There is a man in Turkey who is everywhere. His photo is above the window of the Internet cafe where we are sitting, it is in restaurants and bookshops. His bust adorns streets and museums, and is as much a part of the Turkish landscape as old Turkish men sitting around drinking tea and large groups of cows. Atatürk, or 'Father Turk', was the humble name he chose for himself. He was born Mustapha Kemal and took his last name as his first to make room for his patriarchal tendencies. And Atatürk more than lived up to his name considering his determined and ultimately successful fight for Turkish sovereignty after WWI.
I first became aware of Atatürk on my first trip to Turkey 10 years ago. I knew only one thing about the man and I liked it: He erected a beautifully worded memorial for all the Turks and ANZACS who died at Gallipoli. I thought it was a gracious gesture considering that the ANZACS were attacking him. And it was him personally they were attacking. He was one of the generals defending the Dardanelles against the Allied forces. The defence was successful, and he shone as a military strategist.
On this current trip to Turkey I have discovered more. After the war, when the Allied forces were occupying Turkey and the last Ottoman Sultan was acquiescing to rather compromising demands, Atatürk flipped the proverbial finger, and fought the French, Greeks and Armenians on three different fronts (the old chestnut of Turkey having plenty of fronts to protect). He won. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed and the Allied forces departed. Ankara became the new capital: The Allied forces had been occupyiıng Istanbul and wily Atatürk had made Ankara his base, knowing that he would probably have been executed if he had remained in the old capital.
So Atatürk was a hero, and he still is. It seems that his great strength was that he could see situations very clearly. This made him an excellent general and a powerful first president (the last Ottoman sultan fled, leaving a vacancy for top dog). He was autocratic, an adherent of the enlightenment, a firm believer in the separation of religion and government. He destroyed the caliphate (Selim the Grim - an Ottoman sultan of the 16th century - had won the caliphate for the empire), and Turkey became a secular state. He was also responsible for full suffrage for women, recognizing that Turkey could only become stronger with women's help. He attacked illiteracy in Turkey by introducing a new alphabet and promoting education: Prevıously only around 10% of the population were literate in Arabic and Persian.
However, as a charismatic autocrat, there were also disadvantages to his rule. When he died at the age of 57 ın 1938, he left a vacuum emphasised by subsequent political turmoil and corruption. His legacy has given the military a prominent role in the governance of Turkey - there have been coups as late as 1980, and the military still appear to remain an extremely influential group. His strong reaction to women wearing headscarfs has also meant that headscarfs have been banned at universities and in the public service, although this is now changing under the current Government. Ironically, the daughters of the current Prime Minister went to university ın the US in order to wear a headscarf. By advocating the rights of women so forcefully, he failed to allow freedom of choice. Perhaps in order to promote a new way of thinking, it was necessary to be so forceful, and the Turks have needed to rethink their legislation since. The cult of Atatürk has made this process challenging.
All in all, Atatürk was a very strong, perceptive man who concentrated on the big picture. His legacy still affects Turkey and could be seen as a bulwark against current Islamic fundamentalism. Erdogan, Turkey's Prime Minister, is an Islamist but has this secular aspect of Turkish nationalism as a foil. He is promoting reform and has been elected for a second time, concentrating on fulfiling conditions for accession to the European Union. Who knows whether this will happen (cynics say that it will not), but endemic corruption in particular is being tackled, which can only be good for Turkey.