The Turkish Republic

Eyal Offenbach gave another excellent lecture in his series on Turkey, this time about the founding and early development of the Turkish Republic.  This is my summary of his lecture.

The Ottoman Empire expired just at the time when it was trying to imitate the Christian West, but failing to do so effectively.  After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI by Britain, the Young Turks, who were the westernized elite, carried out a coup against the former Caliphate and defeated the Greek invasion.  Their leader Mustafa Kemal then declared the Turkish Republic in 1923.  One of his first actions in 1924 was to abolish the Caliphate.  Even today the leaders of the so-called Islamic State are fighting to reinstate the Caliphate and consider his action traitorous.

It is important to note that no such entity as a Turkish nation had existed before then, the Turks considered themselves part of the Ottoman Empire.  To bring the Turks into the modern westernized world Mustafa Kemal as President introduced many fundamental changes:

  1. He moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara.   There were many who opposed this change since the capital at Istanbul commemorated the capture of Constantinople from the Byzantine Christians.
  2. He abolished the stranglehold of Islam on the State and in effect reversed the relationship, making Islam subordinate to the State.  For example, he stated that beliefs should be a personal matter and he made all Imams civil servants, so the State could control them.
  3. He adopted a European style constitution, that made all citizens equal, including minorities and women!
  4. He adopted the Christian calendar, so that Sunday is still the day of rest in Turkey.
  5. He changed the Turkish language, by adopting new words and eliminating others.
  6. He changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic script to Roman characters.

Many of these changes that were adopted between 1924-1928 were introduced overnight, so that the population was often in complete shock.  In 1930, Mustafa Kemal was given the title Ataturk, namely “father of the Turks,” and he was revered almost as a god.   Although in principle the Turks accepted the transformation from an Islamic State to a secular state, they remained deeply religious and it is questionable whether these transformations could actually change the beliefs of a population that had been steeped in Islam for centuries.

It is important to note that although Ataturk was an extremely brilliant man, he nevertheless was not shy in eliminating opponents in the usual way.  He was basically a military man and approached all problems as a general.  Incidentally the Turkish Army has always been a bastion of the secular state.  When Ataturk died in 1938 at the age of 57 he left a stable Turkish Republic, that was not however a democracy.

His successor, Ismat Inonu, continued his reforms and ensured that Turkey remained neutral during WWII, although he did declare war on Germany in 1945 to show what side he was on.  After the war there was a Turkish Marshall plan to try to bring Turkey up to Western standards.  The money that was given was with strings, and Turkey had to introduce reforms, including having elections.  In the first election in 1946, opposition parties to Ataturk’s Republican Party were allowed, but they were controlled by the same people and the election was essentially rigged.

Because of severe criticism, the second election in 1950 marked a watershed in Turkey because it was not rigged and the opposition Democratic Justice Party scored a landslide against Ataturk’s Republican Party.  This was largely because of corruption in the ruling elite as well as opposition to the concept of a secular as opposed to an Islamic State. This process is still playing itself out in Turkey today.


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