The Atatürk Path to Islāmic Modernity

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk wouldn’t be a happy man today. He had led a revolutionary effort to transform a traditional Islāmic society into a confident modern state. Nearly a century after Atatürk, single-handedly, forced marched post-Ottoman Turkey to absolute secularism, his Islamist successors, are hellbent on overturning his legacy.

I have often wondered what could have happened if the Islāmic world had adopted the template for modernization that Atatürk had followed in Turkey. Would Atatürk’s secular and nationalist vision, if it had gained broader acceptance, eased the social and political stagnation that many Muslim countries are mired in today? I don’t know. But, it is a fact that Atatürk, compared for example to Lenin and Mao, transformed an agrarian country devastated by war into a modern state at a far lesser human cost.

We have to remember the challenges Atatürk faced—to save a decaying empire from being swallowed up by Western powers and Russia, give hope to his countrymen who attributed all their misery to fate and sought salvation only in religion. By abolishing the Caliphate, Atatürk’s secular Republic defined a path from dynastic rule to the modern era. An avowed critic of religious superstition, he boldly said that he saw no value in Islāmic tradition.

So what is Atatürk’s unique legacy? First, the absolute rule of the Sultan was replaced by a political system representing the sovereignty of the people. Second, there was no place for a state religion in the modern state. Third, the secularization of society and politics was accompanied by measures that effectively ensured that religion became a matter of private and individual faith. Fourth, women gained the right to vote and run for high office.

Some critics say that Atatürk’s social engineering and political reforms went too far. Islamists view the Western social and political institutions that Atatürk imposed as incompatible with a Muslim majority country. Others question Atatürk dictatorial methods and his nondemocratic, repressive, and sometimes violent actions to meet his goals. He disbanded the Ministry of Shariah, replaced the Islamic legal system with a Western legal framework, banned Sufi orders, and madrasas (Islamic schools), placed mosques under government control, and discouraged headscarves for women, etc.

We know that the tussle between conservative religion and modern secularism isn’t confined to Islam or Turkey. Western civilization also experienced a similar tug-of-war between religion and politics. The West chose the path of evolutionary secularism. It made room for the assertive secularism dominant in France and the passive secularism practiced in the United States. But it effectively downgraded the role of religion in politics.

The fact that Atatürk imposed a ‘Godless’ Western secular model is his biggest crime in the eyes of his Islamist detractors. Still, Atatürk is not the first and probably not the last rationalist Muslim reformer dismissive of the Utopian path of finding solutions to complex social, economic, and political problems in religion alone. He firmly believed that strong rulers didn’t need religion to uphold their governments. Atatürk saw religion as an obstacle to progress. He wanted the Turkish people to learn the precepts of democracy, the principles of rationalism, and the teachings of science.

Another part of Ataturk’s vision that I find appealing is that he confined himself to making Turkey a modern and self-reliant nation. He had no expansionist designs and wanted his country to live at peace with its neighbors. Some accused Ataturk of racism for advocating nationalism for the Turkish people only. But that was more to do with the limits he set himself, not to expand his influence beyond Turkey’s borders.

On a personal level, I find it baffling that Turks would support the overturn of the monumental gains of the Atatürk revolution. Sure, as a believer that state and society must guarantee personal and political freedoms, I find Atatürk’s brutal and cruel methods troubling. But when compared to the feeble and unsuccessful efforts at modernization in major Islāmic societies like Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt, what Atatürk achieved in a short period was truly remarkable.

I hope that Turkey can achieve reconciliation between Atatürk’s modernization and the resurgence of Islam in the public and political space. But I worry about the Islamists all or nothing agenda to subtly remove secularism to make way for an explicitly Islamic order. Unless there is a powerful secular backlash, I fear that the Islam-only value system will triumph in Turkey. This outcome will surely set back even the limited efforts for modernization and secularization inspired by Atatürk, elsewhere in the Islāmic world.

More articles by:

Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator on politics, peace, and security issues. He can be reached at shgcci@gmail.com.

Weekend Edition
February 21, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Election Con 2020: Exposing Trump’s Deception on the Opioid Epidemic
Joshua Frank
Bloomberg is a Climate Change Con Man
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Billion Dollar Babies
Paul Street
More Real-Time Reflections from Your Friendly South Loop Marxist
Jonathan Latham
Extensive Chemical Safety Fraud Uncovered at German Testing Laboratory
Ramzy Baroud
‘The Donald Trump I know’: Abbas’ UN Speech and the Breakdown of Palestinian Politics
Martha Rosenberg
A Trump Sentence Commutation Attorneys Generals Liked
Ted Rall
Bernie Should Own the Socialist Label
Louis Proyect
Encountering Malcolm X
Kathleen Wallace
The Debate Question That Really Mattered
Jonathan Cook
UN List of Firms Aiding Israel’s Settlements was Dead on Arrival
George Wuerthner
‘Extremists,’ Not Collaborators, Have Kept Wilderness Whole
Colin Todhunter
Apocalypse Now! Insects, Pesticide and a Public Health Crisis  
Stephen Reyna
A Paradoxical Colonel: He Doesn’t Know What He is Talking About, Because He Knows What He is Talking About.
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A New Solar Power Deal From California
Richard Moser
One Winning Way to Build the Peace Movement and One Losing Way
Laiken Jordahl
Trump’s Wall is Destroying the Environment We Worked to Protect
Walden Bello
Duterte Does the Right Thing for a Change
Jefferson Morley
On JFK, Tulsi Gabbard Keeps Very Respectable Company
Vijay Prashad
Standing Up for Left Literature: In India, It Can Cost You Your Life
Gary Leupp
Bloomberg Versus Bernie: The Upcoming Battle?
Ron Jacobs
The Young Lords: Luchadores Para La Gente
Richard Klin
Loss Leaders
Gaither Stewart
Roma: How Romans Differ From Europeans
Kerron Ó Luain
The Soviet Century
Mike Garrity
We Can Fireproof Homes But Not Forests
Fred Baumgarten
Gaslighting Bernie and His Supporters
Joseph Essertier
Our First Amendment or Our Empire, But Not Both
Peter Linebaugh
A Story for the Anthropocene
Danny Sjursen
Where Have You Gone Smedley Butler?
Jill Richardson
A Broken Promise to Teachers and Nonprofit Workers
Binoy Kampmark
“Leave Our Bloke Alone”: A Little Mission for Julian Assange
Wade Sikorski
Oil or Food? Notes From a Farmer Who Doesn’t Think Pipelines are Worth It
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of Vengeance
Hilary Moore – James Tracy
No Fascist USA! Lessons From a History of Anti-Klan Organizing
Linn Washington Jr.
Ridiculing MLK’s Historic Garden State ‘Firsts’
L. Michael Hager
Evaluating the Democratic Candidates: the Importance of Integrity
Jim Goodman
Bloomberg Won’t, as They Say, Play Well in Peoria, But Then Neither Should Trump
Olivia Alperstein
We Need to Treat Nuclear War Like the Emergency It Is
Jesse Jackson
Kerner Report Set Standard for What a Serious Presidential Candidate Should Champion
Home Sweet Home: District Campaign Financing
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Latest BLM Hoodwinkery: “Fuel Breaks” in the Great Basin
Wendell Griffen
Grace and Gullibility
Nicky Reid
Hillary, Donald & Bernie: Three Who Would Make a Catastrophe
David Yearsley
Dresden 75