Ataturk’s Secularization Reforms: A Major Step in Turkey’s Modernization

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This study discusses the role of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in transformation of Turkey into a modern secular state versus a Muslim state. Within the study the economical and political status of Turkey in the beginning of the 20th century is explored, the nature of reforms implemented by Ataturk is analyzed, and their contribution to the country’s prosperity is scrutinized.

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The study demonstrates that Ataturk’s authoritative regime of rule, although having gone too far in forcible secularization, contributed much to economic growth of the country, to the current high status of Turkey in international political arena, and to its successes on the way to impending full membership in the European Union.

Ataturk’s Secularization Reforms:

A Major Step in Turkey’s Modernization

Ataturk in translation from Turkish means ‘Father of Turks’, and the recent history of Turkey proves it is not any exaggeration. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938) was the first President of the Republic of Turkey, he was in the office only for some 15 years – from 1923 till 1938 (Mango, 2000b, p. 9), but people of Turkey adore him and have been maintaining a cult of his personality to our time (Mango, 2000a, p. 115). Perhaps, even the Thais love their king less. A man who bore the name of Ataturk is called according to his deserts a father of modern Turkey. Ataturk is everywhere in Turkey – his portraits decorate the walls of both  public institutions and small coffee houses, his statues can be seen in the central squares of the cities and public gardens exceeding even the number of monuments to Lenin in the countries of the former Soviet Union. In the most obscure country villages of Turkey the main street for sure bears the name of Ataturk (Cleveland, 1999, p. 174). Nowadays, about 70 years after his death, he is the most cited, respected in Turkey, and, at the same time, is among the most disputable and ambiguous political figures in Islamic world. Obviously, not without reason experts argue that comprehension of Ataturk is essential for comprehension of modern Turkey (Candar, 2000, p. 91).

The purpose of this study is to investigate the place of Ataturk and his secularization reforms in the process of Turkey’s movement to civilized and enlightened democratic state – an equal member of world community. Toward this end we will explore the economical and political status of Turkey in the early 20th century, analyze the substance of Ataturk’s reforms which developed Turkey into the secular state, and define their contribution to the current well-being of the nation.

Status of Turkey after the World War I

To understand the essence of the reforms carried by Kemal Ataturk and realize their weight in historic development of the country, we have to overview the status of Turkey before implementation of these reforms. In early 20th century Turkey was in a very difficult situation. The nation experienced the World War I, occupation of the part of its territory, liberation war against its invaders, fall of the Young Turks and decay of the Ottoman Empire (Cleveland, 1999, p. 175). As the result of war Turkey lost almost all East Anatholia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine (Larew, 1995, p. 8). About three million men were draught which resulted in slump in farm production. The country was on the verge of crash. Allies who won the war looked forward to take a bite of it. The conditions of truce were rather rigorous, moreover, the allies covenanted for clandestine partition of the territory of the Ottoman Empire (Cleveland, 1999, p. 176).

As Armstrong clearly expressed, the “empire lay bankrupt, decrepit and rotting” (1969, p. X). In those years realization of necessity to create new Turkey started to form in the country. It was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who became an exponent of this idea. On the ruins of the Ottoman Empire he managed to built the state which nowadays is the only pluralist secular democracy in the Islamic world and the only Muslim member of NATO, the member of the Council of Europe and of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development  (Candar, 2000, p. 95).

Ataturk’s Secularization Reforms and Their Aftermath

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was elected a President of a new Republic of Turkey in 1923 by  the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (Mango, 2000b, p. 5). Since the very beginning of his presidency he became without any personal doubts a real dictator having outlawed all competing political parties and having been staged his reelections right up to his death (Armstrong, 1969, p. 18). His absolute power Ataturk used for reforms hoping to transform the country into civilized state. In 1923 new Turkish state adopted a new form of government with president, parliament and constitution. One-party system of  dictatorship lasted more than 20 years and was replaced by the multi-party one only after death of Kemal. Having treated Islam as the bitterest internal enemy of the newborn Republic, he abolished  the Sultanate and the Caliphate to turn the nation into the secular state (Mango, 2000b, p. 11). Moreover, he confiscated the properties of monastic organizations and turned monks and dervishes out into the street considering them as the hotbed for rebellion (Armstrong, 1969, p. 244).

Within a decade after assuming his presidency Ataturk put into practice fundamental changes in all aspects of political and social life of Turkey – he banned religious brotherhoods and Sharia courts, took under tough state control all  religious schools, introduced the Latin Alphabet instead of the Arabic script, radically changed legislation having adopted the Swiss Civil Code, Italian Penal Code and German Business Law, introduced Christian calendar (Mango, 2000b, p. 10), prohibited wearing of headscarves in universities and official buildings (Howe, 2000, p. 103), granted suffrage to women (Larew, 1995, p. 9). In fact, Ataturk’s ‘iron fist’ was backed by the strong military. Recently in the light of heated argument on the possible threats from the religious organizations which could encroach upon secularity of Turkish society experts reasonably point out that only the state is able to defend  itself (Candar, 2000, p. 92). No appeals addressed to religious organizations concerning partnership with the state and dialogue between religions are not able to eliminate a danger of religious organizations’ intervention in politics or possibility of inter-religious conflicts. The Turtkish secular institutions – large-scale enterprises, financial establishments, tourist businesses, academia, most part of media and arts, traditional political parties, and  new public organizations with the protective guidance of the armed forces – unswervingly pursued the Western-oriented reforms set down by Ataturk (Howe, 2000, p. 243). As a single-minded reformer he had no hesitations about  total accuracy of the chosen policy applying even the most  brutal and cruel means on his way to achieve his end (Mango, 2000a, p. 117).

Around 98% of the population in Turkey are Muslims (Vertigans, 2003, p. 47). Thus, unsurprisingly, Ataturk’s reforms run into heavy opposition from hard-core Islamists and from much part of population (Cleveland, 1999, p. 175). For instance, one comic magazine published by the students of the Department of Law of Ankara University discribed a new Turkish citizen as a person marrying under Swiss Civil Law, being convicted under Italian Penal Code, having legal proceedings under German Business Law, being governed according to French Administrate Law, and being buried under canons of Islam (Weiker, 1981, p. 46). Although Kemal considered Islam as an obstacle to civilizing Turkey, for the Muslims this religion grants a civilization which is a perfect way of life, if one lives in full accordance with the tenets established by the Koran. The lattter regulates everything from hair-dress and clothes to divorce and polygamy, at that the Islamic code stipulates for severe punishment for offences of adultery and theft and death for apostasy (Howe, 2000, p. 5). Islam regards Western values and style of life as immoral and dangerously corrupting, and most Muslims refuse to accept Western culture which propage, in their eyes,   the sex, drugs, violence and disintegration of families (Lewis, 2001, p. 111). In spite of such world view of the majority of the nation Ataturk forced the Turks to adopt Western model to modernize, and eventually his policy of ‘iron fist’ showed astounding achievements. Cementing national idea which allowed joining the people was Ataturk’s main principles included in the Constitution where revolutionism meant adherence to the principles of struggle for independence, republicanism – fidelity to republican form of government, nationalism – raising of Turkish nation, Laitsizm – defendence of secularism principles, nationality – non-recognition of social classes and class struggle, and, finally, realization of national sovereignty on the basis of democratism (Mango, 2000a, p. 118).

Nowadays Turkey is the only Muslim country that has one foot in Europe and that is an active member of the Western alliance. In modern Turkey formerly the most depressed social  class – women have held important political office, they have equal human rights with men, they are emancipated and many of them study in the universities (Vertigans, 2003, p. 51). While in 1935 the literacy rate was 19%, now about 90% of population are literate (Howe, 2000, p. 208). In fact, the duality in Turkish society still exists, but the society seems to have achieved a manageable modus vivendi on the religion issue, with dichotomy defined largely as an urban-rural matter (Mango, 2000a, p. 119).

Western style of Turkish state formation became the model for other countries, especially prominent being Saudi Arabia, which was the issue most hard to bear for the Muslims, as this country is recognized the birthplace of Islam (Weiker, 1981, p. 58). This example testifies that Ataturk’s secularization reforms had and still have enormous implications for the Muslim world. The very face of Islam was changed as western secularization and materialist views prevailed (Lewis, 2001, p. p. 143).

As for Turkey, three-quarters of a century after Ataturk’s reforms implementation the country presents a vivid example of modern secular republic which  eventually found equilibrium between religious radicalism and hard-core secularism (Howe, 2000, p. 250). The radical changes in Muslim mentality are the most evident in a young generation of the Turks. They are highly educated, feel comfortable in Western-oriented community, like their European coevals they are ambitious, self-reliant and hard-working, now many of them view Ataturk’s seculatization reforms as a great accomplishment for their nation (Mango, 2000a, p. 120).


Our study clearly demonstrates that the reforms of outstanding Turkish statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk gave a chance for the tumbledown by the World War I nation, which was under the yoke of the Sultanate and totally dependent on religious Islamic rulers, to develop into prosperous bourgeois secular state oriented toward European norms and standards, having advanced industry and agriculture, and appearing to be an unconditional leader among the nations of Islamic world. Modern Turkey undoubtedly makes a vivid example of successful consistent policy of secular state.

Although since declaration of secular nature of Turkish Republic by Kemal Ataturk the Turkish army has been standing sentinel for this provision of the Constitution and being the powerful obstacle on the way of Turkish Islamists striving for power, it seems that the secret of Ataturk’s success in implementing his secularization reforms lies rather in the fact that although having reformed the social aspects of Islam, he did not wish to interfere with private religious practices, nor to deny private worship. He realized that it makes no sence to modernize only a facade and pursued with exceptional determination and energy his tough policy of fundamental changes within the entire structure of the society and culture. The word ‘civilization’ was being repeated in his speeches the scores of times like a conjuration, and, in fact, he managed to civilize and modernize his beloved country which now is an equal member of international community.


Armstrong, H.C. (1969). Gray Wolf: The Life of Kemal Ataturk. New York: Capricorn Books.

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Cleveland, W. L. (1999). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press.

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