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.