Let’s not Forget History’s Lessons

By Prof. Bulent Gokay | 14 July 2010

Reply to Dr. Cagaptay’s Article (Turkey Lost Turkey)

“When Ataturk established the CHP in the 1920s, his vision was to make Turkey European”[1].  Yes it was a truly commendable achievement for Mustafa Kemal and the other leading founders of the Turkish Republic to establish an independent state in 1923.  Just 5 years ago, at the end of the First World War it had seemed to many that a regional system controlled by the British Empire would be successfully established over the lands of the Ottoman Empire.  This regional system would comprise an enlarged Greek state extending to western Anatolia, and an independent state of Armenia, and an autonomous region of Kurdistan in the east, and a very tiny Turkish state controlled by the Western powers in central Anatolia.  Within this hopeless situation the leaders of the Turkish national resistance movement utilised every possible opportunity presented by the post-war circumstances.  They used their religious and ethnic prestige among the Muslims of the Caucasus and Central Asia to increase their credibility in the eyes of the Soviet leaders, and by doing this they broke the isolation imposed upon them by the British and its allies, and acquired a vital material basis on which to organise military resistance in Asia Minor.  On the diplomatic front the Turkish nationalists exploited the divergence of policy with the Allied camp and antagonism between the Soviet Union and Britain.  In the end, the independence of Turkey was safeguarded as securely as possible between Soviet Russia on the north and British controlled lands on the south.




Following the departure of the last Greek soldiers from Anatolian soil on 15 September, the ceasefire of 11 October and the evacuation of eastern Thrace by the Greek army, the Lausanne peace conference opened.  While the conference maintained suspense over the conclusion of peace, the year 1923 was the time for the establishment of the basic institutions, as well as the policies, of the new Turkey.  During this time, Mustafa Kemal developed his critique of the economic backwardness of his country and its Islamic culture, and introduced his main goal as to achieve Western standards of political and economic management, in other words ‘to make Turkey European’.

Ataturk had already expressed his goal very clearly to Halide Edib: ‘they [the Western powers] shall know that we are as good as they are.  He tried to prove this in many different ways for the rest of his life.  The Turkish delegation at Lausanne sought to convince the British, French and Italian delegates that the Ankara government had nothing in common with the ‘old Eastern Turk’ represented by the Ottoman Empire.  The new Turkey, from the start, identified itself directly and immediately with the history, culture and perceptions of the Western world, claiming a total break with the Ottoman and Islamic past. By 1925 an independent Turkish republic was firmly established with its new Western institutions and militantly secular modernising ideology.  A completely new social order was created under the rule of a small secular elite.  The events of these early years mark an important watershed in the development of Turkish state ideology, which is still dominating most aspects of the Turkish state and society.  During those years, Kemal Ataturk and his close associates by their actions resolved a fundamental question – whether the new Turkish regime would reach an accommodation with the people or rule over them.  Any genuine accommodation with people would have required a serious modification of the militantly secular state ideology.  The leadership chose to decide what the country needed and enforced its decisions, regardless of what the majority of the people thought about the matter.


The Turkish Republic emerged as a reliable ally of the West, as a bulwark against Soviet Russia, which was the life’s achievement of Mustafa Kemal in his biographer, Lord Kinross’ words, but over its own people it had established a rigidly secular system tightly enforced by the army.  The denial of the Ottoman / Islamic heritage by the founders of the modern Turkey constituted a major problem particularly in terms of understanding and connecting the majority Muslim people of Turkey.  The power and legitimacy of the republic were based on a conflictual relationship between the secular centre and Muslim and traditional vicinity.  Some of those social groups that once made up the vicinity started to gain more and more socio-economic mobility and moved to the cities in large numbers, from 1970s onwards.  These, later made up an important section of the young and dynamic middle class.  This new and important group of people brought along their provincial identity and more traditional values and demands with them into the centre.  The tension between the new urban middle classes, whose members originally sprang up from the provincial towns and the old established secular elite is one of the key factors to understand the rise and increased support for the Islamist political parties.  Since its establishment the AK Party developed its political position on the basis of two distinct approaches: they expressed widely shared demand of religious freedom through a European model, the relationship between state and religion.  In this way, they have brought the issue of religious freedom to the centre of the political debate not as a major issue, but alongside with wider aspects of freedom and human rights, and in doing so, justified their pro-EU stance.  The second approach is the AK Party’s fundamental criticism of the country’s economic and social problems.  The party, from the start, focused on the significant responsibility of the centre parties, right as well as left, in bringing the country economically to ruin and deepening social and cultural imbalances.  In relation to Europe, since before they came the power, AK Party is consistent on the position that they represent traditional moral/ religious values, but they don’t want Turkey to shut itself out the Western world.

[1] Soner Cagaptay, “Turkey Lost Turkey”, CESRAN, 12 July 2010.

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