Monday, November 10, 2008

Atatürk Day

November 10, 1938 was the day Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Father Turkey), father of the secular republic that is modern Turkey, died at the age of 57. Every year on thıs day, the whole country stops and honors the moment of his death with a minute of silence. I am told that cars turn off their engines; even the ferries in Istanbul turn off their engines and drift for this minute. Today at school, the Turkish teachers and students put together a really nice assembly commemorating his life, including a slide show, dance, music, and drama. I have never heard these inherently talkative students so quiet before; you could hear a pin drop during the moment of silence. I also couldn't help but compare their extreme reverence to my own country's lack of reverence for the current president. Also, a minute of silence is often suggested in the U.S. for various reasons, when the plane crashed into the first tower on 9/11 for example, but never is the whole country unified in complete silence. Pretty impressive.

Below is a concise biography of Atatürk's legacy.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was one of those extraordinary men who indisputably changed the course of history. The end of World War I in 1918 saw the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and the victorious Allies set about partitioning the whole Middle East in a way that ensured maximum advantage for them, and minimum possibility of any kind of world power or influence for the Middle Eastern peoples. This did not go too well for anyone, and by 1919 a Turkish resistance movement had emerged with Atatürk as a key player. The Sultan had assigned him overall responsibility for demobilizing the army; this was a perfect position from which to organize the smaller resistance groups that had sprung up all over Anatolia. After contacting local leaders and encouraging them to cooperate with one another, he called for a national election. The election took place and the new Parliament met and declared a National Pact. Alarmed, the occupying British forces dissolved Parliament.

Atatürk had the gift of all great leaders: he was unpredictable, and he had a knack for turning every action of his enemies to the advantage of his cause. The dissolution of Parliament was his opportunity form a new government in Ankara. The British continued to deal with the Sultan in Istanbul, signing a final treaty partitioning Turkey in May 1920, but the real power lay in Ankara. The inevitable military conflicted ended in complete victory for Ankara, led by Atatürk. The Sultanate was abolished and the New Turkish Republic properly began.

Here a true miracle occurred: Atatürk, who had proved himself a brilliant leader in war, turned out to be a truly visionary peacetime leader. Over the next decade and a half he led Turkey through a series of reforms that were unimaginable before the War: separation of religion from politics and the judiciary system, establishment of a democratic government, economic and educational reform, freedom of religion, and political enfranchisement of women. His adopted daughter, Sabiha, was the world's first female combat pilot. He even issued decrees on dress, forbidding religious attire and promoting Western-style suits, hats, and dresses.

He was a heavy drinker. This is soft-pedalled in many sources; the Turks still adore him. But the facts are indisputable: by 1938 he was suffering from the effects of a lifetime of heavy smoking, drinking, too little sleep and too much travel. He died of cirrhosis of the liver on November 10.

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