By Yasser Latif Hamdani
Now the religiously inspired government of Reccep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to undo Ataturk’s legacy completely by banning alcohol and changing the landscape of Istanbul altogether
The recent Taksim Square protests in Turkey have reignited the debate on how far should a government in a Muslim country, i.e. a country with a Muslim majority, be allowed to regulate the personal and public conduct of its citizens. It has also brought back into the public consciousness the memory of Kemal Ataturk, one of the greatest modernising leaders produced by the Muslim world. So strong is the memory of Ataturk and the association of the protesters with him that even the government had to respond by hanging his large portrait on a building in Taksim Square.
Who was Kemal Ataturk and why is he so important? He was a legend in his own lifetime, admired widely for having successfully led the Turkish nation, i.e. Muslims of the Anatolia region, in a war of independence against Great Britain, France and Greece, forcing them to renegotiate the Treaty of Versailles and replace it with the Treaty of Lausanne. He also abolished the age old Ottoman Caliphate and monarchy to establish the first republic in the Muslim world.
Then a few years later, he abolished the state religion and made Turkey a modern secular republic, albeit flawed at times (a 1932 law banned 30 odd professions to citizens of Turkey belonging to the Greek Orthodox faith). Still, in the balance, Ataturk managed to lay the foundations of a state that would emerge from being the ‘sick man of Europe’ to a major economy and world power. That was the genius of Ataturk.
In 1932, a London-based Muslim barrister and political leader from British India happened to pick up a biography of Kemal Ataturk called Grey Wolf by H C Armstrong at a bookstore on his walk in Hampstead. So impressed was the barrister that it was all he talked about with his daughter and his sister at home. His name was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and some historians like Stanley Wolpert and Hector Bolitho have partly attributed his eventual decision to return to the subcontinent and carve out a nation state for the Muslim nation of the subcontinent to that fateful walk on a cold London morning.
Jinnah had reportedly told his sister that his greatest desire was to modernise the Muslims of India. How far Ataturk’s story actually inspired the direction of the Pakistan Movement is not clear, but when Ataturk died in 1938, Jinnah described him “as the greatest Muslim of the age and one of the greatest men to ever live.” It is also known that Jinnah stood for the same indicators of modernity, i.e. republicanism, women’s rights and the right of each person and indeed each Muslim to live free of the tyranny of the clergy’s dictates. Both men believed that sovereignty must rest unconditionally with the people and the parameters of material progress of a people were defined by their education, culture and civilisation.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s own record in pursuit of that vision has been patchy and circular. Through the Objectives Resolution, the legislators after Jinnah’s death vested the sovereignty over the entire universe in God, a statement that was at best an exercise in futility but which ultimately laid the foundations of the ‘theocratisation’ of Pakistan.
Ataturk, unlike Jinnah, remained at the helm of his nation-cum-republic for at least 17 years. For 15 of those years he was the last word with parliamentary institutions he sought to develop, these institutions rubber-stamping everything he did. His task was clear: he had to make a nation, a mortal territorial nation, out of the multitudes of a Muslim people. In this he deployed religion initially, making Islam the state religion of the new republic in its first constitution and then rescinding it in 1928. Throughout he moved cautiously. During the war of independence, Ataturk’s speeches were full of references to Islam and the Holy Prophet (PBUH). He emphasised Muslim unity to take the Kurds along despite ethno-linguistic differences. In 1924 when he abolished the Caliphate, he gave a religious rationale for it: the Ottoman Caliphate was a hereditary institution and had nothing to do with the original Caliphate of the rightly guided Caliphs.
Then Ataturk insisted, though he did not impose, the idea that Islam in order to remain relevant to the Turks must be Turkified, i.e. Azaan (the call to prayer), Salaat (charity) and other religious rituals should be in the Turkish language. He even commissioned a Turkish-only translation of the Quran, though that project was shelved eventually. The justification for this action was also given in religious terms: Turks were Hanafi Muslims and Abu Hanifa, according to Ataturk, had allowed the use of local languages for rituals to make Islam more accessible to the public.
The rationale for banning of the fez cap was that it had nothing to do with Islam and had been adopted from the Greeks, which was partially true. He changed the dress code and outlawed religious dress for Turks (though he did not ban the Hijab as is suggested by some). Finally, Ataturk embarked on his most controversial and yet successful project, i.e. changing the alphabet from Arabic to Roman to make Turkey a European nation in culture and civilisation.
Ataturk’s reforms were seen by some as excessive. Others dismissed them as the ramblings of a raki drinker. However, the claims of political Islam — especially since it had played such a huge role in Ataturk’s own war of independence — are often exclusive and total. Ataturk is accused of ditching the magnificent old culture of the Ottoman Empire for a second rate modernity of hats, coats and pants. In the opinion of this writer, these reforms were excessive but by swinging the pendulum to the other extreme, Ataturk created the base for a society that would later tolerate all modes of dress as Turkey is today.
Now the religiously inspired government of Reccep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to undo Ataturk’s legacy completely by banning alcohol and changing the landscape of Istanbul altogether. Already Ataturk Day parade has been discontinued. The AKP seeks to slowly and gradually make Ataturk fade into memory. While there are no two opinions that Turkey needed to move beyond Kemalism to modern secularism (as Ataturk himself would have wanted), the Islamisation attempts by the current government in Istanbul have reignited the memory of Ataturk in the popular imagination. Today, Ataturk with all his contradictions and fallibility stands between a secular Turkey and the slippery pole to theocracy that Erdogan is flirting with.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Jinnah: Myth and Reality.