Father of Turkey: The Man Called Atatürk
It's impossible to overstate Atatürk's hold on this country -- even almost 75 years after his death. His presence is unavoidable; his legacy is everywhere. Children are taught from near birth to revere the heroic, ambitious, revolutionary figure who single-handedly forged a united Turkish state from the tattered remains of the Ottoman Empire.
On May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal Pasa landed in the Black Sea port of Samsun, officially launching the War of Independence. Less than a year later, the Grand National Assembly convened, prompting the sultan to condemn Kemal to death. But Kemal's savvy military campaign did not falter, and 2 years later, liberation armies succeeded in clearing the mainland of all foreign presence.
Born Mustafa Kemal in Salonica in 1881, he channeled his energy into a military career at an early age. In 1905, while in the service of the sultan, he co-founded a secret organization to fight the Ottoman ruler's despotism. But unlike some power-hungry despots, Kemal's efforts resulted from a zealous love for his culture, and a refusal to see his country's sovereignty compromised. He gained widespread attention in 1915 for his pivotal role in turning back Allied forces during the long, brutal battle at Gallipoli and emerged from that campaign with the makings of a hero's reputation. At the close of World War I, Allied victors appeared ready to move in and carve up the Ottoman Empire, to the apparent indifference of the sultan. This galvanized Kemal, and he moved to harness nationalist sentiment and recruit an organized resistance.
That military victory was just the beginning, for Kemal intended no less than a societal revolution to follow. "We shall strive to win victories in such fields as culture, scholarship, science, and economics," he declared, adding that "the enduring benefits of victories depend only on the existence of an army of education." With blackboard and chalk in hand, he traveled to every corner of the country, breathing new life into this withering nation.
In his 15-year presidency, Atatürk drew his country into the 20th century through drastic and sweeping changes, not the least of which were the adoption of the Western alphabet and the insistence on a complete separation of church and state. He abolished many of the institutions that lay at the heart of Turkey, thus forcing the country to reject its Ottoman heritage. He created a new national identity, a sense of unity and pride that endures to this day. In 1934, when a law establishing surnames was instituted, the parliament gave him the name Atatürk -- Father of the Turks. He died in 1938, 18 years after becoming president and utterly transforming his homeland.
Atatürk's influence on modern Turkey has not been without criticism, although much of this must be discreet, because it has always been illegal to slander the Father of the Republic. Fundamentalist critics argue that Islam as a way of life provides for all the legal needs of the country; for highly observant Muslims, the separation of mosque and state has gone too far. But Atatürk recognized that a march into the future was inevitable, and his vision lives on in a prosperous and modernizing Turkey. In his words: "Proud is he who calls himself a Turk."
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