Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. Born in Salonica to a middle-class Muslim Ottoman family, he graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Istanbul in 1902 and from the Staff Officer College, also in the capital, in 1905. Like many cadets, he developed a sympathy for the Young Turk movement and participated in some clandestine activities. After graduating from the Staff Officer College, he was briefly arrested in connection with a plot against the life of the sultan and was then assigned to serve in Damascus, far from the capital of Istanbul. There he made some attempts to establish an opposition society. He also participated in the work of Ottoman dissidents in his hometown of Salonica, where they founded the Ottoman Freedom Society, a major opposition organization, in 1906. A year later, the society merged with the Paris-based Ottoman Committee of Progress and Union and became its internal headquarters and power base within the Ottoman military. These organizations played a decisive role in carrying out the Young Turk Revolution of 1908.
Following the revolution, Mustafa Kemal became an important figure in the military ranks of the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) as a protégé of Major Cemal Bey (who later became a pasha, or general). Immediately after the revolution, the CUP dispatched him to Tripoli of Barbary to quell the disturbances there. In April 1909, he served on the staff officer committee of the Action Army that marched on to Istanbul to crush the counterrevolution. Despite these important contributions, his relationship with the CUP leadership was strained by statements he made against direct intervention by the military in politics. In 1911, he volunteered for service in Tripoli of Barbary to organize a local militia against the Italian invasion and served in Darnah, the capital of Cyrenaica, for less than a year. Upon his return to the capital, he participated in the later stages of the Balkan Wars and then assumed the post of military attaché in Sofia. The Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War I prompted his return to active military service, where he gained fame for his successes at Gallipoli in 1915. He later served on the Ottoman eastern front and accompanied the Ottoman heir apparent during a visit to Germany in 1917–18.
At the time of the surrender in October 1918, Mustafa Kemal was in Aleppo trying to organize an orderly retreat of Ottoman forces. The harsh terms imposed by the Entente powers on the empire, followed by the Greek occupation of İzmir in May 1919, provoked a backlash of Turkish nationalist sentiment. The ensuing Turkish War of Independence lasted until 1922. Mustafa Kemal, sent to Samsun in May 1919 with orders to pacify central and eastern Anatolia and the Black Sea coast and to monitor the implementation of the Mudros armistice, instead assumed leadership of the national movement against the Entente’s partition plans. In July 1919, he resigned from the military. He was the driving force behind the national congresses in Erzurum and Sivas, which rejected foreign mandates and pledged to fight for the independence and territorial integrity of the country. The British occupation of Istanbul in March 1920 and the prorogation of the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies drove the nationalists to convene the Grand National Assembly in Ankara in April. In addition to his political portfolio as speaker of this chamber, Mustafa Kemal also served as commander in chief of the nationalist troops, which defeated the Greeks in September 1922.
On the heels of victory and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1923), Mustafa Kemal became the natural leader of the new Turkish State. Although the sultanate had already been abolished in November 1922, the republic was founded in October 1923. Mustafa Kemal became the first president of the republic, a capacity in which he served until his death. In September 1922, he announced the establishment of a political party called the People’s Party (later Republican People’s Party). This organization subsequently became his civilian basis of power and the only party of significance in the state. Following a Kurdish revolt with strong Islamist undertones in 1925 and an assassination attempt against Mustafa Kemal in 1926, the party cracked down on the opposition and tolerated little dissent.
Mustafa Kemal immediately launched an ambitious reform program aimed at the creation of a modern, secular state and the construction of a new identity for its citizens. His education and years of military service exposed him to many of the ideas shared by the educated elite of his generation. Among these ideas were popular scientism, based on the mid-19th-century German Vulgärmaterialismus (pseudoscientific elitism), based on Gustave Le Bon’s theory of crowd behavior; Turkism and Turkish nationalism; and a view of modernization that privileged science as the engine of Western-style progress. Mustafa Kemal was broadly familiar with all of these ideas, but his reading was limited and he was no theorist. Although his reform program bears a remarkable resemblance to proposals drawn up in 1913 by Kiliçzâde Hakkı, a leading Westernist of the Second Constitutional Period of 1908–18, his personal touch was undeniable. It was especially evident in the radicalism of the reform program, which unflinchingly refused to countenance the persistence of dualism in Turkish society. Rejecting the Ottoman reform legacy, Mustafa Kemal aimed at eradicating old habits and institutions instead of allowing them to coexist alongside the new. At the same time, his pragmatism saved the program from excessive ideological rigidity. By the time of his death, Mustafa Kemal, who took the family name Atatürk (Father of Turks) in 1934, had transformed Turkish society. The secular republic he helped to build was a novelty in the Muslim world. The strict control of the state over religion, the banning of time-honored Islamic institutions such as religious orders and dervish lodges, the acceptance of European legal codes, the unabashed promotion of a European way of life, and the deification of the nation were all virtually unknown in Islam up to his time. Mustafa Kemal’s decision in 1928 to adopt a modified Latin alphabet to replace the Arabo-Persian set of characters used for centuries demonstrated his desire to remove yet another traditional symbol that had gained religious connotation. To Mustafa Kemal, these changes were not only justified but also necessitated by science, “the most truthful guide in life.”
Mustafa Kemal also promoted a new identity for the Turks, founded upon notions of a glorious historical and linguistic past that stretched back in time to the pre-Ottoman era. The state-sponsored Thesis of Turkish History sought to explain all major historical developments as Turkish achievements. Similarly, the Sun Language Theory maintained that Turkish is the main language of humankind from which all other languages derive. Although these state-sponsored theories had some initial impact among Turkish intellectual and nationalist circles, they have long since been forgotten.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was one of the foremost leaders of the 20th century. Inside Turkey, his legacy has been revered by Kemalists, who have refined his ideas to produce a strictly secular state ideology. In the wider Muslim world, his work has been viewed by secularists as an exemplary reform project and by conservatives as one of the greatest heresies in the history of Islam.
See also Ottomans (1299–1924); Turkey; Westernization
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