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AtaturkDAWN 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.

Read also: Women in Ataturk's Life


His  secret lied in his ability to harness his anger and in his sharp focus on the needs of  survival.

 
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