(TURKEY and ISLAM, 1876-1930 – continued)

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TURKEY and ISLAM, 1876-1930 (3 of 4)

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Turkey's Struggle for National Independence

Feeling empowered by their World War victory, the Allies wanted to end the Ottoman Empire – which had dared to join Germany in the war. The British, French, Italians and Greeks maneuvered for advantage in the empire's break-up. The British occupied Constantinople and were maneuvering to hold on to authority in Palestine and Iraq. In late March, 1919, the Italians landed a force at Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast in southwestern Turkey, and Italian detachments moved 100 miles northeast to Konya and over 150 miles westward to the coastal town of Bodrum on the Aegean Sea. The French landed in the extreme southeast of Turkey, along the Mediterranean in the region of Cilicia. There they supported the Christian Armenians who were taking revenge upon the Muslim Turks, while educated Turks were mysteriously disappearing. The French were advocating the closure of all Turkish primary schools, the revival of old mosque schools, and colleges establishing instruction in French. And the French were maneuvering to take over Syria and Lebanon.

Mehmed VI

Mehmed VI, Islam's 100th caliph and the empire's last Sultan. Turkish nationalists disliked his acceptance of the peace treaty and submission to Allied authority.

In Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed VI and government ministers submitted to the authority of the Allies while some Turks, inspired by President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, were opposed to what the Allies were doing and were still looking with hope to the United States. They were especially inspired by Wilson's 12th point, which read:

The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.

The greatest irritant to the Turks was the Greeks taking what they saw as their territory. During the war the British had promised the Greeks land in Turkey in exchange for entering the war on their side. The Greeks had accepted the British offer looking to a Greater Greece. The Greeks wanted the area around Edirne, western Asia Minor and the area of Pontus in Turkey's northeast – areas with sizeable Greek populations since ancient times. And Greeks looked forward to taking control of Constantinople, the former seat of Greek Orthodox Christianity.

At the Paris Peace Conference the British advocated giving the city of Smyrna and its hinterland to the Greeks. The US and French delegations agreed, seeing such a move as protecting the Christian (Greek) minority in this region against the "murderous" Turks.

The Greeks landed near Smyrna in mid-May 1919, and bloody fighting erupted between them and local Turks. The Greeks sent the Turkish majority fleeing, leaving the area predominately Greek. The Greeks were now joined with the French and Italians in occupying a portion of Asia Minor.

On March 20, 1920, the official occupation of Turkey began with the arrival of British troops at Constantinople. British soldiers killed any Turks who resisted militarily, as one would expect of any military operation. But they also raided and closed Turkey's parliament and arrested and deported parliament deputies.

The Sultan and his ministers remained submissive. The government in Constantinople began persecuting those they perceived to be troublemakers, including those calling for the application of Wilson's Fourteen Points. The Sultan's government cooperated with Britain in the shipping of parliament's deputies and others to a prison on the British controlled island of Malta.

Mutafa Kemal Ataturk

Mustafa Kemal, national hero who changed Turkey and won the title Ataturk

Opposition to the impositions of the Allies and to the Sultan and his government began to form around the Turkish military leader, Mustafa Kemal. Having led the resistance to the Allies at Gallipoli during the Great War he had prestige among his fellow Turks. Since 1905 he had been a critic of rule by the Sultans. He had been a member of the military conspiracy that took power in 1908 but had been outside the inner circle and a thorn in the side of the Enver government during the war – Kemal not having favored entering the war on Germany's side or fighting and dying for German interests. Now Mustafa Kemal was the foremost defender of Turkish nationalism and foremost Turkish opponent of the Sultan's government in Constantinople. Kemal was not a man easily intimidated or ready to surrender to the authority of the caliph.

Kemal was an aggressive organizer, and patriotic Turks rallied around him. In unoccupied Turkey a National People's Congress was formed, which on April 23, 1920, elected Kemal as president. The new regime was centered in the town of Ankara. In Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed followed British pressure and denounced the nationalist movement, and an authority in the person of Sheik ul-Islam denounced the nationalist movement as contrary to Islam.

What mattered more than Sheik ul-Islam's pronouncements was the military strength that the upstart regime under Kemal was organizing. Turkey's military had been shattered by the war. Here and there outside the capital were units still intact but under strength. Civilians had taken up arms to defend their homes from the Greeks, and on 16 May 1920 Kemal began organizing all irregulars into a force under his command. Some other generals joined their units to Kemal's forces. Turks were willing to pay what was needed to equip their military with adequate supplies, and soldiers under Kemal's command acquired a new hope and spirit. They believed in what they were fighting for.

On 10 August 1920 the Allies imposed upon the Sultan's regime the Treaty of Sèvres, which limited Turkey to a military force of 50,000 – a force that was to be subject to "advice" from the Allied powers. The treaty gave Britain, France and Italy control over Turkey's financial affairs and granted to France and Italy their zones of control and influence. The treaty also granted autonomy to the Kurds. But Kemal's regime in Ankara refused to recognize the treaty.

The Allies saw Greek forces in Turkey as an instrument to enforce the Treaty of Sèvres. Kemal let the Greeks advance, giving the preservation of his troops priority over holding territory. He was still building up the strength of his forces, while the Greeks were spreading themselves thin and extending their supply lines.

The first check to the Greek advance was at the Battle of Sakarya, between 24 August and 16 September 1921. The morale of the Turkish nation soared at Kemal's victory, adding to Kemal's strength.

In August 1922, with the Greeks as close as forty miles to Ankara, Kemal began a counter-offensive that sent the Greeks reeling back. Within two weeks the Greeks had their backs against the Aegean Sea. The British were unwilling to intervene with their own troops. The British public had had enough of war in recent years, and the issue of war against the Turks helped to drive from power the champion of the Greek cause, Prime Minister Lloyd-George. The Greek dream of a Greater Greece was shattered. The remnants of the Greek army had to be evacuated by sea, and much of the Greek population left with them, leaving an underpopulated Turkey and moving to an overpopulated Greece. A Greek presence in Asia Minor that stretched back thousands of years had come to an end.

Facing the military power of a united Turkish nation, the British evacuated Sultan Mehmed VI on 7 October 1922, taking him and his entourage by warship to Malta. The Sultan, in his sixties and still caliph, took with him his eighteen-year-old bride. The girl had been engaged to a navy captain. She was the daughter of the Sultan's gardener, and the Sultan had pressured the father into giving him the girl, against her will.

On November 2, 1922, the National Assembly in Ankara declared the old Sultanate abolished. Gone too were the leaders of the military coup of 1908 and the wartime leaders including Enver Pasha. Enver had asked Kemal permission to return. Kemal had refused and Enver had died at the age of 40 in August 1922 in an armed struggle against a Bolshevik army in what today is called Tajikistan.

In July 1923 at Lausanne in Switzerland the British, French, Italians, Romanians and Greeks signed an agreement with Kemal's government that recognized Turkey's independence and its permanent borders. Kemal's government agreed that the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Sea would be demilitarized. There was an agreement to a temporary ban on increasing customs duties, an agreement that non-Muslim children in Turkey have available to them instruction in their own language and that non-Muslims would receive an equitable share in benefits provided by Turkey's national and local governments for education, religion and charity.

Turkey was proclaimed a republic on 29 October 1923, and the nation rejoiced. Mustafa Kemal had led the Turks from occupation by the hated Allies and the ashes of the old Ottoman Empire to a new nation.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.