Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Public Domain

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Republic of Turkey, Public Domain

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

In this article, we shall discuss the history, rise to power, political thought, political policies, and legacy of Mustafa Kemal, who is known as Ataturk. We shall discuss his rise in the military ranks, when and how he came to power, as well as his policies, which today are often referred to as “Kemalism.” Namely, we shall focus on all of them, with particular attention to his position on secularism in the Turkish government.

Early History of Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal was born in the year 1881 in the city of Salonika (which is today modern day Thessaloniki in Greece). At the time, Salonika was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Mustapha Kemal Ataturk began his military training at a young age, enrolling in military school at 12 years old. Later, he also attended the military academy in the Ottoman city of Istanbul, where he graduated in the year 1905 (BBC, 2014).

It was believed that Ataturk, with some others, established an opposition group against the state, with some suggesting the possibility of connections to the Young Turk movement, and also the Committee for Union and Progress after they took power in 1908 (Lewis, 2002). Then, following this, he spent a great deal of time serving through the country’s military. In fact, within the decade after graduation, Ataturk served the Ottoman Empire on a various fronts. For example, “In 1910 he went on his first visit to Europe, to attend the great French military manoeuvres of that year in Picardy. In the Italian and Balkan wars he served with distinction on several fronts, and during the uneasy that followed was posted to Sofia as military attache” (Lewis, 2002: 244). Specifically, he fought against the Italian military in Libya in 1911. Here, Italy was attempting to colonize Libya, and the Ottoman Empire had controlled many of the northern parts of the country.

In addition to his service with the Ottoman Empire military in Italy, he also fought in the Balkans during the wars in 1912-1913. Moreover, he also fought against the Allied Power in World War I at Dardanelles in the year 1915 (BBC, 2014) (the Dardanelles is a strait in northwest Turkey) (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014). Of this, Lewis (2002) writes that “This victory, which saved the capital from invasion, was one of the few major successes won by Ottoman arms during the war. To Mustafa Kemal it brought promotion, fame–and a posting to the remote eastern battlefront…” (244).

However, these were not the only military campaigns in which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a part of. For example, “In May 1919, Atatürk began a nationalist revolution in Anatolia, organising resistance to the peace settlement imposed on Turkey by the victorious Allies. This was particularly focused on resisting Greek attempts to seize Smyrna and its hinterland. Victory over the Greeks enabled him to secure revision of the peace settlement in the Treaty of Lausanne” (BBC, 2014). Ataturk, while sent there to monitor and help disarm Turkish forces, actually had a plan to build up a military in preparation against Greek actions (Lewis, 2002).

We have to remember that in the 1919 Paris Conference, the victorious powers stated how they felt the former Ottoman Empire should be divided. However, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk disagreed with the direction foreign powers were going with Turkey. Thus, he, through the Association for the Defence of the Rights of Eastern Anatolia, worked to protect the border of Turkey. However, there began to be tensions with the Ottoman Sultan, and, “In December 1919, as a result of the nationalist persuasion and pressure, new elections were held for the Ottoman parliament, which assembled in Istanbul on 12 January 1920” (Lewis, 2002). Here, Ataturk and the Kemalists had power. Then, following the end of the Ottoman parliament meetings (in March of 1920), Mustafa Kemal called for elections in March. Following these new elections, the Grand National Assembly was formed (Lewis, 2002).

This helped improve Ataturk’s status in post Ottoman Empire Turkey. Thus, with his known status, and military influence, in 1921, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk set up a provisional government in the city of Ankara. Shortly after, Kemal moved to end the Ottoman sultanate. He was able to due this in 1922 during a conference between Turkey, Greece, and Britain to re-examine the Treaty of Sevres following the Greco-Turkish war that transpired (Lewis, 2002). Shortly after, France and Russia also accepted the new borders (Lewis, 2002). In fact, while at the time, The Ottoman Empire had political centers (the Ottoman Sultinate in Istanbul, and Ataturk in Ankara) “[t]he preliminaries to the conference brought a final resolution to the problem of existence of two Turkish governments. The British invited both Ankara and Istanbul to send representatives to the forthcoming negotiations. Kemal used this as an excuse to bring before the assembly legislation that would abolish the sultanate and turn the caliphate into a religious office with no political authority…[o]n November 1, 1922, the assembly passed a resolution that separated the caliphate from the sultanate and eliminated the sultanate” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 165).

Then, following the complete end of the Ottoman Empire, in 1923 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the president of what is today known as the Republic of Turkey (BBC, 2014).  He was able to do this through Turkey’s negotiations at the Lausanne Conference, where, in 1923, “Turkey’s sovereignty was recognized over all areas claimed by the National Pact with the exception of Mosul in Northern Iraq” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 165). As stated in Cleveland & Bunton (2013), “[t]his was a remarkable turnabout for the Anatolian portion of the Ottoman Empire; from being partitioned and occupied in 1920, it emerged three years later as at the internationally recognized independent nation-state of Turkey, free of restrictions on its domestic policies, on its finances (except for the continuing obligation incurred by the loans taken out in the nineteenth century), and on its jurisdiction over foreign nationals” (165).

The Domestic Policies of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Mustafa Kemal embarked on a serious of domestic political and social reforms in Turkey. The various principles that were central to Mustafa Kemal’s domestic reforms were:

  • Reformism
  • Republicanism
  • Nationalism
  • Populism
  • Etatism
  • Secularism

With regards to reformism, Ataturk focused on innovating Turkey, with an emphasis on nonviolent developments in the state. Ataturk also pushed for republicanism within the political structures of the new Turkish state. Following establishing Ankara as Turkey’s new capital city, in 1924, the Turkish government passed a constitution, one in which spoke about the importance of republicanism, as well as the necessity of citizen voices in the political process. In fact, one could see his vision of the country in Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s 1920 address to the National Assembly, where he said: “I think that the fundamental reality of our present-day existence has demonstrated the general tendency of the nation, and that is people’s rights and people’s government. It means the passing of government into the hands of the people” (Lewis, 2002: 256).

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk also established voting rights, although those rights were only granted to males over the age of 18 (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). Until Ataturk passed away in 1938, “[t]he president of the republic was chosen by the assembly from among its members” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 166). Yet, While Ataturk made some moves towards democratization, until his death, there was only one political party, which was the Republican People’s Party (RPP) (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

With regards to issues of nationalism and populism, according to scholars, these two elements of Ataturk’s new government “had overlapping objectives. Nationalism invoked the attempt to create pride in Turkishness and to promote symbols of cultural identity for the new state” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). Part of this materialized in his emphasis son introducing a new Turkish alphabet which relied on phonetic sounds, and on Latin script. This was a distinct break from Ottoman past, which used Arabic script. Furthermore, Ataturk also highlighted Turkish history before Islam and the Ottoman Empire. As we shall see, this was also working off of his principles of secularism. He carried out various propaganda on this issue of nationalism, such as some arguing that the Turkish language was the first language spoken by humans (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

Populism, for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, meant that the state would help establish various community initiatives and community centers for the Turkish population. This was often in the form of education programs, sports clubs, as well as other places where the RPP message could be heard. Part of this included investments in literacy for a population that he hoped would continue his work after his passing (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

Economically, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s policies revolved around Etatism, which combined (although limited) imports with government attention to internal development projects. But beause of the lack of capital in the private sector within Turkey, “the government decided to intervene directly in the economy and to divert state funds to the construction of major projects. Etatism, usually defined as state capitalism” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013) focused on the development and establishment of various factories (such as steel, paper, and cement, amongst other industries). And while there were some benefits of these programs, many have also criticized them for their inefficiencies, as well as the government’s lack of attention to agriculture (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 170). 

Despite the diversity of Ataturk’s reform policies, Kemalism is arguably most known for the principle of secularism. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was adamant about the importance of secularism with regards to the new Turkish state. Ataturk believed that for Turkey to progress forward, it would have to remove the role of Islam in the government, and instead, secularize the state. 

However, there were many conservatives upset with his move against the Ottomans and the Caliphate in particular. As Lewis writes (2002): “The main objection to the Republic, on the part of its conservative opponents in Turkey, was that it endangered the links of the Turkish people both with their own Islamic and Imperial past, and with the larger Muslim world of which they had for so long been the leaders. It was inevitable that the forces of tradition should rally around the person of the Caliph, the living symbol of their attachment to both…” (263).

Nonetheless,  he carried out a number of secular reforms with the hopes that Turkey would be transformed in this fashion. For example, to begin, only did he separate the Sultanate from the Presidency (as discussed above), but in March of 1924, he completed ended the caliphate and also exhaled everyone who was a part of the Ottoman royal family. The idea seemed to completely break from Turkish Ottoman past (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013), something that Ataturk wanted (Lewis, 2002). But along with this, Ataturk began a heavy and intense secularization campaign. For example, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk closed Islamic schools, or madrases. In addition, he rid of the Ministry of Religious Endowments position, as well as the shaykh-of-Islam office. Moreover, in 1926, the Turkish government voted to completely end shariah, or Islamic law in the country. Instead, the government implemented civil code law from Switzerland, along with other secular law influenced from Italy, as well as Germany (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013), thus  ended Islamic courts. Moroever, the civil law directly challenged elements of shariah under the Ottoman Empire. For example, polygamy was officially banned, and married women were given additional divorce rights (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

But this was not all. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wanted to limit religion’s place in the public sphere (public behavior and the public eye) as well. Thus, he went after Sufi orders, which resulted in many of them going underground. Furthermore, he also banned individuals making pilgrimages and praying at Sufi shrines. Furthermore, in one of his most noted policies, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk banned the fez hat, which to him, was a symbol of the former Ottoman Empire. In fact, he thought that certain western hats should be worn, as they represented civilized countries (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 168). This was a very important decision in Turkey, and one that Lewis (2002) suggests distinguish between religious identities. He argues that

To the Westerner, the enforced replacement of one form of headgear by another may seem comic or irritating, and in either case trivial; to the Muslim it was a matter of fundamental significance, expressing–and affecting–his relations with his neighbours and his ancestors, and his place in society and in history…Dress, and especially headgear, was the visible and outward token by which a Muslim indicated his allegiance to the community of Islam and his rejection of others” (267).

Others may be critical of this interpretation, seeing it not so much as a rejection of others, but more specifically as part of part of one’s historical past and identity (without the “othering”). Regardless, Ataturk’s decision was supported by some, but also critiqued by others. Clearly, Ataturk saw historical headwear as problematic. In 1927, he spoke about the issue of the fez, saying in a speech:

Gentleman, it was necessary to abolish the fez, which sat on the heads of our nation as an emblem of ignorance, negligence, fanaticism, and hatred of progress and civilization, to accept in its place the hate, the headgear used by the whole civilized world, and in this way to demonstrate that the Turkish nation, in its mentality as in other respects, in no way diverges from civilized social life” (in Lewis, 2002: 268). 

Lewis (2002) points out that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk also made other comments about the fez and non-Western clothing, saying: “I see a man in the crowd in front of me…he had a fez on his head, a green turban on the fez, a smock on his back, and on top of that a jacket like the one I am wearing. I can’t see the lower half. Now what kind of outfit is that? Would a civilized man put on this preposterous garb and go out and hold himself up to universal ridicule?” (269).

Along with these policies, Ataturk also called for the Quran to be translated in Turkish, not in the traditional Arabic, as was the case since the time of Muhammad. In addition, the Islamic call to prayer, which has historically also been in Arabic, was to be called in the Turkish language (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

Again, for him, it seems that he did not want the faith to be politicized like it had been during the Ottoman Empire (Lewis, 2002)


Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy today is a divided one. Those in Turkey that espouse secularism view him as the most important national hero in Turkey’s history. However, those critical of secularism, and some Islamists within that category, think that Ataturk went too far with his reforms, and have ever since tried to bring more religion (and Islam) into the political and the civil space.



BBC (2014). Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938). Available Online: 

Cleveland, W.L. & Bunton, M. (2013). A History of the Modern Middle East. New York, New York. Westview Press.

Encyclopedia Britannica (2014). Dardanelles. 4-29-2014. Available Online:

Lewis, B. (2002). The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press. 

Leave a Reply