By Yasser Latif Hamdani
Last week I was fortunate to visit Kemal Ataturk’s Marine Mansion in Florya Istanbul, located on the Marmara Sea. Ataturk had spent his last days in this mansion. As I walked through the beautiful mansion by the sea filled with Ataturk’s belongings and personal effects, it hit me as to how much modernists in the Muslim world derive inspiration from the great father of the Turks and his regeneration of the Turkish nation.
My own interest in Ataturk dates back to the late 1990s when Pakistan’s then military ruler General Musharraf had listed Ataturk as his model. He was not the first Pakistani ruler to claim inspiration from Ataturk though. Pakistan’s early leadership was of a modernist persuasion and from Jinnah to Ayub Khan most Pakistanis held the Turk founder in great esteem. The biographers of Mr. Jinnah list the father of Pakistan’s fascination with the Grey Wolf; An intimate study of a dictator a book by H C Armstrong. After reading about the then newly published book in the Times Literary Supplement, Jinnah had picked up the book in Hampstead on one of his walks. Apparently he found in the Turk leader, his contemporary, a kindred spirit. He then gave the copy to his daughter Dina saying “read this it is good”. Apparently the impression that Ataturk left on the suave barrister was so profound that doting Dina started calling him “Greywolf”. Quite fittingly there is a wolf bust in Jinnah’s study in the flagstaff house where he spent his last year as Governor General.
As a student at Rutgers I had access to one of the finest libraries on East Coast – the Alexandar Library. After reading Ataturk by Andrew Mango- a birthday present I had gotten for my 20th birthday, I tracked down in the Alexandar Library a 1933 edition of Grey Wolf; An Intimate Study of a Dictator. It makes for an interesting reading. The book was highly controversial when it first came out. Turkish government actually banned it because it presented Ataturk, amongst other things, as a pleasure seeking savage – a man who engaged in wild orgies, liked loose women and drank from sun down to sun rise. It portrayed him as highly irreverent, anti-God and a brute. It is strange therefore that Jinnah who was always very proper, an eminent Edwardian gentleman known to drink only in strict moderation and who had no scandals with women should find the life of Grey Wolf of H C Armstrong’s estimation even remotely similar to his own. But apart from these apparent character flaws alleged by H C Armstrong, there was much about Ataturk that Jinnah might have seen in his own image. Courage, tenacity, and a strong will were three attributes of Ataturk that come across in the book and these were the three attributes that defined the Quaid-e-Azam as well. Both men were essentially loners at the pinnacle of their success. Jinnah must have felt some similarity with the splendid isolation of the father of the Turks who like Jinnah was averse to playing second fiddle to anyone. But it is clear that Jinnah’s case was one of inspiration rather than emulation. Speaking to an audience he declared that he wished he could be Mustafa Kemal but unlike the Turkish leader he was not a military man and did not have an army behind him; that his weapons were argument and logic. In any event Kemal Ataturk’s own orientation lay towards mainland Europe dominated by military strongmen while Jinnah’s training was in British parliamentary institutions. As Naeem Qureshi writes in his book Ottoman Turkey Ataturk and Muslim South Asia: “Inspiration reinforces vitality. Imitation dampens it”.
Of course Greeks and Armenians hate Ataturk perhaps even more than Indians hate Jinnah. Greeks and Armenians accuse Ataturk (quite unjustifiably) of being the consummator in chief of Armenian and Greek genocides. To be fair to Ataturk he did not have a direct role to play in the ethnic cleansing of Armenians. He did not speak against it but he was in no position to influence the young Turks in anyway. It is also true that Symrna (now Izmir) was burnt down as his forces entered the town, but direct complicity is another thing. While shying away from calling it genocide, Ataturk did condemn the near total exodus of Christians from Turkey in 1926. Still a recent book Ataturk in Nazi Imagination goes so far as to paint Ataturk as the original inspiration for Nazism and Fascism. It is true that Hitler and Mussolini both saw Kemalist Turkey as a successful example of an ordered society coming out of the ruins of a chaotic feudal one but it must be stated that Ataturk was replacing an old order with a new one and not – as in the case of Hitler and Mussolini- seizing power in societies that had already been modernizing and industrializing. Secondly Ataturk’s authoritarianism was not an end unto itself but a means to an end – to quote Armstrong he was a dictator so that that Turkey may not have more dictators.
Inspiration from Ataturk can often take different shapes. Reccip Tayyip Erdogan, the current President of Turkey, is the most powerful president since Ataturk. Erdogan seems to be imbibing all the wrong lessons from the great man’s legacy. He is using his extensive charisma to carry out social and cultural engineering in reverse. Just as Ataturk set about westernizing his nation, Erdogan is going the other direction – Islamizing the most modern Muslim nation in the world. Unlike Ataturk however, Erdogan is operating in the 21st century with a vibrant Turkish civil society and an aware and educated population. Social and cultural engineering may not entirely be possible.
Blind emulation of Ataturk is neither possible nor ideal – certainly not in the 21st century. Yet his memory still inspires. The inspiration does not lie in his theories about Turkish racial superiority or the Sun language theory – two ideas that were rightly abandoned soon after his death. It also does not lie in the state’s brutal repression of dissent which saw some of the finest Turkish minds including Halide Edib go into exile. Nor is his crackdown on Sufi dargahs exactly worthy of emulation. Ataturk inspires because he was the first leader in the Muslim world to realize that women have to play an equal role in the progress of a nation (you find an echo of Ataturk in Jinnah’s famous “No nation can rise to heights of glory unless your women are side by side you). Ataturk inspires because while he did not quite succeed in achieving the ideal in his lifetime, he laid the foundations of a great modern democratic republic of the future which was at “peace at home and abroad”. Above all Ataturk inspires because he had unbounded faith in his own destiny and the destiny of his people. All his endeavours, right, wrong or controversial, were aimed at making his people great. And he was pragmatic in the pursuit of nationalism, never overcommitting and never driven by emotion. Ataturk the great modernist will continue to inspire patriots and reformers around the Muslim world and that is his lasting legacy.