Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Born in 1881 (Salonika, Ottoman Empire)
Died on November 10, 1938 (Istanbul, Turkey)

President of Turkey
Military leader

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is widely hailed as the founder of modern Turkey, a nation that emerged in 1923 out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century). Throughout the twentieth century, Atatürk was widely revered for the way he introduced his nation to such features as democratic political institutions, an effective civil administration (including such services as police and fire service, and garbage collection), universal education, and the idea of the rights of individuals. Atatürk is also remembered for introducing his predominately Muslim nation to the benefits as well as the drawbacks of secular, or non-religious, rule. With many Muslim nations struggling to decide on the role that the Islamic religion plays in their national lives, the story of Atatürk and the creation of the secular state of Turkey has acquired renewed relevance.

"We shall raise our country to the level of the most prosperous and civilized nations of the world. We shall endow our nation with the broadest means and sources of welfare."

Raised in a dying empire

The future leader of Turkey was raised in humble conditions. He was born sometime in 1881 to Ali Riza and Zubeyde, lower-middle-class Muslims living in the city of Salonika (which later became Thessalonika, Greece), and in his early years was known only as Mustafa. When his father's business failed, the family fell into poverty. Mustafa's father died, and he was raised by his mother until he was about twelve years old. In 1893 Mustafa rejected the idea of going to a religious school and instead entered a military school in Salonika, where he soon became a star pupil. His skills were so strong in mathematics that his teacher gave him the last name Kemal, which meant "perfection." For many years thereafter, he was known as Mustafa Kemal. He would later be awarded the second last name of Atatürk by the Turkish government.

Atatürk thrived in military school, and by the time he graduated in 1905 he had attained the rank of captain. Atatürk learned military skills and tactics in school, but like other bright young men he learned to dislike the corrupt and inefficient regime that ruled his land. Atatürk grew up at a time when the Ottoman Empire was in a state of severe decline. At its peak in the 1500s, the Ottoman Empire had ruled over all of the Middle East, much of northern Africa, and parts of Eastern Europe. But by the early 1900s the sultan's rule, which is similar to a king's rule, extended over a Middle East in which lesser nobles, such as minor sheikhs, emirs, and tribal chieftains, exercised the real power, obtaining great personal wealth while ignoring the needs of the common people. Though the majority religion in the Ottoman Empire was Islam, roughly 40 percent of the people spoke a Turkish language, 40 percent spoke Arabic, and the remainder spoke a variety of other languages. The Ottoman Empire was thus a loose affiliation of weak alliances, joined under an Islamic caliphate (religious leader; see sidebar on page 45).

Atatürk was one of many who saw the weaknesses in the Ottoman Empire. As a member of a group called the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP; its members were known as Young Turks), Atatürk called for a government that represented the people. The CUP also wanted to create an independent nation in Turkey, the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Atatürk participated in the action that forced the sultan to give up power in 1908, resulting in a military dictatorship led by several of the Young Turks. Atatürk clashed with leading members of the Young Turks, however, and he was assigned administrative posts distant from the capital.

Led quest for independence

In 1914, as European nations rushed into World War I (1914–18), Turkish leader Enver Pasha (1881–1922) decided to enter the war on the side of the Axis, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, and against the Allies, led by Britain, France, Russia, and later the United States. Atatürk disagreed with this decision and for this he was banished to a distant post guarding a sea approach to the city of Constantinople. It was there, in a place called Gallipoli, that Atatürk became a hero. Guarding this narrow strait on the Aegean Sea in 1915, Atatürk commanded Turkish forces as they repelled the better-armed British and Australian forces. Atatürk spent the rest of the war leading important Turkish missions. Though the Turks were eventually defeated, Atatürk won the respect of friend and foe alike.

The Middle East was in disarray at the end of World War I. Allied leaders reappointed a sultan, Mohammed VI, as leader of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1920 imposed a treaty, the Treaty of Sèvres, that gave control over large parts of Turkey to other nations, including Greece. This treaty also left military forces from Britain and France in charge in the newly formed nations of Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan under what became known as the mandate system. Atatürk could not stand to see the nation of Turkey disappear. He rallied support among the many contacts he had made during his military and administrative career. On April 23, 1920, Atatürk was named president of a new Turkish legislature called the Grand National Assembly. He gathered together a powerful army to fight against the Greek army and gain Turkish independence. By 1923 Atatürk had defeated the Greeks and their allies, replaced the sultan with a democratically elected parliamentary form of government (a system where representatives are chosen by the people to make laws and run the government) called the Grand National Assembly, and negotiated a new treaty with Britain and France. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed on July 24, 1923, established the modern borders of Turkey and confirmed its existence as a nation in the eyes of the world.

Secularizing the state

Atatürk's great goal as president was to make Turkey a modern, Western-style nation. He admired the Western states (such as Britain, France, and the United States), with the individual freedoms and opportunities they allowed their citizens. And he opposed the Ottoman system, with its great divide between rich and poor, and with Muslim clerics in charge of most governmental functions. Atatürk, who was from a Muslim family, though not a practicing Muslim, set about to break the historic chains that linked church and state under the caliphate. According to Cengiz Candar, author of "Atatürk's Ambiguous Legacy," Atatürk once said that "The evils which had sapped the nation's strength had all been wrought in the name of religion." Among his most dramatic and historic actions were those that ended religious involvement in governmental affairs: the secularization of the state.

The End of the Caliphate

The caliphate is one of the most disputed institutions in all of Islam. In its simplest form, the caliphate is that political leadership whose purpose is to assert the importance of Islam, the faith of the Muslim people. At the top of the caliphate is the caliph, the primary spiritual and political leader of the Muslim people. But the caliphate has never been that simple.

When the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, died in 632 ce, the office of the caliph was created to protect Islam, but it was not a religious office. From the very beginning, the caliphate has been contested. One major branch of Islam, the Sunnis, believes that the father-in-law of Muhammad was the first caliph; the other major branch, the Shias, believes that Muhammad's cousin was the first caliph. The caliphate came to its greatest power in the Ottoman Empire. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over most Muslims from 1299 to 1918, the caliph was the single greatest political and religious authority, combining in his office the power of church and state.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ended the caliphate when he created the modern nation of Turkey in 1923. He believed that religion was a matter of individual choice, not a function of the state. Ever since the 1920s, radical Islamic political movements in the Middle East and beyond have called for a renewal of the caliphate, though who the caliph should be and where he should rule is hotly disputed.

In 1923 Atatürk abolished the caliphate, thus eliminating the role of the sultan and the various Muslim clerics who had supported the legal structure based on Sharia (a system of Islamic holy law based on the Koran, the sacred book of Islam) and waqf (a system for setting aside land for Muslim religious purposes). In 1924 Atatürk ordered that all educational institutions operate under state control and abolished the religious courts. In 1928 he ordered that Turkish be the official language, and that it be written in the Latin alphabet, as opposed to the Arabic. He then ordered that the Koran be translated into Turkish so that common Turks could read the Koran themselves, rather than relying on the interpretations of clerics. (This policy was similar to that adopted by Protestants in Europe hundreds of years earlier.) And in 1934 he pushed through a constitutional amendment that granted citizenship rights to women.

Not only did Atatürk abolish any official links between Islam and the Republic of Turkey, as the country was known, he also dictated rules that helped end many Muslim customs. For example, in 1925 he quit wearing a fez, a traditional Muslim cap that allowed wearers to touch their foreheads to the ground in prayer, and urged all Turks to wear Western hats. He also banned people from wearing religious dress except during ceremonial occasions, and ceased the requirement that women wear the veil common in many Muslim societies. Atatürk allowed Western music and the use of alcohol, both formerly prohibited. Finally, in 1934 he required that all Turks take a Turkish last name. It was this requirement that led to the Turkish legislature officially giving him the name Atatürk, which means "Father Turk." According to an article in New Criterion by David Fromkin, "It was a total cultural revolution, imposed by one man's iron will and by the force of an army."

As the father of Turkey, Atatürk wanted his country to be democratic, but he also exerted nearly complete control. He banned any political parties that criticized his changes, and harassed and even ordered the murder of political opponents. Yet his tough style also instilled great pride in the Turkish people. From the moment he took control, Atatürk was a great promoter of all things Turkish. In his speeches he extolled the noble spirit of the Turkish people, and he helped his people see the positive elements in their history. He placed posters of himself everywhere in the country, and urged his people to identify with their nation. Into the twenty-first century this pride has continued, and Atatürk's likeness has remained visible in public buildings and private homes throughout the country.

Despite the strength of his leadership style, Atatürk did not wish to be seen as a dictator, or as similar to German leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and Italian leader Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), his contemporaries. He resisted the efforts of others to call him president-for-life, and insisted that all of his orders be approved by the Grand National Assembly. According to Ahmet Kuyas, writing in the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa, "He [Atatürk] was trying to establish a democratic tradition in Turkey," and his "dictatorial rule was in effect an apprenticeship in democracy." This view, quite common among historians, holds that in a country as ill prepared for democracy as Turkey, strong, even anti-democratic leadership is required to bring about the conditions needed for the realization of true democratic rule. It is this insight that has proved so engaging in the 2000s, as Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq struggle with their own attempted transitions to democracy.

Atatürk ruled as the president of Turkey from 1923 until his death in 1938, and enabled his country to make a great leap forward in its development. He created democratic institutions of government, improved the school and social service systems, developed some modern industries, and began to develop Turkey's infrastructure (its system of roads and communication networks). Recent research has indicated that Atatürk had a number of personally undesirable traits: he was a womanizer, despite being married with a family, and was an alcoholic whose excessive drinking led to his death in 1938. Most Turks remember him not for his failings, however, but for the immense national pride that he stirred among his people.

According to biographer Andrew Mango, "Atatürk's message is that East and West can meet on the ground of universal secular values and mutual respect, that nationalism is compatible with peace, that human reason is the only true guide in life." Turkey is widely considered to have realized this goal, for it is Muslim in its religion, yet Western in its political structures and in its aspirations in the twenty-first century. It is also the only Muslim nation to experience a transition of government after fair democratic elections. In 2004 the country was named as a candidate for admission into the European Union (EU), an economic partnership between the most powerful European nations. Actual membership is expected to take a number of years, and is conditional on economic performance, the maintenance of democratic institutions, and the preservation of civil rights for all citizens. When EU membership comes, it will come as the ultimate realization of the dream launched by Atatürk early in the twentieth century.

For More Information


Ahmad, Feroz. The Making of Modern Turkey. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Kuyas, Ahmet. "Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal." In Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. Edited by Philip Mattar. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

Macfie, A. L. Atatürk. London and New York: Longman, 1994.

Mango, Andrew. Atatürk. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000.

Pettifer, James. The Turkish Labyrinth: Atatürk and the New Islam. London: Viking, 1997.


Candar, Cengiz. "Atatürk's Ambiguous Legacy." Wilson Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 4 (Autumn 2000): p. 88.

Cherry, Matt. "When a Muslim Nation Embraces Secularism." The Humanist, vol. 62, no. 3 (May-June 2002): p. 21.

Fromkin, David. "Atatürk's Creation." New Criterion, vol. 18, no. 8 (April 2000): p. 14.

Web Sites

"Mustafa Kemal Atatürk." Atatürk. http://www.Atatü (accessed on January 25, 2005).

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. (accessed on January 25, 2005).

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