Rediscovering Ataturk

by Sevgi Zubeyde Gurbuz

I have always been deeply saddened by the substantial number of Turkish youth who fail to fully exploit or appreciate the opportunities offered to them by the Turkish educational system. They don't know what it's like to listen to the same tape of Turkish folk music over and over again, just because it's the only tape of Turkish music you could find, having been generously donated by relatives over 10 years ago. They don't know what it's like to struggle to read a first grade Turkish children's book as a teenager, not having the chance to have any formal Turkish language instruction. They don't know what it's like to spend hours in the library trying to find just one book about Turkish history, only to find that it is written from a European perspective, mourning the Turkish conquest of Constantinople and victory at Gallipoli. Learning about Turkey and Turkishness in 1970's America was a challenge even today's Turkish-American children may not fully be able to appreciate due to tremendous explosion in resources over the past 30 years, including access to Turkish television, radio, newspapers, books, music, and the internet.

In those "dark ages," however, there was one story that my mom always told me, which couldn't be found in any library textbook, but which firmly and eternally tied me to my grandparents and fellow Turks: the story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the epic struggle of the Turkish nation for freedom against European colonialism. The way she told it made me feel like I myself was on the banks of the Sakarya, trembling with eagerness to greet the attacking Greeks. "Ya Istiklal, Ya Olum!" (Independence, or Death!) I could feel the desperation of the hour, and that insatiable desire for freedom. Her description of Ataturk channeled all my energy to a climax. I came to know Ataturk as a man willing to sacrifice everything for his nation; a man who loved Turkey more than anyone I knew; smart, courageous, confident, and steadfast in battle; a leader with ideals, wisdom, and foresight.

When I finally had a chance to visit Turkey, fourteen years after my last visit as a 10-year old, all I wanted was for my mother to promise to take me to a bookstore. I was like a thirsty man in the desert who had finally found an oasis. If I could have, I would have bought up the entire bookstore. But given the luggage constraints, I limited myself to the bare essentials: an English-Turkish dictionary, and a book about Ataturk. I let my mom, being the more knowledgeable one, pick out the best choice.

"Here we go!" she finally said, extending towards me a medium-sized paperback.

"NUTUK," (The Speech) informed the cover, "by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk."

I was in awe. Now I was finally going to be able to read about my hero in his own words! I eagerly flipped the pages of the book, and took in that warm, enticing new-book smell.

"I think this version will be the easiest for you to read, without being overly simplistic." said my mom. "I'll help you with the words you don't know."

When we returned back to our home in America, I started reading the Nutuk out loud to my mother. She corrected my pronunciation, taught me new words, and discussed the content with me as well. The more I read, the more I appreciated and admired Ataturk and the many others who bravely sacrificed their lives for Turkey. Such as Koprulu Hamdi Bey, who was able to craftily seize all the ammunition in the Akbas armory and send it to the nationalist forces in Anatolia - without killing any of the French soldiers he captured.

Reading the Nutuk was not just a lesson in Turkish history, but a lesson in character as well. Ataturk never used the word "I" when describing any successes. It was always "we" – we defeated the enemy, we saved the country, we rebuilt the villages. Ataturk did not save Turkey single handedly, there were many Ataturks, like Koprulu Hamdi Bey, who did what needed to be done to save the day. And most importantly, they didn't wait for someone to tell them what to do, but took the initiative to do all that they could.

There are those who perhaps admire Ataturk so much, that they put him on a dizzying high pedestal, unreachable to anyone except God himself. "We need another leader like Ataturk," some say, "but that will be hard to find," they finish, dejectedly.

Why? Perhaps Ataturk believed in us more than we believe in ourselves:

"There are two Mustafa Kemals. One is the flesh-and-bone Mustafa Kemal who now stands before you and who will pass away. The other is you, all of you here who will go to the far corners of our land to spread the ideals which must be defended with your lives if necessary. I stand for the nation's dreams, and my life's work is to make them come true."

What has happened to Ataturk's legacy, to the nation's dreams for which he dedicated his life? There are those who say that Ataturk's principles are no longer relevant or necessary to today's Turkey, that Kemalism is dead, or should be dead. How shocking, considering that Ataturk fought to develop Turkey into a democratic, secular republic, with a modern, science-oriented education system and an open society in which everyone, men and women, were made full partners in advancement.

There is nothing outdated about Kemalism, except that perhaps people have forgotten Ataturk's true message. After all, many self-proclaimed "followers of Ataturk" are doing things obviously contrary to his legacy. For example, some "Kemalist" websites also sport pictures of communists such as Che Guevara, even though Ataturk was staunchly anti-communist. Some spread rumors of Ataturk being a mason, even though he shut down Masonic Lodges in Turkey. Some so-called "Kemalists" even have pictures taken with Abdullah Ocalan or participate in concerts sponsored by Kurdish nationalists.

Let's not forget the many politicians who use Ataturk's name in their campaigns, but then turn around and get rich through corruption, or trample on democracy just to maintain their position in the party or parliament.

Ataturk was a dynamic leader with foresight and vision. Can we say that about any Turkish politician today?

Who should we hold responsible for turning Kemalism into a static, fixed doctrine, despite the fact that Ataturk hated dogma?

Sabiha Gokcen writes in her memoirs, "Ataturk'le Bir Omur" that Ataturk said, "I would never want any doctrine. Doctrine freezes people and nations at a fixed point…It puts people into a mould that is difficult to break. This is why I am against any doctrine; it will cause us to freeze when we are walking forward…Constantly walking forward, constantly developing, constantly seeking and finding happiness – this is what the Turkish people deserve." [1]

Even more ironic is that some people are willing to resort to anti-democratic measures to defend their doctrines and beliefs.

Sabiha Gokcen writes that when asked about what the best system of government for Turkey is, Ataturk unhesitatingly replied "ozgurlukcu demokrasi" (free democracy)!

"First of all, democracy can achieve its potential only through intelligence and science. A regime devoid of these cannot say that it is democratic. The basis of democracy is not personal benefit, but the interests of the nation and her people…Then there is also what is known as free democracy. Just as democracy cannot exist without freedom, so is freedom without democracy unthinkable. These are like twins which can never be separated. If one is damaged, the other shaken. If one is shaken, the other is damaged. As can be seen in many examples in the West, when free democracy is applied without intelligence or science, the people live through disturbances. First, the population must be brought to a certain level of education and maturity. As I've mentioned before, this must be done by political parties and politicians aided by scientists and men of ideas…Since one of the main characteristics of freedom is equality, we can say that justice is one of the main pillars of democracy. Thus, separating the concepts of democracy from freedom, and justice from equality would be an erroneous way of thinking." [2]

No, dear readers, Kemalism is not dead, but perhaps we have forgotten to read and appreciate Ataturk's writings. I don't think it is a coincidence these misunderstandings come at a time when the percentage of youth who read and study books of their own volition is at a tragic low, and memorization is more valued than critical thinking.

Perhaps we have forgotten that what Ataturk really dreamed of is the Turkish youth racing to outperform each other in science and mathematics, selflessly sacrificing them selves in service of the Turkish nation, working to generate creative, smart solutions to today's problems with an eye to the future. Perhaps we need to pick up a copy of the Nutuk, do some reading, rediscover and internalize the qualities that made Ataturk great.


[1] Sabiha Gokcen, "Ataturk'le Bir Omur," page 177.

[2] Sabiha Gokcen, "Ataturk'le Bir Omur," page 176.