Kamal Ataurk, the creator of modern Turkey has been one of the most controversial personalities of the Muslim world in the twentieth century. Some admire him while others despise him. Some consider him a role model for other Muslim countries while others consider him the enemy of Islam. He was the one who put the last nail in the coffin of Ottoman dynasty that had survived for more than three centuries and gave birth to the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

              While reading Kamal Ataturk’s biography and essays written about his personality, philosophy and political strategy I was intrigued by a number of personal and political dimensions of his life. Let me share with you a few highlights of his incredible story.

              Kamal Ataturk was born in 1881 in Turkey in a working class family. His mother Zubeida was an affectionate woman and his father Ali Reza a hardworking man. Unfortunately Ali Reza died of tuberculosis when Kamal Ataturk was only seven years old. So his mother and uncle had to bring him up. From his childhood he was quite rebellious and it was very difficult for his mother and teachers to control and discipline him. There were times he ran away and refused to return to the school as he had problems with authority figures. Finally his uncle suggested that he join the army hoping that the military discipline might control his wild personality. Kamal Ataturk liked the idea hoping that he would become ‘an officer, wear uniform and give orders to men.’ (Ref 1 p 20)

              In the army Kamal Ataturk did very well and graduated with honours in 1905 as a Captain. But his rebellious personality kept on causing problems as he was not only very passionate but also quite hot-tempered and would not listen to others. He was a good debater but he was also ruthlessly honest and did not care about other people’s feelings.

              As a teenager he became aware of a nationalist group called Vatan and joined it. During his discussions with the members of Vatan he developed his views of nationalistic philosophy. He wanted Turks to be in charge of their own future. Kamal Ataturk was very angry with foreign powers whether British, French, German or Russians who wanted to divide and destroy Turkey as they considered Turkey ‘the sick man of Europe.” He was also angry with the Royal Family of Sultan living in the palaces and the religious fundamentalists who spent most of their time in the mosques and monasteries and were not familiar with the modern trends in the world. Ataturk was convinced that the Royal Family and the religious groups would never be able to help the common Turks regain their pride and prestige and offer them national freedom and cultural independence. Ataturk believed that Muslim rulers, over the centuries, were not any different than European rulers who left Middle East and went to Asia and Africa to transform independent countries into their religious and political colonies. He resented people discarding their mother tongues and praying in Arabic, which he considered a colonial language. He wanted Turks to be politically free and culturally independent. He had a dream of a secular and strong Turkey where Turks could decide about their own future.

              When the government and the Royal Family found out about his views he was put in jail where he suffered facing harsh circumstances. His biographer H.C. Armstrong wrote, “With the other members of the Vatan, Mustafa Kemal was shut up in the Red Prison of Stambul…He was isolated from the others and placed in solitary confinement…Week after week he was shut up in a narrow cell which was dirty and verminous. The only light and air came from a small barred window far up in a wall.” (Ref 1 p 30)

              After Kamal Ataturk was released from the jail, he became more determined to bring a revolution. But he was also more cautious as he knew he would be killed because “The secret police had marked him down as dangerous.” (Ref 1 p 34)

              Over the years Ataturk fought in many battles. His courage and leadership were exemplary. He was the only chief of army who fought with his soldiers on the front lines. (Ref 6) He was so fearless that he never showed any cowardly behaviour. He had this firm conviction that he would survive and each time luck was in his favour. The more battles he fought the more he convinced others of his leadership qualities. “Before he was thirty he was chief of staff to the 3rd Army in Macedonia.” (Ref 1 p 43)

              As time passed Ataturk got to know the army generals and the Royal Family. When they found out his intentions they became suspicious and kept him under strong supervision. They believed he would overthrow the government by planning a coup d’ etat. Ataturk shared with his close friends that he had no respect for the Sultan and the religious leaders. He had a clear idea in his head how he wanted to revolutionize Turkey and make it a model secular state. He believed that if Turks were provided with an opportunity they would get rid of all the oppressive imperialistic and colonial powers, as he believed, “There are no oppressors nor any oppressed. There are only those who allow themselves to be oppressed. The Turks are not among these.” (Ref 2 p 2)

    Ataturk was also strongly opposed to the Sultan, as he believed Khilafat was “not more than an historical relic.” (Ref 2 p 4)

              There was a time Kamal Ataturk made his own Green Army with the help of other officers and politicians. For a while there was a civil war between Nationalists who were called Kamalists [followers of Kamal] and the government army officers. In the beginning Kamalists had to face lots of losses and had to hide in the mountains as guerrilla warriors but over a period of time the Sultan’s influence decreased and Kamal Ataturk became more powerful and popular. His following finally became overwhelming. He was on the way to become a national hero and leader. “He galvanized the simple Turkish soldier with a new courage. They were ready to follow him to hell.” (Ref 1 p 80)

    Gradually Kamal Ataturk transformed into a mythological figure and became the leader of People’s Party.

              After Ataturk had enough support from the political and the military rulers he ousted the Sultan and sent the Khalifa’s family in exile in Switzerland and became the first President of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. After becoming the President he changed the civil and criminal laws and made a new constitution. He took a number of steps to change the lifestyle of Turks.

    A, the first step was to ask men to wear hats and women not to wear traditional clothes and veils. He wanted them to look modern.

    B, the second step was to change the alphabet. He got rid of the Arabic alphabet and adopted the Latin letters. That was a major linguistic revolution.

    C, the third step was to get rid of Arabic prayers. He asked people to pray in their mother tongue. He even insisted that in mosques the call for prayers, the azan, should be in Turkish. He insisted Allah be called by his Turkish name Tanri and in azan Allah Akbar be replaced with Tanri Uludur. (Ref 3)

    No other Muslim country had dared to take such a revolutionary step for centuries.

    D, the final step was to separate religion and politics, the mosque and the state. Ataturk believed that religion was a private affair and should not be part of national politics. He sated in 1924, “State and Religion must be separated. The Republic of Turkey must finally become a secular state” (Ref 1 p 4)

              Ataturk had no respect for religion. He believed all organized religions were cultural dinosaurs and had no room in the modern world. He believed religions had moral and ethical codes that were obsolete. He believed religion in general and Islam in particular was a hindrance to progress and modernization. He was of the opinion that Islam was a religion that was created for the nomads of the desert hundreds of years ago. He said, “Islam, this theology of an immoral Arab, is a dead thing…possibly it might have suited tribes of nomads in the desert. It was no good for a modern progressive state.” (Ref 2 p 12) He wanted to free Turks from the chains of religious thoughts, behaviours and traditions.

    Ataturk believed that religious fundamentalist maulanas had used Islam to declare common Muslims sinners and had made them inhibited. He considered religion a poison that was killing the soul of the nation for centuries. He stated, “For five hundred years these rules and theories of an Arab sheik and the interpretations of generations of lazy, good-for-nothing priests have decided the civil and criminal law of Turkey.” (Ref 1 p 241)

              Ataturk believed that one way for religious zealots to control people was through scriptures by declaring them as divine revelations. Being an atheist he believed that all religions and scriptures were man made. “God’s revelation” There was no God. That was one of the chains by which the priests and bad rulers bound the people down.” (Ref 1 241) Ataturk wanted to free Turks from religious chains. Ataturk was of the opinion that once those chains of religious inhibitions were broken then people would be free to enjoy fine arts and music and dancing. He had seen religious leaders declaring all cultural and artistic activities as sin and had undermined the progress of Muslims. That is why Lord Kinross had stated, “ For Kemal, Islam and civilization were a contradiction in terms.” (Ref 4 )

    Ataurk’s criticism of religion caused him a lot of resistance from the traditional religious groups especially the fundamentalists. But he did not pay any attention to those traditional groups. He was quite ruthless with them. He stayed firm and pursued his secular philosophy.

              Ataturk realized that although he had fought many battles to gain Turkish independence, he had to focus on education to build the country. He stated, “Following the military triumph we accomplished by bayonets, weapons and blood, we shall strive to win victories in such fields as culture, scholarship, science and economics…the enduring benefits of victories depend only on the existence of an army of education.”(Ref 3 p 2) Ataturk was very particular to the issues of legal rights to all citizens especially peasants and women. His political model was not only secular but also socialistic.

              For the first few years as a President he was democratic and had given freedom to common people but after assassination attempts on his life he had to review his policies. He also realized that religious maulanas were taking advantage of his freedom. The conflict reached a climax when Kurds declared war following a Mahdi who wanted to get rid of the satanic government of Ataturk. “Late in December 1930 a certain dervish Sheik Mermed, declared himself to be the Mahdi, came to save Turkey from the black impiety of Mustafa Kemal and his Republic…” The Kurds followed the Mahdi and ‘were fighting fiercely; they had invented the ‘Blind Man’s Court Martial’ before it every Turk captured was summarily tried and brutally mutilated” (Ref 1 p 325) For Ataturk that was the last straw. The cup of his patience spilled over and he reacted strongly and brutally. It brought his darkest side out. He wanted to fight fire with fire. “Ruthlessly all Turkish Kurdistan was laid to waste; villages were burned, animals and crops destroyed, women and children raped and murdered. Forty-six of the Kurdish chiefs were sentenced to be publicly hanged.” (Ref 2 p 8)

              In 1932 he asked every Turk to adopt a family name and he chose Ataturk [father of Turks] for himself.

              Ataturk had health problems all his life. He never took care of himself. On one hand he drank excessively and on the other hand he had numerous episodes of melancholia. Finally he died in 1938 with cirrhosis of liver.

              Ataturk’s legacy of a secular state has remained a source of controversy in most of the Muslim world. Some Muslims are critical as he deprived Turks from their Arabic inheritance while others hope that other Muslim countries follow his footsteps by freeing themselves from the Middle Eastern Arabic colonization and rediscovering their national, linguistic and cultural roots. On one hand there are Muslims who consider him the enemy of Islam and state, “It was his cruelty and sadistic treatment of Muslims that makes him stand out as one of the worst enemies of God” (Ref 2 p 9) and then are others who believe that because of Ataturk, Turkey became the role model for other nations. “The first Moslem nation to become a Republic, Turkey has served since the early 1920s as a model for Moslem and non-Moslem nations in the merging world.” (Ref 5 ) Iranian leader Raza Shah Pehlavi and Pakistani leader Pervaiz Musharaf have found Ataturk a source of inspiration.

    Dear Friends, I find it quite ironic that in 1930s while Muslims of India were offering sacrifices of their lives to create a Muslim country by embracing the same religious traditions that in their neighborhood Ataturk was working hard to get rid of, while Indian Muslims were marrying Islam, Turkish Muslims were divorcing Islam. 



    December 2003


    1. Armstrong H. C. …Grey Wolf Mustafa Kemal

    Ayer Company Publishers USA 1972

    2.Juferi Mohd Elfie Nieshaem

    Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

    The Enemy of Islam

    Kamal Ataturk Archives Internet

    3. Time Magazine Jan 9, 1933

    4. Kinross Lord

    Ataturk, The Rebirth of a Nation 1965

    5. Ataturk…Creator of Modern Turkey

    Archives of Kamal Ataturk Internet

    6. Reminiscences of Ataturk

    Translated by Onder Renkliyindirim

    A Metro Book Istanbul Turkey 1985