DAWN The Review, September 2001
Ataturk: the Man who dodged a World War
After the First World War, the victorious Allies sat down to punish the culprits. Germany must eat dirt, because it had been the major warmonger in a world that had beginning to hope that there would be no more wars. Turkey, the home of the Ottoman Empire and once the ruler of all Middle East, had joined the Germans without much thought. The Allied decided that the great Ottoman Empire must be stripped of all its occupied territories in the Middle East and the Europe. Also, the mainland Turkey itself must be divided into pieces to be taken over by Greece and France while the Ottoman Caliph and the capital Constantinople (later Istanbul) should be garrisoned by the British troops.
The Allies were meticulous people. Their plans were undefeatable because they had taken care of all details. That is, all except one minor issue: an unknown soldier called Mustafa Kemal, who had blue eyes and light hair. In Turkey he was called "Ghazi Pasha" because of some achievements in the recent war. To the world outside, he was a non- entity. And yet, those who had begun to believe that history is made by the masses and not by individuals were soon to be proven wrong.
"The Caliph is a national enemy," declared Mustafa Kemal as he unfurled the banner of revolt against everything alien to the sovereignty of Turkey, including the sovereign himself. He forged a parallel government in Angora (later Ankara), which declared itself the Grand Assembly and through a number of resolutions elevated the rebel leader into chairman and president. The Caliph's government in Constantinople could not do better than stand and watch as the multitudes joined the rebel leader. On 9 September 1922, the world gaped in wonder as the Turks expelled the Greeks out of Smyrna. Other provinces of Turkey soon followed.
This was a major victory. Overnight, the conservative moth-eaten Empire of Turkey had acquired the prestige of a modern nation-state. What had happened? How did it happen? Would it happen elsewhere? The victory at Smyrna shook the conscience of the world.
India was quick to respond. "The dimming of the stars is evidence of a bright morning," declared its greatest poet Iqbal in a melodious poem titled 'The Dawn of Islam.' "The sun has come up on the horizon, gone is the hour of a deep slumber!" Street artists were quick to follow him and made it possible for the dreamers to buy pictures of Kemal in the attire of an Arab soldier. Back in Turkey, these pictures could have surprised Kemal more than the poem written in his honor by Iqbal. He saw himself a champion of the Turkish cause, but had no time for religious idealism. Whatever he had achieved, he had by giving up what he considered surplus sentiments. "A ruler who needs religion to help him rule is a weakling," Kemal had said with a sneer. "No weakling should rule."
Anger is a negative impulse. It destroys its possessor. In people like Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Adolf Hitler, it has destroyed civilizations. However, in Mustafa Kemal, a man driven by anger throughout his life, we see a rare occasion when anger provided a creative energy that didn't destroy the world, but saved a nation. His secret lied in his ability to harness his anger and in his sharp focus on the needs of survival.
Mustafa Kemal was born as plain Mustafa in 1881. His father, Ali Reza, was a poor clerk and mother, Zubeyde, a religious woman with exceptionally good looks, strong nerves and a rigid mind. She wanted her son to become a religious scholar, and a prayer leader in the mosque. Ali Raza died while Mustafa was still a boy and Zubeyde, went away to live with her relatives along with her two children, Mustafa and daughter Makbula. As a child Mustafa had no friends, because he trusted no one. One day he had a fight in the school, and when the teacher tried to intervene, Mustafa misbehaved. Later, he refused to go back to the school. He was about twelve or thirteen years old.
Many people in Mustafa's family were serving in the military. Mustafa, who could never suffer to look second best, became envious of their smart uniforms. His mother would never let him join a dangerous profession. Perhaps she hadn't yet given up the dream of her son becoming a religious scholar. Without letting her know about it, Mustafa appeared for the entrance test to a cadet college and got selected. "Then my mother had no choice but to give me her blessings," Mustafa recalled later. But, frankly, he wouldn't have cared much for the blessings of her mother in any case. "I have never had any patience with any advice or admonition which my mother (my father died very early), my sister or any of my closest relatives pressed on me according to their lights. People who live in the midst of their families know well that they are never short of innocent and sincere warnings from left and right… How could you obey them? To take heed of the warnings of a mother, twenty or twenty-five years my senior, wouldn't that have meant retreating into the past?"
In the academy, Mustafa adopted a second name: Kemal, or perfection. It is said that a teacher bestowed this honorific on him, but it is equally probable that he chose it himself, either as an expression of his pride or as a token of his affection for the nationalist Turkish poet Namik Kemal. Apart from the Turkish poet, he was also influenced by such French philosophers of the eighteenth century as Rousseau and Voltaire and it was perhaps under the influence of their philosophy that he learnt to restrain his inexhaustible energies. At the same time he grew up to admire the Western clothes and the Western way of life.
Zubeyde married a businessman soon, and it is said that Mustafa was so angry that he didn't see her for quite a while. Later, however, the love between the son and the mother revived and her mother lived long enough to see the days of his glory, and take pride in him.
The days of Mustafa Kemal's youth were filled with disappointments. He was a revolutionary at heart, and joined many rebel organizations against the Caliph. He was often persecuted by the secret service, was at the risk of his career many times and once even faced the risk of being hanged. Nothing changed him, but everything taught him to grow more careful, and to narrow down his focus on the most important need of all human beings: survival. When a human soul concentrates too much on a single ideal, it often develops an intuitive power in that area. It seems Mustafa Kemal developed a gift for survival that was beyond human comprehension. His colleagues would later recall how during the famous encounter of Gallipoli in the First World War, Mustafa Kemal would stand completely exposed outside the trenches, smoking a cigarette. Bullets would fall all around him, but none would hit him. "These ones aren't for me," he would say in a jest.
The victory at Gallipoli turned him into a national hero. However, the world outside did not hear about him. The enemies blamed their defeat on their own flawed leadership rather than the ability of the Turks who fought them. Mustafa Kemal came to the international limelight only after the victory at Smyrna on 9 September, 1922. It was perhaps the first time in the modern history that Turkey had gained such a grand victory. A lesser leader, or a starry-eyed romantic, would have taken this opportunity to dream of the revival of the great Ottoman Empire. Yet, in Mustafa Kemal we had a man who was an extremist by nature and a pragmatist in action. "We claim the right of every nation: to be a free community within our own national boundaries, not one inch more, but not one inch less." And he started by withdrawing his interests from all the regions that Turkey had been fighting for outside its own territories. These included parts of Africa, the Middle East and pockets in Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Turks had conquered them when they were strong. Later, the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey declared himself the Caliph of Islam, and held his empire together in the name of religious unity. But now it had become impossible to hold it since the cost of keeping the façade was killing the Turk peasants, who had to pay all the taxes. The Empire must go, Mustafa Kemal declared. There is no place for empires in the modern world.
This was not a small task. The masses spare no time in rising up to worship a hero who promises them to win new lands, and therefore there has been no dearth of such heroes in history. But it takes far more courage to be a hero and tell your people to let go of the concerns that they think belong to them. Such heroes have been few. Mustafa Kemal was one of them.
In 1922, Mustafa Kemal decided to abolish the Sultanate. At that time, the Caliph of Turkey possessed two offices: the secular office of the Sultan, or the ruler of the Turks, and the religious office of the Caliph, or the religious leader of the Muslims. Perhaps he could be stripped of his political powers as Sultan without hurting his prestige as the Caliph, Mustafa Kemal suggested. The power of Sultan should be vested in the grand assembly of the Turks so that Turkey could become a republic. As Mustafa Kemal himself was to recount later, the religious scholars sat down for hours to arguing whether this step was in accordance with Islam or not. Arguments were presented from all religious sources. Mustafa Kemal sat watching in a corner and, finally, when he could take no more, he rose up and said, "Sovereignty and kingship are never decided by academic debate. They are seized by force. The Ottoman dynasty appropriated by force the government of the Turks, and reigned over them for six centuries. Now the Turkish nation has effectively gained possession of its sovereignty. If those assembled here see the matter in its natural light, we shall all agree. Otherwise, facts will still prevail, but some heads may roll." This settled the matters as one Maulana hurriedly addressed his colleagues, "We had been approaching the matters from a different angle. Now Ghazi Pasha has brought a new perspective." Hence the Ottoman monarchy was put to an end and Turkey became a republic in 1922. The Caliph, however, remained in office as the spiritual head of the Muslims World, for another two years until Mustafa Kemal decided to do away with him altogether. The entire Ottoman family was then exiled, and the caliphate came to an end in the Muslim history. Predictably, there was a hue and cry from all over the Muslim world. Mustafa Kemal didn't bother to be courteous in his choice of words in replying to them. "It is time that Turkey looks for herself," he declared. "It is time that Turkey ignores Indians and Arabs, rids herself of her contacts with them, rids herself of the leadership of Islam. Turkey has enough to do to look after herself. The Caliphate has sucked us white for centuries."
In the years that followed, Mustafa Kemal was voted the President of Turkey, and virtually its dictator. He set out on a process of secularization, making it binding on all citizens to wear a rimmed hat – obviously one couldn't offer prayers in a rimmed hat. The traditional dress of the religious scholars was banned except in the premises of a mosque, where it was forbidden to call for prayer in any language other than Turkish, whose Arabic script was replaced at the same time by the Latin alphabet. He was bit the prototype of a "selfless leader." He enjoyed luxuries, and he was surrounded by a pack of henchmen who could "fix" his opponents for him. But he never lost sight of a higher ideal: the ideal to build a modern state, and the thought that it must last even after he was long dead. A very accurate tribute to him appears in his famous biography Grey Wolf, written by H. C. Armstrong in 1932, and banned immediately in Turkey by Ataturk himself. "He is Dictator," wrote H. C. Armstrong. "The future lies in his strong hands. If they fail, grow flabby, tremble, if though strong to destroy they cannot build, then Turkey dies. He is Dictator in order that it may be impossible ever again that there should be in Turkey a Dictator."
Gradually, there arose a strange hybrid of political philosophy called "Kemalism," which was a harmless passive racism at its best: the Turks are the best nation in the world and Ataturk (the Father of the Truks, as Mustafa Kemal was affectionately called) is the best ruler they can get but both the Turks and their Father must adopt the Western civilization and keep their interests limited to peace in their territories. The last tenet of "Kemalism" has often been underestimated. Mustafa Kemal's major contribution to the world history is that at the height of his power when his people would have gratefully followed him had he declared a war on their centuries-old enemies, he opted for peace. In that sense he was the first truly modern leader, because we must remember that even the Prime Minister of Britain at that time was relishing at such ideas as "the victory of the Cross over the Crescent." To Mustafa Kemal, there was no escape in idealism. Peace brought prosperity, and prosperity was what he wanted. He was a realist to the core of his bones, and that was the virtue he passed down to his successors: in the Second World War, which erupted a year after Ataturk's death (he died in 1938), Turkey was the only European country (apart from Switzerland), which did not participate. Throughout the six horrible years of the World War, there was not a single night when lights went out in the country into which Mustafa Kemal had infused his soul.
Ataturk has inspired world leaders right from his earliest victories. Some benefited from his example, while others perished because they adopted his fiery outbursts and his high- strung egoism, but failed to understand his most essential virtue: in all his life, Mustafa Kemal never once overestimated his resources. His true legacy is the courage to cast away access baggage, even if that baggage consists of what is deemed sacred. Life to be respected above all other values, seems to be his true philosophy. Just as an individual has to fight his or her own battle in the acute hour of crisis, so does a nation. Mustafa Kemal remembered this, and kept his country in one piece after it had been marked for dissection. Whether one adores him for his liberal secularism or condemns him on the same grounds, there can be no argument about the fact that when Mustafa Kemal appeared on the scene, Turkey had been earmarked for destruction. When he left, it was the only nation prepared to keep its cool in the World War that was about to begin.
His secret lied in his ability to harness his anger and in his sharp focus on the needs of survival.