By Ismail Veli…….
There have been many great leaders in history who have made an impact. Some are rated as great reformers, military, politicians, scientists etc. Mustafa Kemal better known as Ataturk (father of the Turks) was such a leader. His achievements in saving his country from the chaotic ashes of the Ottoman empire into a forward thinking modern society is something that few dispute. We only need to look at the situation and mind set of today in order to truly appreciate such great leaders of the past. Lets ponder the question?
We are now in the space age, can we imagine a leader coming forward in countries like Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and countless others in the hope that they can not only bring about the necessary reforms, but above all convince the vast majority of the population that they are essential in helping to break away from the past? We may be in 2016, but let’s go back to the conditions prevailing in Turkey in the immediate aftermath of foreign occupation, and virtual dismemberment by the major powers after world war one. The conditions in those days were far removed from what we can imagine today.
Between 1860 and 1922 the Turks had lost at least 4 possibly 5 million people in endless wars, disease and starvation. The bad behaviour of the Ottoman empire at that time is often spoken about, but rarely do western writers concentrate on the plight of the ordinary Turkish people, who themselves were on the receiving end of countless massacres. The behaviour and retaliation inflicted on others by the retreating Ottomans cannot, and should not be dismissed, but people who make the accusations, rarely, if ever concern themselves with the human suffering of ordinary Turkish people. Therefore their argument is often based on prejudice, bias and even hatred. But this article is not about the endless rights and wrongs of the Ottomans or their opponents. It’s about a man who finding his country dismembered with no hope of saving itself in the aftermath of the first world war. by 1919 Constantinople (as it was called at the time) was occupied by the British empire, the Aegean and south west by the Italians, central southern Turkey by the French, Trabzon Kars and Erzurum to the Armenian’s under the protection of the Russians and Izmir together with Western Turkey and Trakya/Thrace ceded to Greece in its own quest for reclaiming what it considered to be ancient Greek land with their dream of a greater Modern Greece.
With the whole Turkish army disarmed, 90% illiteracy, (only Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara registered over 20 literacy rates in 1927) no manufacturing base to speak of, and a country decimated and worn out by decades of war (as explained above) any hope of retrieving the situation seemed a pipe-dream. Mustafa Kemal thought otherwise. He retreated to the small provincial town of Ankara and began to organize some kind of resistance against impossible odds. With the advancing Greek army into the interior, the future fate of Turkey, (though not so obvious at the time) was decided at the battle of Sakarya. It was 1922 and the advance of the Turkish forces onto Izmir in 7 days completely reversed the 3 year occupation by the Greek army. But it was not in victory that Mustafa Kemal showed his greatness, on finding one of his officers trampling on a Greek flag in the belief that it would impress M. Kemal, he found himself being on the receiving end. Mustafa Kemal picked up the flag and reminded his officer that being the flag and pride of a nation he should show a lot more respect for it.
This was followed by his advance onto Constantinople under British military control. Once again Kemal’s genius came into action. Knowing that a confrontation with the powerful British empire would be doomed, he ordered his soldiers to hang their rifles upside down on their shoulders as a sign that it was not confrontation that he sought but his own country back. This gesture not only confused the British who had a grudging admiration for the spirit of the ”Johnny Turk” but convinced them that the British people themselves tired of warfare after the butchery of WWI finally accepted to withdraw. The other allies followed the British, With Russia in revolution they had already decided enough was enough the previous year. The above however is only a small part of the story.
What followed after the proclamation of the Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923 would astonish the world. Mustafa Kemal the hero of Gallipoli and the war of independence took off his military uniform, never wore it again, and began the task of dazzling reform that completely overturned 700 years of religious and military traditions of Ottoman rule. He abandoned the Caliphate which meant that the Turks were no longer defenders of the Muslim faith, brought in a secular constitution based on western style democracy, banned women’s head scarf’s, giving women equal voting rights long before some Europeans countries. With almost 90% illiteracy, and Ottoman writing being in the Arab script which was unintelligible to the masses, he invited intellects to rewrite a new Turkish script based on the Latin alphabet and more practical to the day to day usages of the spoken Turkish language. A law adopting the new alphabet was passed on 1st November 1928. The old tradition of using the father’s name as a surname was overhauled and based on a new surname system as in most modern countries.
Mustafa Kemal adopted the surname of ”Ataturk/father of the Turks. ” Within a few years women began to make inroads into Turkeys’ political and social system like never before. To pave the way he adopted his own daughters and encouraged them to help lead the way. His adopted daughter Sabiha Gokcen became not only the first female combat pilot in history but in the world. Today one of Istanbul’s main airports is named in honour of her achievement. While all the above was going on, 750.000 Turkish refugees flooded in from Turkey in a massive population exchange which also saw 1.5 million Anatolian Greek refugees leave for Greece under the supervision of an immensely humanitarian man called Asa K Jennings. Click here to read more of this subject.
Asa Jennings not only won the admiration of Mustafa Kemal but became the greatest awarded individual in Greek history for his immense humanitarian efforts. While this exchange no doubt caused immense suffering and sadness for people who had lost their ancestral homes it was also clear that Asa’s efforts saved the lives of many, for retribution and ill feeling among both people would no doubt lead to mass murder which would in effect prolong the agony for years to come. The added refugee flood from the Balkans and Caucasus must have been an immense burden for a new Turkish republic that only had about 13 million people, bankrupt, and no industrial base or means to invest. This did not deter Mustafa Kemal from his determination to modernize Turkey, if anything it spurred him to ever more determined efforts to ensure that the sons of Turkey would no longer be sent to guard wild frontiers in vain sacrifice of a corrupt and outdated empire that had no function in a modern world, while risking their mothers and sisters of mass rape and pillage on the retreat.
Ataturk went against history and declared his strategy of ”peace at home, peace abroad,” policy which saw Turkey and Greece sign a treaty in 1930. This was followed in 1934 by the Balkan pact in order to help bring co-operation and improve relations with countries that were previously in constant conflict. In 1934 The former Greek Premier Venizelos nominated Ataturk for the noble peace prize. Sadly years of hard work and alcoholism took its toll and on the 10th of November 1938 Ataturk closed his eyes to world. He was only 57 years old. The outpouring of grief was immense and dignitaries friend and foe alike flocked to his funeral to pay their respects to a man who had not only shown his greatness in adversity but above all in peacemaking.
In the immediate aftermath of his death the world was plunged into war. His followers tried to live up to Ataturk’s legacy. With Greece under Nazi occupation in 1941, Turkey became the first country to send humanitarian assistance to the famine stricken Greek population. Many Greeks fled to Turkey and made their way to Egypt to fight together with the British in the hope that the German occupation of their country would be reversed.
The Time magazine in 1999 chose Albert Einstein as the person of the century. Importantly Ataturk was chosen as one of the 15 most important leaders of the century. Strangely while Albert Einstein’s brilliance in creating the splitting of the atom led to misuse by the butchery of the second world war, thus creating destructive weapons never before witnessed, which led some to claim that his genius was no doubt misused, this resulted in some like John McLaughlin the host of ” McLaughlin group” to declare that Ataturk was ”the person of the Full Millennium”.
His view was that Ataturk was a visionary who turned a Muslim country into a Western leaning democracy, bringing in secularism and declaring that religion was something for the individual and not for the state to interfere or be interfered in. Professor Arnold Ludwig after a 17 year study into 300 leaders who helped shape the world chose Ataturk as the greatest leader of the 20th century.
A lasting legacy of Ataturk was the message he sent to the people of Australia and New Zealand who had sacrificed their sons during the Gallipoli campaign in WWI.
“Those heroes that shed their blood, and lost their lives …
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore, rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies And the Mehmet’s,
to us where they lie side by side, Here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries …
Wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land, they have
Become our sons as well”.
There is no doubt that many Turkish governments since the 1940’s have constantly used Ataturk’s message and legacy to fit their own aims, and they often use his name to pull the wool over ordinary people eyes. To say everything Ataturk did was correct or perfect would be stretching the imagination. He was after all a human being.
Looking at the situation in Turkey today, one wonders if the legacy of Ataturk is about take a new turn. The recent attempted coup of 15 July came as a shock to people who value democracy. The situation as it stands two weeks hence is one of uncertainty. Democracy is the most valuable asset to any country that aspires to modernity in the 21st century. Democracy should be about the creation of problem solving solutions, listening even when one disagrees, accepting that others will have a different vision, and above all freedom of speech that allows us to debate in a constructive manner.
In the final Analysis we are now scratching our heads and wondering where the recent events in Ataturk’s Turkey are now heading.