(TURKEY and ISLAM, 1876-1930 – continued)

home | 1901-WW2 Index

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

previous | next


Mustafa Kemal had been urging Muslims to learn trades traditionally reserved for non-Muslims – shoemaking, tailoring, carpentry, tanning, blacksmithing and shoeing of horses. He wanted his fellow countrymen to open their minds to the most advanced learning, including science. Kemal's government began to reform education. Primary education was declared compulsory. From grade school to graduate school, education was to be free, secular, and coeducational, with the education of females equal to that of males.

Kemal had seen religious schools in Turkey bogged down in the teaching of Arabic by people who did not themselves understand the language. People who want to learn Arabic, he said, should study that language in Syria, Arabia or wherever it is commonly spoken. This did not sit well with those who favored students speaking Arabic because it was Islam's holy language – even though the students did not understand what they were saying.

Kemal was less interested in defending Islamic tradition than he was in economic development. "The economy," he said, "is everything. It is the totality of what we need to live, to be happy." note14

Kemal had already proclaimed Islam to be the state religion. He wanted Islam to be a private creed, separate from government authority or economic influence. A conflict was brewing concerning the caliphate. With the sultanate abolished the caliphate had passed to Abd al-Majid, the former sultan Mehmed's cousin. Many in Turkey still saw the caliphate as equivalent to the head of state – while the relationship between the caliphate and the National Assembly remained unclear. Kemal did not want a caliph as a rival influence and slowing down his advances in education. The National Assembly proclaimed Turkey a republic on 29 October 1923. In March 1924 the National Assembly abolished the old dynastic way of transferring power and authority. It exiled from Turkey all members of the Ottoman (royal) dynasty – the family that had ruled over Ottoman territory for 625 years. The republic's constitution, created in 1924, left the National Assembly as the only legitimate representative of the sovereign will of the nation, and the National Assembly abolished the caliphate.

Destruction of the old Islamic order disturbed conservative Muslims inside Turkey and offended Muslims outside of Turkey. In Turkey, the government acquired more enemies. Many in Constantinople who had been attached to the splendor and glory of the Ottoman family were now enemies of the government. So too were tens of thousands who had been civil servants in Constantinople and disliked the capital having shifted to Ankara and their loss of jobs. Newspapers in Constantinople joined the conservatives and attacked the government in Ankara.

Adding to the unrest was a breakdown in relations between the government and Turkey's Kurdish population. Kurds felt linked to the caliphate. With the caliphate gone their bond with the state was broken. The government alienated the Kurds further by making them a part of the Turkish nation. The public use of Kurdish and the teaching of Kurdish were prohibited. Kurdish tribal chiefs and other influential Kurds were resettled in western Turkey. And Kurdish resistance was met by governmental repression.

Here and there devout Turks rioted. Kemal and his political party, the People's Party, were determined to maintain law and order. The People's Party controlled the National Assembly, and in March 1925 the National Assembly passed a "Law on the Maintenance of Order." Kemal's People's Party saw itself as struggling for survival amid hostile reactions to change, and it kept rival political parties suppressed.

In a further effort to secularize society, the National Assembly closed religious shrines and Dervish convents. And Kemal moved to abolish the hat called the fez. The Turks had been wearing western clothing for more than a century, but they had kept the fez as identity with Ottoman rule and as a religious identity. To wear a Western hat had become a symbol of separation from Islam. Despite the repressions then taking place under Kemal's rule, he believed that persuasion and public opinion was where the strength of reforms would ultimately lay. He journeyed to the most conservative of Islamic communities, in Kastamonu, and presented the community's religiously conservative notables with western hats. He argued with them, explaining that the fez was of Venetian origin, introduced by Sultan Mahmud II to do away with the turban, and he spoke of the greater practicality of hats with a brim. He succeeded. The conservatives went about town in their new hats – gifts from their esteemed president – and this led others in town to accept Western hats. And the new fashion in hats spread rapidly through the rest of the country, accompanied by the government banning the fez in November, 1925.

In 1926, Kemal's government initiated judicial reforms. It replaced religious courts with Swiss and Italian penal law rather than Islamic law – the Sharia. Previously, theologians had had a monopoly on the legal profession. Now, only those who had studied Western law could pass the bar examination. Also in 1926, the government replaced the Islamic calendar with the calendar used in the West.

In 1926, an attempt was made on Kemal's life, with the planned assassination accompanied by plans for a coup d'etat. Many were arrested, including former politicians. Four were hanged and others sent to prison.

Mustafa Kemal was reelected president on November 1, 1927. The National Assembly In 1928 moved in favor of improved literacy and comprehension at the expense of the use of Arabic. The Arabic alphabet was replaced with Latin symbols, with some Turks learning for the first time the association between pronunciation and letter symbols. The Koran was translated into Turkish and the new alphabet, and Kemal spoke in favor of mosque sermons being delivered in a language that people understood: Turkish rather than Arabic.

In 1929, the government felt secure enough to let the Law on the Maintenance of Order lapse. Kemal favored the creation of an opposition party – a loyal opposition such as exists in Britain and the United States, but it was too much an imposition rather than a rise from opposing interests, and the attempt came to nothing.


Atatürk visits Istanbul University after the introduction of mixed-sex education.

In 1934, the National Assembly abolished the veil. The veil had been worn by married women of rank in pre-Islamic Arabia. With the spread of Islam its use had spread among women in cities but not among nomads and farming people. Its use was not explicitly ordered in the Koran, but it had become identified with Islam. Under Kemal the abolition of the veil was widely accepted and dismissed as a nuisance. And the headscarf was seen by Turkey’s government as a symbol of political Islam. Government regulation banned the head scarf from public buildings, including universities, its use to be preserved for religious services.

Women now had the vote, and they were now active as teachers, lawyers, doctors, office workers and as members of the National Assembly. In 1934, polygamy was abolished, and for the sake of equality titles such as bey, pasha and others were abolished – titles that had gone to the highest bidder. And Turks were ordered to choose a family name. Previously Turks had one name given at birth usually associated with the faith, such as Muhammad, and another name was adopted in later years associated with deed or an admired person, as was the name Kemal. Mustafa Kemal was now given a grand surname, Ataturk, which meant father of the Turks.

After months of illness, Kemal died on November 10, 1938, at the age of 57. He was remembered by his fellow citizens as the creator of modern Turkey. His body was taken to Ankara with widespread demonstrations of grief and mourning.

But to some rigidly traditional Muslims he was to be remembered as a traitor and an infidel.


The Emergence of Modern Turkey, by Bernard Lewis, 2002

Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey, by Andrew Mango, 2000

Turkey: a Mondern History, by Erik J Zucker, 1994

Turkey in My Time, by Ahmed Amin Yalman, 1956

Turkey, by Arnold Toynbee, 1927

Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.