Today Turks celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of their nation in its present form. The significance of Ataturk's accomplishments extends far beyond Turkey. The principles which he followed in revitalizing his country and putting it on a firm course toward modernization should serve more widely than they have as inspiration and guidance for leaders facing similar challenges.
Turkey might well not exist today if Mustafa Kemal had not taken history into his own hands on May 19, 1919, when he landed at the Black Sea port of Samsun and launched the struggle for the independence of Turkey. The great powers had designs on the remains of the Ottoman Empire. The British occupied Istanbul, the French the southeast, with the Italians aiming at the southwest. The Greeks had far-reaching ambitions extending deep into Anatolia and along the Black Sea coast. In the east many divisive forces were at work, as Russia seethed with revolution and the Caucasian peoples tried to take their destiny into their own hands. Everything seemed to be coming apart in this part of the world.
Pulling the Turkish heartland together, inspiring its exhausted and confused people with the resolve to form a modern nation was not a job just waiting to be done by any man who happened to come along to do it. It was a job that required definition, dedication, and determination. Mustafa Kemal, tested at Gallipoli, was unique. Even he needed more than four years to create the Turkish Republic, as long as the war which had brought the once splendid Ottoman Empire to its final agony.
If what is today Turkey had been carved up into mandates and ministates, it would probably still suffer the instability that besets the whole region immediately to the south: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, Iraq. Simply listing these states, all once part of the Ottoman Empire, brings to mind tension, crisis, and war.
Anatolia and Turkish Thrace fared differently and became a clearly defined nation. From the viewpoint of the 1980s this seems obvious.It was not at all obvious in 1920. Even then, more than half the Turks in the world lived outside the boundaries of Turkey -- scattered from the Balkans through the Crimea and all the way across Iran and Central Asia into China. The people of Turkey had links with these people going far back in time and alive in memory. The dialects were -- and to a surprising extent still are -- mutually intelligible.
Some of Mustafa Kemal's contemporaries and rivals became seized with the notion of linking all these Turks into a vast new empire. He saw the futility of it, accepted the boundaries set by the Treaty of Lausanne, and ruled out irredentism. He effected reconciliation with Greece.
Republican Turkey could have wasted its people's energy in agitation and adventurism directed toward their kinsmen outside its boundaries. Both would have been the losers. The 20th century is replete with disastrous examples, ranging from the Germans to the Somalis.
There was nothing of the demagogue in Mustafa Kemal.He kept his vanity subordinate to his clear sense of purpose. His admiration of the West was devoid of opportunism. He understood the essentials of Western civilization in its most advanced form. Founding a dynasty never entered his mind. The model for Turkey was the republic. His republic was at first more form than substance , but the fact that it could become substance after his passing, and take deep root, is a tribute to his vision. Had Reza Shah possessed similar foresight, how different Iran's modern history might have been!Ataturk was uncompromising on separation of religion and state. In this respect too he was profoundly Western, more so than many contemporary Europeans.
Ataturk understood human nature too well to believe that reforms could be implemented overnight. The first priority was to establish the principle, the recognition of reform as norm and goal. Changes such as introduction of Western headgear and the Latin alphabet were comparatively simple. The adoption of European legal codes, equality for women and other reforms that penetrated to the very core of traditional Turkish life have taken longer. They have established the basis for operation of a modern democratic state and economy and a society that respects human rights and individual opportunity. They are still not complete. What is most striking about Turkey today is not that there are survivals of the past but that there are so few that are debilitating and divisive.
A military man, Ataturk understood the evil of permanent mingling of military and governing functions and enforced clear distinction between the two. In an era when other authoritarian leaders were creating pompous ideological justifications for their exercise of power. Ataturk avoided a rigid system. He knew that civilization vastly transcends the importance of the ideas of any individual and concentrated on creating an inherently flexible framework within which the Turkish people could develop and progress.
The legacy of Ataturk, who adopted May 19 as his birthday, has inspired each successive generation of Turks to exertions toward a richer life and better society. And his enjoinder -- "Be proud, be strong, be confident!" -- has been a source of strength in the face of new crises and challenges.