The Westernization of Turkey

Modern day Turkey is located in an area that was the heart of the Ottoman Empire; one of the largest Islamic empires in history. Yet today, Turkey is one of the most western style Islamic nations, and is even a candidate for entrance into the European Union. Though it's history is relatively short, the series of events that led up to the Republic of Turkey's westernized state is quite complicated. Through that history, Turkey has been able to balance the demands of maintaining a republic with Islamic traditions.

It would seem as if modern situations in the Middle East mirror aspects of Turkey's history. And, these recent events in world history may tempt Americans to believe that this transformation must have been induced by some sort of allied nation-building efforts after the world wars.1 Though the United States' history influenced the transformation, it was then promulgated by the Turks.

The American Revolution and establishment of the republic of the United States in the late 18th century was followed by a spread of republicanism and nationalism across the globe in the 19th century. Prior to this movement, nationalism in the Ottoman Empire was based primarily upon religion since that was the most unifying force. This new type of nationalism was based upon ethnicity, and the size of the Ottoman Empire and the variety of people under it's rule made it particularly susceptible to this new type of nationalism. The empire also used the millet system, which was an early form of religious tolerance, to help them control their vast territory. Under the millet system, non-Muslim religious bureaucracies were allowed to preside over their people's laws, so long as they administrators swore allegiance to the empire. The long term effect was that religious and ethnic boundaries were essentially left in place, and this aided the spread of ethnic nationalism.

Turkish nationalism was obviously the most important nationalism movement in Turkish history, but in reality all of the nationalistic movements under the Ottoman Empire were at least loosely intertwined. The tensions between these groups combined with the Empire's inability to reconcile them contributed to it's fall. Turkish nationalism started with the Turanian Society in 1893, which lead to the Turkish Society, the Turkish Hearth, and eventually the Turkish National Movement.

The Turkish nationalists joined forces with other nationalistic groups to reinstate parliament and started the movement to dissolve the monarchy after Sultan Abdul Hamid II suspended the Ottoman parliament. This marked the beginning of the end for the Ottoman Empire. The onset of the first world war may have delayed the ultimate demise of the empire, but in the end it contributed to the downfall.

As a member of the Ittifak Devletleri, or what we know as the Central Powers, the Ottoman Empire was on the loosing side of World War I. The war officially ended for them with the signing of the Armistice of Mudros on October 30th, 1918. With the armistice, the Ottoman Empire gave up military control of all regions outside of Anatolia and acquiesced to the Allies' military presence across their lands. The nations that comprised the Allied powers had divergent opinions on what to do with the Ottoman Empire, which ultimately lead to it's partitioning, leaving the Ottoman Empire with only the Anatolia region. This partitioning was official implemented with the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres on August 10th, 1920.

After the Armistice of Mudros, the British and the French occupied Constantinople and each nation also controlled distinct areas of Eastern Anatolia. At the same time the Greeks and Italians were fighting over western portions of Anatolia. The only portion of Anatolia that the allies were not laying claims to was the rugged north central region. The Turkish nationalists, who were not please with how their country was being dissevered, began to organize in this central region which included Ankara.

During this time a former military commander and war hero named Mustafa Kemal was appointed as Inspector General of the remaining Ottoman military forces in Anatolia. His primary job was to oversee the organized disbanding of the troops, but he used the communication resource at his disposal to communicate the Allies' activities to the Turkish people and organize various nationalist groups. The British forces and the Sultan discovered what Mustaka Kemal was doing and began looking for a way to stop it. They held an election and ushered in a new parliament in hopes of appeasing the people. But, it quickly became apparent that the Sultan was effectively a puppet of the British and the parliament only had power to implement laws that were agreeable to the British. In spite of this, the nationalists convinced parliament to enact Misak-i Milli. This was a pact that affirmed nationalist policies and ran contrary to what the Allies were attempting to accomplish.

At this point the British decided that they must take directly control of Turkey themselves, and to do so they would implement western style Christian based governments. They dissolved the parliament, and in March of 1920 the British began taking control of government agencies and arresting nationalist leaders. They also issued a fatwa, an Islamic legal decree, stating that the truly faithful would not be led astray by the nationalists. As a final measure Mustafa Kemal and other prominent leaders were sentenced to death in absentia.

Under the pretense of freeing the Caliphate from Allied control, Mustafa Kemal responded that the capital of Anatolia was now in Ankara due to the corruption in Constantinople. There he set up the Grand National Assembly. To fill the assembly he asked governors and military commanders to conduct elections for the delegates. On April 23, 1920 the Grand National Assembly adjourned for the first time with Mustafa Kemal as the chief.

In April of 1920 the Turkish War of Independence began. Just as reoccurred in modern Middle Eastern history, the British underestimated the diligence of the insurgent militia.2 They dispatched numerous small units reinforced with elements of the Sultan's army to eliminate them. In battle many of the Sultan's soldier defected. And though the militia was temporarily routed, the British became worried about their odds of success. In commissioned studies the British determined that at least 25 divisions would be required to ensure success. Not only did the British lack the roughly 250,000 men required, they also faced a political problem. The Great War had just ended, and there was little will to engage in another campaign of that scale. The British decided that it would be best to let other nations do the fighting and made arrangements for Greece to take control of some territories. At various times throughout the years 1920 and 1921 the Turkish Nationalists were fighting the Greeks in the East, the Armenians in the West, and the French in the South. The Turks were essentially surrounded, but they managed to defend their lands thanks to Italy and Russia weapons and the leadership of Mustafa Kemal as commander in chief.

By late 1922 it was clear that the Turkish Nationalists had firm control of Anatolia, and the stage was set for the Armistice of Mudanya, ending the Turkish War of Independence. The armistice gave sovereignty of Constantinople back to the Turks as well as lands in the west controlled by the Greeks. With this success the Turkish Grand National Assembly decided to abolish the Sultanate, officially marking the end of the Ottoman Dynasty on November 17th, 1922.
Latter that month the Conference of Lausanne was convened in Switzerland to negotiate a treaty that would replace the Treaty of Sèvres. The new Turkish government lead by Mustafa Kemal was not involved in the Treaty of Sèvres, so they did not recognize it. Out of the conference came the Treaty of Lausanne, which was enacted July 24th, 1923. The treaty was ratified by the new Republic of Turkey and serves as international recognition of it's sovereignty.

With the international recognition of the Republic of Turkey the nationalist could turn their attention to setting up a more Western style of government. The first step was to establish that the government would be secular. This meant the abolishment of the Caliphate on March 3, 1924. The bicameral parliamentary system was replaced with the unicameral Grand National Assembly. The representatives in the assembly were directly elected. The office of Prime Minister and President were also established, and Mustafa Kemal served as the first president.

The reform and westernization of Turkey did not end with the establishment of a modern secular government. Mustafa Kemal and his fellow revolutionaries had a set of reform goals they wanted to implement that reflected their pragmatism and were modeled after Muhammad Ali's work in Egypt. The reform goals cover six major topics: republicanism, populism, secularism, revolutionism, nationalism, and statism. This set of major goals latter came to be collectively knows as the Kemalist ideology, or Alti Ok which means six arrows.

Mustafa Kemal's idea of republicanism was basically the same as the classic definition, the nation should be lead by an elected leader rather than by a leader selected through heredity. Kemal used his sense of pragmatism to explain these concepts to an Islamic nation who had been under dynastic rule for centuries. He convinced his citizens that the laws on earth should be defined by the practical needs of an earthly existence.

In many ways populism goes hand-in-hand with republicanism, nations should be governed by the entire population and not just the elite. But, at this time in world history not all people were equal, especially in Islamic areas. Women were forbidden from voting in many countries, but in the Islamic world they were also many times forced to wear head coverings. During Mustafa Kemal's reforms women were ensured the right to vote and the right to doff their headgear if they so chose.

There were some very obvious secular activities, like the removal of the Caliphate, but Kemal's idea of secularism went much deeper. The secular ideas of Turkey are similar to those in the United States, but even more forceful, bordering on denial of freedom of religion. This was arguable necessary in a society with such strong religious convictions and nonsecular history. The government does not involve itself with religion, and religion does not involve itself with government. The secular ideas have some overlap with populism, and have caused some conflicts. In secular Turkey, women working for the government in any capacity are forbidden from wearing Islamic headgear. This issue came to the forefront as recently as 1999 when Merve Kavakçi was not allowed to be sworn in as a member of parliament because she insisted on wearing a religious headscarf. When this occurred the speaker of parliament summed up Turkey's official opinion very well by stating, “No one may interfere with the private life of individuals, but this is not a private space. This is the supreme foundation of the state.”3

The portion of Kemalist ideology that deals with revolutionism is really to solidify that the transformations are permanent. The revolution was that the old nonsecular systems were replaced with westernized, modern, secular methods.

Nationalism was one of the core ideas that contributed to the Turkish war of independence and their claim to parts of the Ottoman Empire, but the Kemal version transcends this. The new idea of nationalism is that anyone living within Turkey is Turkish, that is the sense of society and unity that they desire, a sense of unity separate from religious and ethnic boundaries. This concept is important since the goal of it is to shift loyalties from tribal rulers, dynastic rulers, and religious rulers to rulers of the state where were elected by consensus of the nation.

Modern day Turkey still struggles with maintaining nationalism in some areas, and today this impacts their ability to join the European Union.4 The Kurds in the south eastern portion of Turkey are considered to be Turks by Turkey, but some factions still desire the creation of their own nation.

Kemal's concept of stateism was intended to reinforce the notion of the country's oversight of the economy. The nation will allow for free enterprise, but will step in where free enterprise is unwilling or unable to fulfill a need. To further these goals Mustafa Kemal built a state railway system, established a five day work week, and switched the nation to the Gregorian calendar.

Mustafa Kemal's ideas on how to westernize Turkey were far reaching, he even encouraged Turkish men to wear modern European clothing. Indeed the breadth of Kemal's reforms have elicited some criticism, at times the policies go against western concepts of freedom of religion and speech. Though by most accounts the laws were eased after the nations early years, some very restrictive policies remain. Currently it is still illegal to “insult Turkishness”. And, in the twenty-first century people are still being arrested for infractions.5

Despite maintaining these laws that are strict by western standards, the fact that Turkey has been fairly stable for nearly a hundred years is a testament to their effectiveness. Kemal's reforms and the sometimes overreaching Turkish laws have struck a good compromise between the country's western and near eastern desires.

Though Mustafa Kemal did not accomplish all of these achievements on his own, he was a major driving force and receives much of the credit. In honor of these accomplishments he was given the honorary title Atatürk, which means “Father of the Turks”.

Not only through geography, but also through the diligence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey has become the place where the west and the near east meet.

Originally written June 11th, 2009

Comments (newest first)

Randomly came here while searching for something unrelated.

Thanks for the good and accurate article.

Happy new year from Turkey.
Published: 2009-11-24