In view of the turmoil in the region, the most important accomplishment Mustafa Kemal Atatürk made was his decision to choose a republican regime to replace the monarchy, according to Professor Tülay Baran. Women became real citizens, which is another important legacy of Atatürk, says Baran.
The present chaos in the Middle East highlights the unparalleled importance of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and his legacy, according to a historian of the republican era.
The process for women to become real citizens also started with the republic, said Baran, who is the deputy director of the Institute of Atatürk Principles and Revolutionary History at the same university.
If I were to simply ask, what is Atatürk’s most important legacy?
First and foremost, he secured the transition from a monarchy to the republic. I think there is nothing more invaluable then that. I believe he is also to be respected since he did not leave these [republican] concepts empty but gave substance to them as well. He is the person that turned individuals into citizens. And in fact, the process that enabled women to become real citizens in the modern definition started with the republic. We had to wait for the republic to acquire the same rights as men.
He was not only important for making a regime change but also for introducing many aspects a society needs, even in the absence of a concrete infrastructure for them, such as arts and culture.
Can you elaborate on his views and policies on women?
The first population census in the republic was conducted in 1927. Of the 13,660,000 people, only 1.2 million were literate. Think of the place of women in that number. He realized a miracle by fearlessly turning women into citizens in a country that was not used to seeing women in society.
Atatürk’s critics argue that women were not liberated with the republic but that they were already emancipated. What exactly were his reforms?
Women earned the right to have an equal share from inheritance. They obtained the right to vote and to be elected. He saw women not just as mothers but was conscientious of their value as citizens. He made an effort for the reforms to be implemented in real life. In the early days of the republic with the country devastated, there were many priorities. Women’s emancipation was also a priority; it was never put on the backburner, never postponed. School enrollment of girls was encouraged and the list can go on.
What is his view of women that made him different?
Simply, he just saw women as individuals, as equal humans.
Do you think we have had a healthy understanding of Atatürk’s legacy?
Sometimes, we see that we do not have a healthy understanding. The biggest problem is that trying to understand that period through the lenses of today won’t lead us to healthy results. When there are assessments made ignoring the societal, economic and sociological conditions of that period, that naturally leads to mistaken analyses. We need to evaluate that period within the parameters of that period and comparing it with the world at that time. Don’t forget that when he started his struggle, only 50 countries in the world were truly independent. Nurturing the idea of an independent republic and working to make it real at a time when colonialism was considered normal is very important.
But don’t you think that there has also been an idolization of Atatürk and that perhaps efforts to demystify him could help us better understand his legacy?
His legacy is very impressive, yet different ways of expressing it could have been chosen; we can talk about it. But I don’t always understand what is meant by the idolization of Mustafa Kemal.
The fact that nearly every place was named after him, that it was a taboo to criticize him and that criticism was actually criminalized in the penal code.
If there was a sensitivity, that relates to the will to see him as a unifying factor. This might have come from the feeling that the more we emphasize the legacy, the more we can unify around him.
His critics argue he was a dictator.
One of the biggest problems is that we have too many people talking in the name of history without being true historians. Unfortunately, having these people talk leads to confusion. If we are to stick to science, the outcome would be much healthier. I cannot agree that he was a dictator. This means not knowing him, not knowing dictators or their practices. Someone who wants to be a dictator does not endorse a republic as a regime. The fact that he opted for a republican regime at a time when there was nothing to force him to do that, when there was no such demand in society is the biggest proof that he was against dictatorship.
Conservative circles would criticize him for endorsing secularism while secular circles are thankful to him for that.
Secularism is a concept that needs to be thought of together with democracy. Anyone who endorses democracy in Turkey should also endorse secularism, which is about maintaining an equal distance to all religions and faiths. Perhaps secularism is not properly understood in Turkey; when seen just solely from the perspective of the separation of state and religion, we then fail to see the real gains of secularism. With secularism, you change certain references in society, you place people in the center of society and you also succeed in maintaining an equal distance to all religions and faiths.
Some would argue that he had a heavy-handed approach to religion in a very pious society.
On the contrary, he was rather sensitive. The 1924 Constitution says the religion of the state is Islam. This remained there until 1928. It was only a year before his death that secularism entered the Constitution.
What would you say in general to the criticisms that have been voiced recently about Atatürk and the early republican era?
What really bothers me is that when we talk about republican history, there are comments implying that there is a separate history apart from the official history that we have not talked about. I am bothered that when we talk, it is called official history but that when something completely opposite is argued, this is viewed as something that we have hidden yet it is the real history. When we do research on Mustafa Kemal, our method is science. We talk with documents that can prove everything we say. It is really disturbing that some bring counter arguments without using scientific research and claim to be talking in the name of history.
It was not the case with your generation perhaps but maybe in the past, there was not enough of academic freedom, which might have led to some historical distortions.
I don’t agree; again all the references we use, all the sources are documented, they are in the open, in the archives. All the sources we have tell us that what has been said until now reflects the truth. Whatever said to the contrary needs to be proven scientifically.
Looking from today’s lens, in your view, what is the greatest accomplishment of Atatürk?
Turkey became a country that decided on its own to endorse democracy. When we look today at the turmoil in the region we are situated in; when we see the problems of democracy, when we consider foreign interference in democracy, I say it was a right thing for Mustafa Kemal to have thought about it and offered [democracy] to us as a present. There have been many regimes and leaders which did not survive until the 21st century. Of course, there are problems; democracy requires a lot of work. But he [gave] us the 21st century’s most idealized regime.
Who is Tülay Baran?
Baran graduated in 1986 from the history department at Erzurum’s AtatürkUniversity. She then continued her post-graduate studies at the Atatürk Principles and Revolutionary Institute of İzmir’s 9 Eylül University.
She has authored numerous publications on various aspects of Atatürk’s reforms, as well as the early republican era.