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Ataturk Triumphed Over Religion

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Ataturk Triumphed Over Religion

By James A. Haught

Under the right circumstances, a brave freethinker can rescue a fundamentalist society and lead it away from oppressive religion. That's what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did for Muslim Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s. He turned a narrow Islamic society into a modern secular democracy. It was noble and inspiring.

Ataturk was born in 1881 to Muslim parents who named him simply Mustafa ("the chosen one"). His pious mother wanted him to attend a religious indoctrination school which he tried, briefly, but was unhappy. He entered a secular school and was given the added name Kemal ("perfection") by a math teacher impressed by his abilities.

He finally chose military schools and became an army officer of the far-flung Islamic Ottoman Empire. However, being a rebel, he soon was arrested for anti-monarchist fomenting. He was jailed several months, but was freed by help from a former schoolmaster.

In 1908, he was involved in the Young Turk Revolution that seized power from a sultan and restored constitutional government. Afterward came years of military combat in 1909, suppressing a revolt by a Turkish military clique in 1910, suppressing an uprising in the Ottoman province of Albania in 1911, fighting Italian invaders in the Ottoman province of Libya (where a bomb flung a stone fragment into his left eye, impairing his vision) in 1912 and 1913, fighting Bulgarians and others in the Balkan Wars.

When World War I erupted in 1914, the Young Turks stupidly joined the doomed German and Austro-Hungarian side. As a group commander, Mustafa Kemal helped block an Allied invasion of the Dardanelles organized by the young Winston Churchill. The Allies lost 46,000 soldiers killed and 200,000 wounded before retreating in disgrace. Churchill was forced to resign as Britain's admiralty lord.

After the German-Turkish-Austro-Hungarian side lost World War I, the old Ottoman Empire was carved up among occupying forces. But Mustafa Kemal led resistance against the occupiers. Remnants of the Ottoman government, cooperating with the occupation, issued a warrant for his arrest and condemned him to death. Nonetheless, Ataturk spurred patriotic defense forces until they drove out all foreigners in 1923 and established the Republic of Turkey.

As Turkey's new leader, he launched enormous reforms that liberated women, dethroned religion, created public schools for all, banned polygamy, switched from Arabic writing to Western letters, switched from fezzes and shrouds to Western dress, and built Western-style democracy.

The caliphate supposedly a government of all Muslims was banished in 1924. That same year, sharia religious courts were abolished. In 1925, Sufi religious orders that functioned like political parties were banned. Turkey's new leader told the national assembly:

"The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past."

The parliament gave him an added name, Ataturk ("father of the Turks"). He married a well-educated, strong-willed woman who refused to wear veils or burkas. Together, they made public appearances that offended old-line Muslims but thrilled modern young women. But they soon divorced.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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