Friday, 5 August 2016

Ataturk by Andrew Mango (And some connections with Erdogan)

Turkey works.

Transport operates like clock-work; there is law and order; health care is reasonable; and for the last ten years or so the economy has been thriving . Turkey's success stands in contrast to the chaos running riot in much of the Middle East.

The man mainly responsible for the success of modern Turkey is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He deserves a thorough biography, and Andrew Mango delivers. We are taken to the details of Ataturk's life, but the author never loses sight of what was achieved for Turkey.

First and foremost Ataturk secured the independence of Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. This was a heroic and monumental achievement. In 1918 Turkey was anything but independent. The country was under the control of Britain and France, and then in 1919 the Greeks occupied the Izmir region. By 1923 Ataturk had driven out the Greeks and negotiated the withdrawal of the British and French.

Secondly Ataturk secured the stability of the new republic. He abolished the Sultanate and set up the shape of a parliamentary democracy. There was an assembly, an executive led by a prime-minister, and as president Ataturk was the head of state till his death in 1938. While there were opposition groups in parliament, Turkey was not really a democracy in Ataturk's life-time. However neither was the new government a tyranny. There was what Mango calls, 'measured terrorism'. So, after an attempt on Ataturk's life in 1926 there was a wide sweeping up of all opposition elements. Likewise there was a robust response to the Kurds in 1924 and a religious uprising in 1930. Innocent people suffered in this suppression of dissent. However stability was ensured and there was a smooth transition of power when Ataturk died. And later when his successor, Ismet Inonu was voted out, Inonu bowed to the ballot box.

Thirdly Ataturk ensured that Turkey largely became a homogeneous country. There is one dominant people, the Turks; one language, Turkish; one dominant religion, Sunni Islam. Ataturk is recorded as calling the 1915 pogrom against the Armenians 'a shameful act'. And it is well known that he was no friend of the 'Young Turks' who were responsible for that genocide. However Ataturk was a military man and a Turkish nationalist. The Christian minorities had welcomed the Greek invasion in 1919. They constituted a threat. Hence it was Ataturk's troops that oversaw the barbaric destruction of the Christian quarters of Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1922, and it was his diplomats who signed up for a transfer of all Greeks from Turkey to Greece under the terms of the 1923 Lausanne Agreement.  Ataturk's attitude towards the Kurds was also severe: their nationalism was crushed, their culture suppressed. The aim was that they be wholly assimilated into Turkey. This policy of course has failed: hence the conclusion that under Ataturk Turkey 'largely became a homogeneous country.'

Fourthly Ataturk modernized Turkey. Today wherever you look you see his hand. Indeed Mango stresses that this was Ataturk's great passion: to see Turkey take her place among the 'civilised' nations. For Ataturk this meant driving out superstition and ignorance which came with religion, and bringing in education and science. While he famously said that he sometimes wished that all religions were 'at the bottom of the sea', Ataturk was not a crusading atheist like a Lenin or Stalin, indeed he was quite content for people to express their faith in the mosque or at home. However he was fiercely hostile to mullahs having any say in the public sphere. So the Caliphate was abolished and legislation was enacted to keep religion strictly separated from the state. The new priests were to be the educators and scientists. Hence there was a massive expansion in education. And not just for boys. While at home it would seem Ataturk's attitude was more traditional, in public he was committed to giving more rights to women. To many it was a surprise that the world's first fighter pilot was from Turkey. This was Sabhia Gorken, one of Ataturk's adopted daughters.

In 1934 all Turks had to choose a surname as a part of the country's modernization programme, given what he achieved for his country it is fitting Mustafa Kemal chose 'Ataturk', father of the Turks. Nobody else was allowed to bear this name.

In the aftermath of the failed coup (July 2016) there has been talk that it represented some sort of mighty soul struggle between the spirit of the secularist Ataturk on the one hand, and the Islamist Erdogan on the other.

At best this is simplistic, at worse it is meddling nonsense.

Erdogan, like most other Turks, is not from an elite officer class like Ataturk, but from a conservative Muslim family. There is no doubt he respects Islam. Hence the ban on wearing the head-scarf has been lifted; Islamic schools have been allowed; alcohol cannot be sold near schools, nor between 10.00 p.m - 6.00 a.m.  But this does not make Erdgogan into a Turkish Ayatollah Khomeini crusading for the full implementation of Sharia law. Erdogan wears a suit and tie and during his over twenty years of being in public office there has been no talk of an all out ban on alcohol, or forcing women to cover up as is common in other Muslim states. Erdogan's record does not reveal a religious visionary, but a pragmatist: just like Ataturk.

For Ataturk in 1918 and Tayyip Erdogan in 2016 there was and is only one important question: what works for Turkey? Their answers are similar. Like Ataturk, Erdogan has put the security of the state first. And, just like Ataturk, this means using an assassination attempt, which he endured in July 2016, as a reason to cast a very wide net to deal with his opponents. Also just like Ataturk, Erdogan is not prepared to see an autonomous Kurdish region on his border. This is not about ruthlessness; it's about national security. Also just like Ataturk, Erdogan is focused on economic modernisation, hence the gleaming tramways, smooth motorways, and soon a new tunnel connecting Europe and Asia.

But what of Erdogan's sympathy for the Islamic voice? Surely this is out of line with Kemalism. Possibly not. It is also pragmatism. Ataturk lived at a time when nationalism was in its heyday, education and science were going to usher in a modern paradise. Hence Ataturk was able to marginalise religion. That is not the case today. For a raft of reasons the shine has faded on the 'civilised' nations and for at least thirty years or so there has been a growing hostility against modernism. It would not be pragmatic to ignore the voice of religion. Especially if you want to win political power through the ballot box.

And this brings us to the final connection between Ataturk and Erdogan. In over 600 pages Mango makes it very clear that Ataturk is not a blood thirsty tyrant. He was a man who had to steer the ship of state from the storm or war followed by the rocks of occupation to the choppy sea of independence. Ataturk hated being called a dictator, though he sometimes had to act like one to get to those waters. Genuinely Kemal wanted to see Turkey develop a modern parliamentary democracy. And despite now five military coups, Turkey still is a functioning democracy. Erdogan is in power because of votes. So the response to the recent coup is in essence a response to preserve the legacy he has been bequeathed, not by some religious visionary, but by the practical father of modern Turkey: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. 

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