Was Turkey’s Atatürk an authoritarian leader or a visionary European?
by Demir Murat Seyrek/ Photo credits: Euronews
Atatürk's vision remains a symbol of hope for Turks who aspire to achieve a fully democratic future. His name continues to be synonymous with optimism, representing the enduring spirit of the nation, Dr Demir Murat Seyrek writes.
Turkey is commemorating the 85th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's death, a date that coincides with the centenary of the secular republic he founded.
In Europe, Atatürk — a surname bestowed on him by the Turkish Parliament meaning "Father of the Turks" — and his true legacy often remain poorly understood, with discussions revolving around well-worn clichés.
Meanwhile, less than two weeks ago, millions of people throughout Turkey marked the 100th anniversary of the modern, secular republic.
While official celebrations were relatively low-key, initiatives by citizens, NGOs, and opposition-led municipalities transformed it into a grand celebration.
In one single day, nearly 1.2 million individuals paid a visit to Atatürk's mausoleum in Ankara. It begs the question: what exactly were millions of Turks so enthusiastically celebrating on 29 October?
A republic of cautious optimism
Without answering this, we cannot truly grasp Atatürk's essence. Turkey undoubtedly faces significant challenges in terms of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights, and the economy, which might lead one to believe that pro-democracy Turks had little to celebrate.
However, their jubilant spirit was fuelled by the hope instilled by the Republic and its visionary principles established by Atatürk.
Despite significant challenges, what distinguishes Turkey from other illiberal democracies is the republic’s legacy and democratic culture, which perseveres despite numerous historical failures.
This is why people persist, even after experiencing disappointing election results following 21 years of AKP rule.
Turkey is a republic of cautious optimism, and as long as this optimism and enthusiasm endure, there is hope for a fully democratic future. Atatürk and his legacy serve as important symbols of this optimism, with his vision for Turkey still regarded by millions as the sole remedy for today's challenges.
One may also ponder whether Atatürk's legacy is still thriving or if this is now Recep Tayyip Erdogan's republic.
His enduring popularity in Turkey, 85 years after his passing, may not be readily perceived in Europe.
According to a recent survey, 64.7% believe that Atatürk is the leader who left a lasting mark on the history of the Republic, while only 15.4% attribute this to Erdogan. The same survey reveals that, despite conservative policies over the last 21 years, only 28.6% believe that secularism is unnecessary.
Another survey conducted in October by Metropoll showed that a whopping 86.4% of Turkish citizens feel grateful to Atatürk for what he did to the country.
Diversity stemming from equal opportunities
The concept of “secular/Kemalist elite” is one of the common clichés associated with Turkey.
According to the prevailing European perspective, until Erdogan's leadership, Turkey was allegedly governed by a “secular Kemalist elite” minority.
However, it remains rather unclear who exactly comprised this so-called elite. Even during the 1990s, a period known for the ultra-secular policies in Turkish history, the backgrounds of two presidents, originating from centre-right political parties, were far from elitist.
Turgut Ozal hailed from Malatya in the Eastern Anatolia region, with Kurdish origins, and Süleyman Demirel was from Isparta, a small Anatolian city where he worked as a shepherd in his childhood.
A closer look at the high-level bureaucracy, including the military, reveals that profiles were and continue to be diverse.
This diversity owes much to the republic's education system and the equal opportunities it provides within its constraints.
It is thanks to this republic that Erdogan, originally from a village in Rize in the Black Sea region, could rise to become the prime minister and president of Turkey.
A modern European republic was Atatürk's priority
Another prevailing cliché in Europe pertains to the early years of the republic and the reforms implemented by Atatürk.
The common European perspective characterises him as an authoritarian leader. While many of the reforms were indeed implemented top-down, his primary objective was the establishment of a modern, secular republic based on European values.
Some may argue that he created a new ideology, but this is not the case. His fundamental ideology was rooted in the Enlightenment and values that had evolved in Europe following that era, with the aim of creating a Western-style secular nation-state and a free society.
At the core of his ideology was positivism, with a strong emphasis on education, science, culture, and art. The ultimate goal was for Turkey to become an integral part of the European family, based on shared values.
Atatürk and other prominent figures of that era were profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment. Importantly, this was not a novel phenomenon.
Guiding Turkey toward a European future
The process of Westernisation in the Ottoman Empire had already commenced in the 18th century, with the French republican model and philosophers of Enlightenment playing a pivotal role.
Young, educated Ottoman bureaucrats, including those in the military, demonstrated a keen interest in concepts of democracy, human rights, and the modern nation-state. They were also proficient in multiple languages, including French.
Atatürk himself had encountered the ideas of Montesquieu and Voltaire during his time at the Monastir Military High School, located in what is now North Macedonia.
However, it was Rousseau's work, "The Social Contract," that arguably exerted the most profound influence on his thinking about the modern secular nation-state.
He laid the foundation for fundamental institutions that would guide Turkey toward a European future, drawing inspiration from various European countries as models.
Many of his reforms were ground-breaking, even ahead of his time, notably in the realm of women's rights. Thanks to his visionary leadership, Turkish women achieved full universal suffrage 11 years before France, 14 years before Belgium, and 36 years before Switzerland.
A free society built on equal rights
Can a man who held a deep-seated vision of democracy, freedoms, and equality, spending his life immersed in the works of philosophers while nurturing dreams of creating a modern European state, truly be characterised as an authoritarian figure?
Perhaps his top-down approach to reforms gave rise to an image of a strong one-man rule, but his style was often rooted in a participatory model, which included extensive debates.
Even in the midst of the independence war of 1919-1923, Atatürk was determined to establish the Grand National Assembly of Turkey with parliamentarians from all around the country.
He did not encounter major issues of legitimacy during the reform process. This is why his reforms and visionary outlook found acceptance among a significant majority, which also explains his enduring popularity 85 years later.
Of course, he made mistakes because he was driven by the belief that the new republic had no time to spare in its efforts to catch up with Western countries. The enthusiasm for rapid transformation indeed led to some undemocratic practices.
However, this does not alter the fact that his ultimate goal was to establish a democratic nation with a free society built on the foundation of equal rights. If his objective had been consolidating power, he unquestionably had the power and the means to establish a one-man system, but that was never his intention.
'Peace at home, peace in the world'
This vision also extended to his foreign policy, which was grounded in realism, regional and international cooperation, multilateralism, and the motto of “Peace at home, peace in the world”.
Atatürk prioritised the creation of regional stability and peace. After years of conflict with Greece, he proactively sought reconciliation and signed the 1930 Ankara Agreement of Friendship, Neutrality, and Conciliation with Greek PM Eleftherios Venizelos, who later nominated Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize as a recognition of his efforts.
Atatürk was a strong advocate for regional cooperation and integration efforts. Among other initiatives, this is why he initiated the 1934 Balkan Pact, a treaty signed in Athens by Turkey, Greece, Romania, and Yugoslavia.
The objective was to promote peaceful coexistence, emphasising cooperation over differences, and enabling Turkey and regional countries to focus on development and reforms.
He viewed this as an early step toward European integration, asserting that eventually, Western European nations, particularly France and Germany, should follow suit.
Atatürk not only envisioned Turkey as a part of the European family but also expressed keen enthusiasm for European integration as a means of ensuring lasting peace in Europe.
Atatürk's vision remains a beacon of hope
Despite the significant challenges facing Turkey today, the republic founded by Atatürk continues to serve as a safe haven in a region marred by conflicts and instability.
For decades, the country has opened its doors to refugees from the Balkans, the Black Sea, Caucasus, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
While the current situation may appear disheartening, Atatürk's vision remains a symbol of hope for Turks who aspire to achieve a fully democratic future. His name continues to be synonymous with optimism, representing the enduring spirit of the nation.
That's why you can witness millions still visiting his mausoleum, his photo adorning living rooms in distant Anatolian villages, displayed on small fishing boats in the Aegean Sea or even carried on the school bags of primary school students.
This is why to this day, every year on 10 November at 9:05 am, life comes to a standstill in Turkey for a minute. Turks do this to honour Atatürk, their visionary leader who passed away 85 years ago, and to remember to keep his vision alive.
The original article is available here: https://www.euronews.com/2023/11/10/was-turkeys-ataturk-an-authoritarian-leader-or-a-visionary-european