OP-ED: Kemalism: ideology and politics
Atatürk was perhaps a naïve believer in the dynamic nature of the scientific-rationalist European civilisation but his basic stand was that such a civilisation was based on universal principles of equality and freedom and inclusive citizenship
The Turkish Republic rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Atatürk and his followers, mainly Turks but also many Kurds, fought during the War of Independence (1919-23) for every inch of territory, which in now included within the legally-recognised boundaries of the Turkish Republic. But in achieving this great feat, Atatürk turned his back on the historical moorings of the Turkish people — the predominantly Muslim Middle East. How does this make sense if it makes sense at all?
We can get some clues to this great puzzle if we remember that not only the non-Muslim subjects but also Arab Muslims revolted against the Ottoman Empire. In 1916 the infamous Arab revolt, prompted by the British secret agent Lawrence of Arabia and led by Sharif Hussain of Mecca and his sons, hastened the end of an empire which for several centuries had represented the unity of the vastly diverse Sunni Muslims of the Middle East. The Arab revolt was preceded by more than half a century of intrigues and conspiracies in which many Arab notables and intellectuals contributed to the creation of a general feeling that Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Quran were the products of an Arabic cultural and religious milieu and therefore leadership of the Muslim world belonged legitimately to the Arabs. The Turks were portrayed usurpers who had established despotic rule in the name of Ottomanism.
The argument emanating authoritatively from the Egyptian fundamentalist Rashid Rida (1865-1935) went further and revived the idea that leadership of the Muslim world belonged only to the tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh. It is not surprising that the British found the family of the Sharifs of Mecca who traced their descent directly from the Prophet (PBUH) as their best bet in provoking the Arab revolt. That revolt shattered Turkish morale completely and the Ottomans were defeated.
The secular Turkish Republic which supplanted the Empire fundamentally altered the ideology and balance of power, but the Muslim identity of the Turks was allowed to remain solid and steadfast though in a modernistic way. And that is my point — Atatürk was perhaps a naïve believer in the dynamic nature of the scientific-rationalist European civilisation but his basic stand was that such a civilisation was based on universal principles of equality and freedom and inclusive citizenship.
It was the progressive understanding of the ethos of the French Revolution that inspired Atatürk and his military generals, all of whom were of Sunni extraction, to opt out of the Ottoman pan-Islamic framework, for which no practical use remained after the Arabs had turned their back on it, and instead devote themselves to Turkish interests. Indeed Sunni political theory had always seen the state as a positive and necessary institution for promoting welfare, and Atatürk wanted to carry forward this tradition in the light of modern knowledge.
It is within this historical context that we need to review the main features of Kemalism. The ideology of Kemalism contains the following six principles: republicanism, populism or social solidarity, secularism, reformism, nationalism and statism. All the six elements in the Kemalist ideology are easy to understand for an educated person and I am sure that most reasonable people would agree that they are necessary for a country to develop and progress. Of course in the application of these principles the Kemalists did resort to force and the dress code and the hat law purported to result in the westernisation of Turkish society were undeniably acts of top-down coercion.
Anyone familiar with the history of revolutions would concede that gigantic changes involving the whole of society inevitably meet with stiff resistance and consequently result in bitter and bloody conflict between those who want to make the revolution and those who want to stop it. The Gandhian type of non-violent revolution holds a lot of attraction as an alternative model, but even sympathetic students of Gandhism would agree that his ideas did not really succeed in convincing the oppressors to abandon their wicked caste and class oppression and therefore these evils abound in Indian society.
As far as Islam as the religion and identity of the Turkish people is concerned, I think the basic structure remains the same as it was during the Ottoman period, only its oppressive features have been eliminated. Mosques are open all the time and Ramadan is observed with great enthusiasm. More such freedoms should be allowed. The Sunni-Hanafi branch of Islam continues to enjoy state patronage and all publications of the Directorate of Religious Affairs rely on Sunni principles. The only change is that during the Ottoman period the Alevite minority (Alevis are a heterodox sect with some connection to Shiism. They constitute some 15-20 per cent of the Turkish population) was a persecuted group, but now Alevis are accepted as equal citizens. In fact in the new milieu of freedom the Alevis are less fearful and are demanding that instead of the Directorate of Religious Affairs and the clerics (who are employees of the state) representing only Sunni theology they, as important religious group, should also be given a share in the state funds.
The major criticism of the Kemalist revolution and reforms that I can think of is that not only Turks but a majority of Kurds supported Atatürk during the War of Independence. It is therefore imperative that the Kurdish minority (15-20 per cent) enjoys the right to use the Kurdish language and practise its culture freely. There are no constitutional or legal restrictions on Kurds, who are also predominantly Sunnis though of the Shafei branch, from attaining any position in Turkish society, but they have had to assimilate themselves into the Turkish mainstream in order to avail their rights as equal citizens. This is an outdated approach and has no place in a democratic 21st century Turkey.
In so far as foreign policy is concerned, Turkey upholds the policy that both Israelis and Palestinians are entitled to their independent but separate states. This is a sign of maturity. Turkey should be encouraged to use its influence to persuade the Israelis to come back to the negotiating table in complete sincerity. It will restore Turkey’s rightful place in the region from which it once withdrew in great disappointment.
The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has authored two books and written extensively for various newspapers and journals