Kemal Ataturk: A Modern Muslim Persona

In the entire galaxy of Muslim leaders in the twentieth century, only two could qualify to become, and did become the modern Muslim persona for millions and millions of Muslims across the globe. They are Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) and Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948). If one had rejuvenated ramshackled Turkey and raised Turkey step by step to become a modern nation to take its due place in the comity of nations on an equal footing, the other had called a nation into being out of an inchoate backward “minority” and found a home for it – Pakistan. However, Kemal takes precedence. Not only did he appear on the scene earlier, he was also the role model for Jinnah himself during the 1920s and 1930s. “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk...”, said Jinnah, “was the foremost figure in the Muslim East. In Iran and Afghanistan, in Egypt and, of course, in Turkey, he demonstrated to the consternation of the rest of the world that Muslim nations were coming into their own. In Kemal Ataturk the Islamic world has lost a great hero.” And he considered Kemal “an inspiration” for Indian Muslims as well as in their struggle to carve out for themselves an honourable existence in the Indian cosmos. 

Clearly, Kemal was the last Muslim hero on the horseback. Long before he drove out the invading Greek hordes after the decisive battle of Sakarya, in late 1921, he became famous for his two brilliant campaigns at Gallipoli (1915-16), which routed decisively the invading Allied forces in World War I and earned for him the epithet, “saviour of the Dardanelles”. The prime reason for Kemal’s recognition as the foremost Muslim leader was that against the sombre backdrop of an utter dearth of bold and courageous leadership, Kemal provided such leadership after a pretty long time. Not only did he inspire and successfully lead the Turkish revolutionary movement; he also brought about the regeneration and re-birth of Turkey which, of course, was his principal aim. More significant was the impact of his movement upon long-term Allied plans and designs in the Middle East. To quote John Marlowe (New Statesman and Nations), “It pricked the bubble of that Western European pseudo-Renaissance which, in the first flush of victory, saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as an opportunity to push the frontiers of Europe, to re-integrate the Levant into the sphere of European civilisation, to re-recreate the Mediterranean as a European Mare Nostrum and so, in effect, to reverse the effects of the defeat which Islam had inflicted on Christianity, 1,300 years before.”
On at least two important counts did Kemal’s movement differ from other Muslim movements during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First, "the defiance of the victorious Allies by the defeated Turks within less than a year after the Armistice of the October 30, 1918", which Toynbee describes as "the classic example" of "new Islamic Nationalism", was directed, openly or obliquely, against all the Allied powers. Second, Kemal's riposte was supremely successful. To quote Toynbee, “alone among the nations defeated in 1918 – they [The Turks] refused to accept a dictated peace and successfully insisted on negotiating a settlement with the Principal Allied Power on a footing of equality.” (Riaz Ahmed, “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Modern Turkey and Pakistan: Some Aspects.”)
In terms of Asian resurgence and recovery of her lost self-confidence, Kemal's adroit reversal of the Allied plans was as crucial as the Japanese victory over the Russians in 1905. If the latter had shattered the myth of Western invincibility and had helped Asians to overcome their two-centuries old chronic and deep-seated sense of inferiority, "Ataturk's stout and successful defiance of the victorious Allies emboldened Iraqis and Egyptians to rise against British, and Syrians to rise against French rule." 
In aims and methods alike, the Arab nationalist movement was as well profoundly influenced by Ataturk's. If the latter was the first conscious, successful movement to altogether exclude Western political influence from the most sensitive part of the Middle East, the former is still working for the eventual expulsion of the West from the rest of the region. Indeed, to quote Marlowe, "The long retreat of the West, which started with the Greek defeat by the Turkish revolutionary army at the battle of the Sakarya, on the road to Ankara, is still [1964] going on."
All this, of course, was not immediately apparent during 1919-22 but the very fact of Kemal having been the first Muslim leader in a long while to have successfully defied the West prompted the Muslim world to acclaim him as a hero. More surprisingly, his popularity even survived his dramatic dismantling of the classic Khilafat on March 3, 1924.
Clearly, the dogged determination, the desperate hardihood and the resolute endurance with which the badly bruised, battered, defeated, and still far from reorganised, remnant Turkish forces resisted the menacing Greek onslaught, and with which they fought a three-year war after the exhaustion of the Balkan War and the First World War, and finally pushed back the invaders, obviously caused a spontaneous overflowing of the sentiments of adoration and adulation for the central figure in the Turkish War of Independence i.e., Ghazi Mustafa Kemal Pasha. While a grateful Turkish Assembly conferred on Kemal the highly emotive Islamic title of Ghazi after the crucial Battle of Sakarya (1921), the Indian Muslims went a step further; they described him as Seyfu’l-Islam (the sword of Islam) and as Mujahid-i-Khilafat. Following this line of thinking they felt that the Turkish War of Independence was an indispensable prerequisite for the eventual restoration and rehabilitation of Khilafat in all its pristine glory, so that the enthusiasm for Kemal throughout the Muslim world was, in essence, a Muslim enthusiasm for Khilafat.
Yet the most surprising thing is that the enthusiasm for Kemal outlived his precipitate decision to abolish the caliphate altogether. This raises a question – one that is all too crucial in perspective as well as in significance; a question that concerns the general Muslim perception of the basic attributes of a strong Muslim leader or of a Muslim hero.
It is not usually recognized that by word and deed Kemal had sown the seeds of multi-nationalism in Islam – a concept that Iqbal was to commend as representing the most pragmatic approach in the circumstances in his famous lectures a few years later. Instead of attempting to resuscitate, as it were, the ghost of a universal Islamic empire, Kemal, the realist that he was, envisaged separate, sovereign national states for the various Muslim peoples. The pressing problems at home to which the leaders in various Muslim countries reverted once the Khilafat issue had finally turned out to be a lost cause must surely have brought home to them the prime significance of Kemal's achievements. After all, to make even one Muslim nation a flourishing concern when most others lay bleeding at the feet of Western imperialism, and the rest were in no position to resist its mounting intrusion – was this in itself a mean achievement in the circumstances? Besides, as Toynbee has succinctly summed up, “…The men of Angora had proved in action that they were a military and political force in international affairs, and in achieving this they had satisfied the desire – which had underlain the championship of the Ottoman Caliphate by Muslims abroad – that at least one sovereign independent Islamic Government should survive as a Power in the modern world.” And Muslims had good reasons to be proud of Turkey. Was she not, as the Aga Khan had pointed out, the only Muslim nation to negotiate a treaty – that of Lausanne (1923) – “on a footing of complete equality with the Great Powers of the West?”
And since Kemal was chiefly instrumental in rehabilitating Turkey as a strong power, in establishing its position and prestige in the world councils, and in rebuilding Turkey from the ravages of the war, he progressively and before long regained the esteem in the Muslim world which he had commanded before the controversial abolition of the caliphate.
Thus, Kemal became the modern Muslim persona for vast multitudes outside Turkey. Apart from his recognized talents in terms of courage and intrepidity, iron will and dogged determination, superior strategy and tactics, manoeuvring and planning, organizational and diplomatic skill, strategic decisions and resolute actions, he encouraged the development of a modern Turkish persona, one that would represent a modern Turkish nation and reflect its spirit while providing identity and unity. This, in turn, had a lasting impact on and in various Muslim countries. It helped to cause the development of a modern Muslim persona reflecting their own respective spirit and providing unity and identity. The extremely successful Turkish venture gave Muslims elsewhere a new hope, heralded a new upsurge, and caused a new awakening which continued to inspire them for decades. Hence Kemal’s singular significance as the modern Muslim persona, though he would have personally preferred to be known only as the modern Turkish persona. Interestingly, despite the abolition of caliphate, despite his opting for laicism and wholesale Westernization, despite him turning his back on the Muslim East, Kemal was still hailed as Ghazi and Saif-ul-Islam. The more surprising thing is that Kemal not only retained the Islamic oriented epithet, ‘Ghazi’, with his name till the end, but also the flag and the national anthem (composed by the Islamicist Mehmet Akif), both Islamic orientated. And in retaining them, Kemal acknowledged, albeit tacitly, the Islamic legacy the modern Turkish nation was heir to, since the flag and the national anthem represent the most emotive, the most evocative and the most telling symbols of a nation’s persona. But, in perspective this retention was not dichotomous either. For, as Ziya Gokalp, the Turkish nationalist theoretician, has averred that Islam was one of the triad foundational principles on which the edifice of Turkish nationalism was raised, the other two being Turkism and Westernism.
To sum up then, Kemal represented Hegel’s Zietgeist in his own person. To quote Hegel (Philosophy of Right), “The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age and what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and essence of his age; he actualizes his age.”

The writer is HEC Distinguished National Professor, who has recently co-edited UNESCO’s History of Humanity, vol. VI, and The Jinnah Anthology (2010) and edited In Quest of Jinnah (2007); the only oral history on Pakistan’s Founding Father. 

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