Ataturk's reforms

Father of Turkey

Atatürk was a military genius, a charismatic leader, also a comprehensive reformer in his life. It was important at the time for the Republic of Turkey to be modernized in order to progress towards the level of contemporary civilizations and to be an active member of the culturally developed communities. Mustafa Kemal modernized the life of his country.

Atatürk introduced reforms which he considered of vital importance for the salvation and survival of his people between 1924-1938. These reforms were enthusiastically welcomed by the Turkish people.

Chronology of Reforms

  • 1922 Sultanate abolished (November 1).
  • 1923 Treaty of Lausanne secured (July 24). Republic of Turkey with capital at Ankara proclaimed (October 29).
  • 1924 Caliphate abolished (March 3). Traditional religious schools closed, Sheriat (Islamic Law) abolished. Constitution adopted (April 20).
  • 1925 Dervish brotherhoods abolished. Fez outlawed by the Hat Law (November 25). Veiling of women discouraged; Western clothing for men and women encouraged. Western (Gregorian) calendar adopted instead of Islamic calendar.
  • 1926 New civil, commercial, and penal codes based on European models adopted. New civil code ended Islamic polygamy and divorce by renunciation and introduced civil marriage. Millet system ended.
  • 1927 First systematic census.
  • 1928 New Turkish alphabet (modified Latin form) adopted. State declared secular (April 10); constitutional provision establishing Islam as official religion deleted.
  • 1933 Islamic call to worship and public readings of the Quran required to be in Turkish rather than Arabic.
  • 1934 Women given the vote and the right to hold office. Law of Surnames adopted - Mustafa Kemal given the name Kemal Atatürk (Father of the Turks) by the Grand National Assembly; Ismet Pasha took surname of Inönü.
  • 1935 Sunday adopted as legal weekly holiday. State role in managing economy written into the Constitution.

On assuming office, Atatürk initiated a series of radical reforms in the country's political, social, and economic life that aimed at rapidly transforming Turkey into a modern state. For him, modernization meant Westernization. On one level, a secular legal code, modeled along European lines, was introduced that completely altered laws affecting women, marriage, and family relations. On another level, Atatürk urged his countrymen to look and act like Europeans. Turks were encouraged to wear European-style clothing. Atatürk personally promoted ballroom dancing at official functions. Surnames were adopted: Mustafa Kemal, for example, became Kemal Atatürk, and Ismet Pasha took Inönü as his surname to commemorate his victories there during the War of Independence. Likewise, Atatürk insisted on cutting links with the past that he considered anachronistic. Titles of honor were abolished. The wearing of the fez, which had been introduced a century earlier as a modernizing reform to replace the turban, was outlawed because it had become for the nationalists a symbol of the reactionary Ottoman regime.

The ideological foundation for Atatürk's reform program became known as Kemalism. Its main points were enumerated in the Six Arrows of Kemalism as republicanism, nationalism, populism, reformism, statism, and secularism (see the Principles of Atatürk). These were regarded as "fundamental and unchanging principles" guiding the republic, and, as such, they were written into its constitution. The principle of republicanism was contained in the constitutional declaration that "sovereignty is vested in the nation" and not in a single ruler. The nation-state supplanted the Ottoman dynasty as the focus of loyalty, and the particulars of Turkish nationalism replaced Ottoman universalism.

Displaying considerable ingenuity, Atatürk set about reinventing the Turkish language and recasting Turkish history in a nationalist mold. The President himself went out into the park in Ankara on Sunday, the newly established day of rest, to teach the Latin alphabet adapted to Turkish as part of the language reform. Populism encompassed not only the notion that all Turkish citizens were equal but also that all of them were Turks. What remained of the millet system that had guaranteed communal autonomy to other ethnic groups was abolished. Reformism legitimized the radical means by which changes in Turkish political and social life were implemented.

Etatism, or statism, emphasized the central role reserved for the state in directing the nation's economic activities. This concept was cited particularly to justify state planning of Turkey's mixed economy and large-scale investment in state-owned enterprises. An important aim of Atatürk's economic policies was to prevent foreign interests from exercising influence on the Turkish economy.

Although all of the Kemalist reforms were unsettling to traditionalists, it was the exclusion of Islam from an official role in the life of the nation that shocked Atatürk's contemporaries most profoundly, and discontent continued to focus on the regime's secularist policies long after the other reforms had been generally accepted. The abolition of the caliphate ended any connection between the State and religion. The religious orders were suppressed, religious schools were closed and public education is secularized, and the Sheriat (Islamic rule) revoked, requiring readjustment of the entire social framework of the Turkish people. Despite the protest that these measures provoked, however, Atatürk conceded nothing to the traditionalists.

In 1924 the Grand National Assembly adopted a new constitution to replace the 1876 constitution that had continued to serve as the legal framework for the republican government. The 1924 constitution vested sovereign power in the Grand National Assembly as representative of the people, to whom it also guaranteed basic civil rights. A unicameral body elected for a four-year term by universal suffrage, the assembly exercised legislative authority, including responsibility for approving the budget, ratifying treaties, and declaring war. The new constitution did not provide for an impartial judiciary to rule on the constitutionality of laws enacted by the assembly, but rather empowered the elected legislature to alter or defer judicial decisions.

The President of the republic was elected for a four-year term by the assembly, and he in turn appointed the prime minister, who was expected to enjoy the confidence of the Assembly. Throughout his presidency, repeatedly extended by the assembly, Atatürk governed Turkey essentially by personal rule in a one-party state. The Republican People's Party (RPP) was founded in 1923 by Atatürk to represent the nationalist movement in elections and to serve as a vanguard party in supporting the Kemalist reform program. Atatürk's Six Arrows were an integral part of the RPP's political platform. By controlling the RPP, Atatürk also controlled the Assembly and assured support there for the government he had appointed. Atatürk regarded a stage of personal authoritarian rule as necessary for securing his reforms before entrusting the government of the country to the democratic process.

Nevertheless, opposition existed. Specific misgivings about Atatürk's personal dominance took early form in a grouping of his old associates called the Progressive Republican Party. Some also felt that Atatürk was carrying the reform program too far, too fast. Atatürk was willing to experiment with a multiparty system, and in November 1924 he replaced Inönü as prime minister with Fethi Okyar, who represented the new party.

Scarcely had this experiment begun, however, when an uprising broke out that quickly spread throughout the Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey. Although sometimes characterized as an expression of Kurdish nationalism, the revolt was led by a hereditary chief of the Naksibendi dervishes, who had been disbanded as part of Atatürk's secularist reforms. He and other dervish leaders urged their Kurdish followers to overthrow the "godless" government in Ankara and restore the caliph. Atatürk recalled Inönü to the prime minister's office in March 1925 and rushed legislation through the Grand National Assembly that provided emergency powers to the government for the next four years. Special courts with summary powers were established, and the Progressive Republican Party was outlawed. Meanwhile, the Turkish army swiftly extinguished the revolt.

A plot to assassinate Atatürk was uncovered in 1926 and found to have originated with a former deputy who had opposed abolition of the caliphate and had a personal grudge against the President. A sweeping investigation brought before the tribunal a large number of Atatürk's political opponents, fifteen of whom were hanged. As a result of the inquiry, some of his former close associates were sent into exile. This action was the only broad political purge during Atatürk's presidency. Whether there were specific connections between the Progressive Republican Party, the Kurdish revolt, and the assassination plot remained a subject of conjecture among historians. The pattern of organized opposition, however, was broken, and Atatürk's rule and the single-party state were never again seriously challenged. Another experiment with multiparty politics was made in 1930 in the form of an authorized loyal opposition party, but this effort degenerated into factionalism and was quickly ended.

The Clothing Reform

With the clothing reform, women stopped wearing veils; they started to wear modern women's clothing. Men started to wear hats rather than the fez.

Civil Rights for Women

With the reforms of Atatürk, Turkish women, who for centuries had been neglected, were given new rights. Thus with the civil code passed, Turkish women would now have the same rights as men, could be appointed to official posts, would have the right to vote and to be elected to Parliament. The monogamy principle and equal rights for women changed the spirit of Turkish society.

Atatürk's Works on Turkish History

Following the reform of the script, which was meant to be a kind of nationalism in the cultural field, Atatürk concentrated his attention on history. He established the Turkish Historical Society in 1931. Here, Turkey's history was thoroughly examined and evaluated.

The New Calendar, Weights and Measures, Holidays and Surname Laws and many other reforms were achieved as well. An example of this is the Weekend Act of 1924, the International Time and Calendar System of 1925, the Obligation Law and Commercial Law of 1926, the System of Measures 1933 and the Surname Act, 1934. According to the law passed by the Grand National Assembly in 1932 Turks took surnames and the Nation's leader was given the surname of Atatürk, "Father of the Turks".

Language Reform

From Ottoman to Turkish

Ataturk teaching the new Turkish AlphabetHistory records few instances of a government's altering the language of its people as drastically and imposing that language as forcefully (and, on balance, as successfully) as in the Turkish case. Atatürk considered language reform to be an essential ingredient in the creation of a new Turkey and of new, modernized Turks, and he viewed the revised Turkish language as one of the ways to create a new national identity.

Within the Ottoman Empire, the Turks were merely one of many linguistic and ethnic groups, and the word Turk in fact connoted crudeness and boorishness. Members of the civil, military, and religious elite conversed and conducted their business in Ottoman Turkish, which was a mixture of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Arabic remained the primary language of religion and religious law. Persian was the language of art, refined literature, and diplomacy. What little Turkish there was usually had to do with the administration of the Ottoman Empire Turkish not only borrowed vocabulary items from Arabic and Persian but also lifted entire expressions and syntactic structures out of these languages and incorporated them into the Ottoman idiom. Thus, pure Turkish survived primarily as the language of the illiterate and generally was not used in writing. Ottoman Turkish, on the other hand, was the language of writing, as well as the language spoken by the educated elite.

Its multiple origins caused difficulties in spelling and writing Ottoman Turkish. The constituent parts - Turkish, Persian, and Arabic - belong to three different language families - Ural-Altaic, Indo-European, and Semitic, respectively - and the writing system fits only the last of these. Phonological, grammatical, and etymological principles are quite different among them.

During the nineteenth century, modernist intellectuals began to call for a reform of the language. They wanted to fashion a language that would be easier to use and more purely Turkish. Thus, the principle of Turkish language reform was intimately tied to the reforms of the 1839-78 period. Later in the nineteenth century, the demand for language reform became political. Turkish nationalists sought a language that would unite rather than divide the people. In the writings of Ziya Gökalp (1924), Turkish nationalism was presented as the force uniting all those who were by language and ethnic background Turks.

With the establishment of the republic, Atatürk made language reform an important part of the nationalist program. The goal was to produce a language more Turkish, modern, practical, and precise, and less difficult to learn than the old language. The republican language reform consisted of two basic elements - adoption of a new alphabet and purification of the vocabulary.

The language revolution (Dil Devrimi in Turkish) officially began in 1928. In May 1928, numbers written in Arabic were replaced with their Western equivalents. In November the Grand National Assembly approved the new Latin alphabet that had been devised by a committee of scholars. Many members of the Assembly favored gradually introducing the new letters over a period up to five years. Atatürk, however, insisted that the transition last only a few months, and his opinion prevailed. With chalk and a portable blackboard, he traveled throughout the country, giving writing lessons in schools, village squares, and other public places to a people whose illiteracy was suddenly 100 percent. On January 1, 1929, it became unlawful to use the Arabic alphabet.

The new alphabet represents the Turkish vowels and consonants more clearly than does the old alphabet. Composed of Latin letters and a few additional variants, it contains one symbol for each sound of standard Turkish, which was identified as the educated speech of Istanbul. By adopting the Latin alphabet, Turkey turned consciously toward the West, severed a major link with the Islamic world, and rejected a part of its Islamic heritage. By providing the new generation no need and scant opportunity to learn the Arabic letters, the alphabet reform cut them off from the Ottoman past and its culture and value system. Specifically, this new generation could no longer be educated by the traditional establishment of religious scholars.

Non-Turkish words were seen as symbols of the past, and there was great nationalist enthusiasm, supported by government policies, to get rid of them. Purification of the language became a national cause. Dictionaries began to drop Arabic and Persian words and sought to resurrect archaic terms or words from Turkish dialects or to coin new words from old stems and roots to be used in their place. The Turkish Language Society (Türk Dil Kurumu), founded in 1932, supervised the collection and dissemination of Turkish folk vocabulary and folk phrases to be used in place of foreign words. The citizens at large were invited to suggest alternatives to words and expressions of non-Turkish origin, and many responded. In 1934 lists of new Turkish words began to be published, and in 1935 they began to appear in newspapers.

The mid-1930s saw the height of the enthusiasm for language reform, and some of the suggested reforms were so extreme as to endanger the understandability of the language. Although purist and zealot opinion favored the banishment of all words of non-Turkish origin, it became obvious to many that some of the suggested reforms verged on the ridiculous. Atatürk resolved the problem with an ingenious political invention that, though embarrassing to language experts, appealed to the nationalists. He suggested the historically preposterous but politically efficacious Sun- Language Theory, which asserted that Turkish was the "mother of all languages," and therefore all foreign words were originally Turkish. Thus, if a suitable Turkish equivalent for a foreign word could not be found, the loanword could be retained without violating the purity of the Turkish language.

By the late 1940s, considerable opposition to the purification movement had begun to surface. Teachers, writers, poets, journalists, editors, and others began to complain in public about the instability and arbitrariness of the officially sanctioned vocabulary. In 1950 the Turkish Language Society lost its semiofficial status, and eventually some Arabic loanwords began to reappear in government publications.

The long-term effects of the language reform have been positive, but at a price. Reading, spelling, and printing are now infinitely simpler than before, and literacy has spread because of this. Modern Turkish is more concise and direct than Ottoman Turkish, and hence better meets the demands of modern life, including science and technology. The language reform has to some degree closed the language gap that used to exist between the classes of Turkish society, and a certain democratization of language and literature has occurred. The cost, however, has been the drastic and permanent estrangement from the literary and linguistic heritage of the Ottomans. Although some pre-republican writing has been transcribed in the new alphabet, its vocabulary and syntax are now barely understandable to a modern speaker of Turkish. The loss of old words and their rich connotations has resulted in some aesthetic impoverishment of the language.

Language and language reform continued to be political issues in Turkey in the late 1980s. Each decade since Atatürk's death has been characterized by its own particular stance or stances vis-à-vis language reform or support for either a more traditional lexicon or a modern, "Turkified" one abounding in Western loans or indigenous coinages. Not surprisingly, language reform and modern usage were pushed forward during periods of liberal governments and de-emphasized under conservative governments (such as those of the 1980s). As for religious publications, they were not touched much by these reforms and continued to use an idiom that was heavily Arabic or Persian in vocabulary and Persian in syntax. In spite of the fact that coinages lack some of the rich connotations of the older lexicon, modern Turkish prose and poetry came into their own in Kemalist (1923-38) and, especially, post-Kemalist (since 1938) Turkey, as writers and poets created powerful works in this new idiom.

Secularist Reforms

From Caliphate to Secular State

In 1922 the new nationalist regime abolished the Ottoman sultanate, and in 1924 it abolished the caliphate, which the Ottoman sultanate had held for centuries. Thus, for the first time in Islamic history, no ruler claimed the spiritual leadership of Islam; this was still the case in the late 1980s. The withdrawal of Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, as the presumptive leader of the world Muslim community was symbolic of the change in Turkey's relation to Islam.

Secularism or laicism (Laiklik in Turkish) was one of the "Six Arrows" of Atatürk's blueprint for modern Turkey; these founding principles of the republic, usually referred to as Atatürkism or Kemalism, were the basis for many of the early republican reforms. As Islam had formed the identity of the Ottoman Empire and its subjects, so secularism molded the new Turkish nation and its citizens.

Establishment of secularism in Turkey was a process of distinguishing church from state or the religious from the nonreligious spheres of life. In the Ottoman Empire, all spheres of life were theoretically ruled by religious law, and religious organizations did not exist apart from the state.

The reforms bearing directly on religion were numerous. They included the abolition of the caliphate; abolition of the office of Seyhülislam (Islamic ruler); abolition of the religious hierarchy; closing and confiscation of the dervish lodges, meeting places, and monasteries and outlawing of their rituals and meetings; establishment of government control over the Evkaf, which had been inalienable under Sheriat (Islamic rules); replacement of Sheriat with adapted European legal codes; closing of the religious schools (Medresses); changing from the Islamic to the Western calendar; outlawing the fez for men and frowning on the veil for women, both garments associated with religious tradition; and outlawing the traditional garb of local religious leaders.

The nationalist regime made attempts to give religion a more modern and more national form. The state also supported use of Turkish rather than Arabic at devotions and the substitution of the Turkish word Tanri for the Arabic word Allah. The opposition, however, was strong enough to ensure that Arabic remained the language of prayer. In 1932, for example, the government's determination that Turkish be used in the call to prayer from the minarets was not well accepted and in 1934 it returned to the Arabic version of the call to prayer. Most notably, the Hagia Sophia (church of the Holy Wisdom, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian's sixth-century basilica, which was converted into a mosque by Mehmed II) was made into a museum.