Even if the post-Kemalist Turkey is not going to emulate Europe, it will still treat it as a measuring stick.

A second aspect of Ataturk’s legacy that remains alive in post-Kemalist Turkey is top-down social engineering. In the same way that Ataturk wanted to shape modern Turkey in his own image, his successors will now want to do the same, imposing their own worldview on Turkish society.

In this regard, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a case-in-point. Like Ataturk, Erdogan seems willing to use the weight of his personality to remake Turkish society to match his worldview. Erdogan has already ruled Turkey longer than any other democratically-elected prime minister, and he might replace Ataturk as the country’s longest-reigning leader if he is elected as the president of Turkey in 2014. Like Ataturk, Erdogan seems willing to use his personal charisma to remake Turkish society to match his vision.

Ataturk often said “he wanted to raise contemporary European generations” among Turks. Recently, Erdogan said “he would like to raise religious generations” among the Turks. Kemalism may be dead, but Ataturk’s way of doing business appears to be alive and kicking in Turkey.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Soner Cagaptay.

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Topics: Turkey

soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. Mohamed

    Erdogan is first and foremost a man of substance and integrity. While Ataturk was against his own people's natural way of life which was Islam, Erdogan is with his people by giving them the freedom to 'live' the religious life. Ataturk had a brilliant mind as a leader. However, I feel he lacked wisdom in one crucial aspect. He forced change on people but that change will not last. Eventually it will reverse itself. Erdogan, on the other hand knows his people's inner needs and so he is only facilitating it. Yet, most commentators in the western press regard Ataturk as a visionary and Erdogan as reactionary! Why is that?

    May 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • SecularTurkishAmerican

      Mohamed, how dare you assume any religion is a "natural" way of life. Guess what I'm Turkish-American and do you know what that means. That means the only natural way of life is the life you CHOOSE. I can definitely say that is one of the reasons the middle east is so backwards. Israel, Turkey and all the Arab countries included. It is also obvious that as much as some people blame Zionists, and others Arabs, and others America, the truth is almost all people in the middle east have backwards opinions such as "x religion is a natural way of life" and that is why all of you are a little defective, I'm sad to say but I must say it since I'm one of the only Americans qualified to have an opinion on this matter.

      May 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      In hard times hard measures may be taken. Did Turkey have any other chance back in 1918. Do try to look at a person with the conditions of those times in mind. If not do not try to pass judgement on history.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Tulay S.

      Mohamed, you're not knowledgeable enough about Ataturk's philosophy, statesmanship, or his personality to make judgments. Also, you will NEVER understand what he means to us, 51% of the Turkish population who did not vote for Erdogan and AKP. My suggestion to you is to read about what's going on in Turkey lately. How all branches of the government is taken over by his party with no checks and balances and how he became the absolute power. Find out about why thousands of innocent students, professors, doctors, lawyers, writers, and military personnel are locked up in Silivri jail; most did not see a day in court after being there for many years. They're all blamed for being a part of a gang who want to destroy Erdogan and AKP. They're locked up with fake evidence and a secret phone call or e-mail sent by an unknown person. Yes, compare to Arab nations Turkey might seem like the cradle of democracy. However, compare to Europe and the U.S., Turkey has democracy only in name. The conditions during Ataturk's reign was totally different than today. There is nothing to justify Erdogan's "one man show". We would gladly give him to you.

      July 20, 2012 at 7:56 am | Reply
    • Joe

      Mohamed, you are full of it as your name already says it!

      April 28, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  2. Ali

    non-turks shoudl not assume much about islam and Turkey. Erdogan is a modern Taliban with deceptive ways to destroy secularism in Turkey...he and hios Feto gang hates Ataturk. I personally witnessed thei hatred to Ataturk once. it was scary. They hated Ataturk like Ataturk had done something eprsonal to them.

    Tukey and its western allies have much to fear from erdogan and his team, but they do not see it the danger..someone must save us from Ataturk hating closet talibans..

    May 2, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      I personally got to know a man who got educated on a schoolarship from an Islamist sect. This was back in 1986. When we discussed the details of what Atatürk did in the past, he got anngry at a stage and said "Just wait, our time is coming, you will be stoned to death". Maybe it was a word said in anger, or people of his belief were suppressed in those days. But this was his reaction. We got to be friends later and he did invite me to his wedding.

      May 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  3. Ali

    I am terrified by Westerners' increasing delightment of AKP and Feto (Fettullah Hodja as called) in the name of liberalism..These poeple killed Sehit Kubilay back in Ataturk's days..Search Wikipedia about it pelase...there is nothign they wont do for Islam..Their ultimate goal is sharia in Turkey, despite constant lies denying it...We Turks know their real face..

    May 2, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  4. Marine5484

    Whether Kemalism is dead or not, the Turks still need to grant the Kurds in Eastern Turkey their well deserved independence. If they don't, there will never be true peace in Turkey!

    May 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      It's funny Marine5484, that you're the only one here who said anything for the Kurds. It appears that the others here simply don't care!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
      • deniz boro

        People of Kurdish origin fought under Ataturk in the War of Independence of Turkey. They shed blood to save these land from foreign occupation. One must seperate a small group of PKK supporters from the larger group of Kurd origioned Turks who want to live a peaceful decent life just as the others. But this seperation got so far that some Kurdish origioned Turks fear to say they are Kurdish. This is just a result of PKK, a terrorist group who aim to divide Turkish people's unity. As an example we have people in the Blacksea coast who are Laz. They have a different language. The difference betwean Laz and Kurd is that no terrorist group set its mind to create diversion in the Blacksea region. Hence no Laz ever says he/she is Laz not Turk and wish for a Lazistan, Lazonia or Lazland.

        May 4, 2012 at 12:39 am |
      • George Patton

        Calling the Kurdish PKK terrorists deniz, is tantamount to calling this country's founders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin terrorists. It can be said that the British were fighting their own "war on terrorism" between1776 and 1783 as one would say today!!! In fact, the British always entertained the idea of regaining control of this country up to the War of 1812! Like we did then, the Kurds only want the right to home rule like we achieved in 1783 at the Treaty of Paris!!!

        May 4, 2012 at 9:41 am |
      • deniz boro

        If rules of patriotism were to stay as they were back in the 17th century there would be no end to civil and world wars. Real patriots of our day are mature and educated enough to solve there conflicts over the table. For your info George the rest who choose to take to sabotage and guns are still generally called TERRORIST.

        May 6, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Joe

      This will happen after US grants the same to the native Americans and Mexicans.

      April 28, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    In 1935, when surnames were introduced in Turkey, Mustafa Kemal was given the name Atatürk, meaning "Father of the Turks". Hence he was – as founder of Turkey's modern secular republic – revered as "Father of the Turks".

    May 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      He modernised and reformed Turkey. Abroad he strived for friendly relations with neighbours, a policy also embraced by current foreign minister, ahmet Davutoglu with his "zero problems with neighbours" foreign policy.

      May 2, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
      • deniz boro

        Atatürk was one of those people globally reknowned as a genious. He was a self actualizer aiming for perfection and is shown as an example of perfectionalists. He set an example and is a person to look up to no matter what your political view is.

        May 4, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  6. Brainwashed

    Something dies in this world because it deserves to be dead . Something comes back because it deserve to be come back.

    May 2, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply
  7. medhat

    this site is very good to learn english for free

    http://www.elearning-directory.com/arabic-see2

    May 2, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Reply
  8. Toppolina

    About time Turks realize that Ataturk despite his love for Turkey, he almost killed the core and the beauty of Turks and Turkey. There are strong views now stating that Ataturk was a Donmeh.... Hence his ferocious attack on Islam. Rageb Tayep Erdogan IS the new Turkish open minded patriot

    May 3, 2012 at 9:34 am | Reply
  9. deniz boro

    :) Nice article, if you are clever enough to read in betwean the lines. Clever wording. I always wandered what type of people would be so ambitious to bear the burden of being a state leader of any kind. Or go through so much just to be the head of anything. There are such people around us in every level of society, not just politics. This must be a seperate human inclination. Just look at Sarcozy... still sticking to his position; or Assad still fighting the inevitable. I guess some of this type of people have good horizons whereas some are twisted. In the long run you have to make a calculation to see the positive outcomes. I also wander why all good leaders have a degree of dictatorship and single-mindedness in their character.

    May 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      By the way I must admit that I admire Erdogan's rule and his ability along with most of his team – those he was allowed to choose. And do honestly fear of what would happen if he leaves the scene to those howling on the outskirts.

      May 4, 2012 at 12:49 am | Reply
  10. MAHMUd-D

    He is a biased supporter of Turkish recent government. It is also clear that he is not objective or balance seeker in his arguments. I read and now who is ATATURK and WHAT he dried to do. ERDOGAN is suppressive, DEMOCRACY-FETISHIST leader. He is using the Democracy as an instrument in order to gain legitimacy in his DİCTATORSHİP and COUNTER revolutionary actions. PLEASE FOLLOW TURKEY. !!!!! (L)

    May 20, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
    • tugce

      erdogan and democracy? Are you kidding!? He is the one who started destroying Turkey slowly and now unfortunatelly becomes fast, since most of people afraid of him. This is a dictatorship and lack of freedom and democracy. Turkey going back not forward because of him. He is the one who wants to get rid of the thoughts and love for the leader of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, from the citizens.

      June 12, 2012 at 7:13 am | Reply
  11. tugce

    Noone can destroy Ataturk from our hearts. Maybe he can erase Ataturk's name but the thoughts of Kemalism and love toward Ataturk will never end!!! Yes now everyone afraids of erdogan and its obvious that erdogan is taking Turkey back, to the past bad years. Every country in the world wants to go forward, civilized, powerful and wealthy; but its really impossible to understand that why we are trying to go back, loosing our freedom, loosing our democracy and free of speech. Its really sad.
    By the way it becomes very funny when you are comparing Ataturk and erdogan. We can't compare them, they are not in the same place or same level.

    June 12, 2012 at 7:19 am | Reply
    • Proud Muslim

      i think Turkish people are ashamed of their religion...we are ashamed of being followers of Prophet Mohammed P.B.U.H.
      why don't we make it simple i mean just follow Islam.....this is the only way we can get back our past glory and strength....and i think there is badly need to educate people about Islam.....Islamic studies should be taught in schools...religion can never be an obstacle to modernization....this is all what we need to make Turkish people understand......we are trying to adopt something which is not our own....come on! ....time to get up from the deep slumber we are in.....but but I also believe that people should be free to choose what ever they want and they should not be forced to do what thy don't want.....there is no law better that Allah's law......I don't know what kind of man Ataturk was because i didn't ever meet him and i was not even born at that time and by the way who are we to judge someone we never ever met ....so in that sense we can't possibly conclude that what that man did was wrong or right....let Almighty decide this.....all we need is to give people basic sense of Islam in the best way and if we don't do this so that would be so selfish of us..... May ALLAH guide us all to the right path..amin...peace out :)

      October 29, 2013 at 12:25 am | Reply
  12. deniz boro

    Atatürk did an extraordinary thing. A truely selfless thing. He brought a people together; Remind them of their power to make a body of them to fight off the intruders. He did not stop there but went on to guide these people through several major changes. In almost 10 years he made a land of almost 80 million (equavelent of today) to read, be free and well equal in gender-wise. Turkey was one of the first lands to give voting rights to women. That must have taken a lot of contraversy. This is the MAN I look up to. This man lived about 75 years ago. I have not yet seen his equal. He lived in 1920's- 30's but never tried to be the next Sultan of the Ottoman.This is the reason we look up to Atatürk.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Reply
    • Azem

      Agree in many ways to the comments, however a minor correction towards the level of ambition of Ataturk, which are stated perfectly with his attempts to marry Princess Ulviye, daughter of Vahidettin. We cannot look passed his contributions and great leadership in a time of desperate needs though.

      May 19, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  13. sezerdege

    Point me a leader that he could let the new generation to make his sign as a tattoo on their body. Can you? I don't think so.

    Today, millions of young people (and its dramatically increasing) having Ataturk's name on their body as tattoo with a great proud of it. Yes, even 75 years after his death.

    I'm living out of Turkey at the moment, I have put his portrait on my walls at home, his sign stickers onto my cars rear window.

    All in all, we feel him, we love him and there is no any power can let us forget about him and his ideas. He and his ideas will exist forever inside of us.

    Long live Ataturk!

    November 10, 2012 at 4:06 am | Reply
  14. Geordhy Middle East History

    Erdogan to me is in a lot of ways simular to Ataturk for a couple of reasons; he bases the rules and reforms he would like to put in on what he thinks is best for the country. He also believes that Turkey should be more developed than what it is now and realizes that working together with modernized countries is undeniable. However, he is not the same as Ataturk because of his religious beliefs. Erdogan believes that religion should have the number one priority in society and he confirms that by saying that he wants to raise a religious generation. What Ataturk did was and still is extremely important to Turkey and its development. However, now times have changed and the more "religious based" party is in power and they will try to reform as much as they think is neccesary, but in the end the Turkish people will always love Ataturk and would never allow for his reforms to completely disappear.

    December 16, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  15. Hakan Cifter

    Kemalism is dead, but not Ataturk... Are you kidding me ? Go to Turkey and watch around! Ataturk is everywhere ... and never die ... Because he is founder of the Turkey and Best Leader of the world... We are Turkish we are not Arab! That is mean we believe Islam but Islam can`t control us! We control Islam and save... 50 million Turks join the military for free ( it is mean for honor) and nobody can take our land... Because our military is believe Kemalism ! And please Don`t think we will be like Syria and we will have a Kurdish spring! Nobody is sitting at home and watching terrorists ... My 80 years old grand father going to take his gun and start to kill terrorists :)

    December 29, 2012 at 9:17 am | Reply
  16. deniz boro

    I have seen several Turkish youngesters tattooing Ataturk's signature on their body. Although a tattoo is not lightly taken by the family of a boy/girl of about 18 years. The previous state founded on these lands of Anatolia was the Ottomans. In Turkish it is "Osmanlılar" because the founder of this state was Osman Bey. All Turks live in Turkiye now. And not Ataturkiye. Or Ataturkistan. Or Ataturkland. Can anyone question this intent without any side-steps?

    February 20, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
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    June 22, 2013 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  18. deniz boro

    Please note that I do not use this media to promote ny recent opinions. If I do it may be deadly on me.

    September 20, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  19. Truth

    Did you guys know that dictator Mustafa Kemal was, in fact, a masonic Jew and a British Agent?

    Check out this website: http://www.atajew.com

    Thank you.

    October 26, 2013 at 11:22 am | Reply

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