Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism IV

The previous post in this series covered the early stages of the formation of the Republic of Turkey out of the debris of the Ottoman state on the basis of ethnic nationalism combined with republicanism. Ottoman reformers were influenced by the western model. The new republicanism expressed itself in the forms of constitutionalism and representative democracy on a strictly western model, with an elected national assembly, a prime minister responsible to the assembly, and a president elected by that assembly. This post continues with an account of the early Republic which is mainly descriptive and with the aim of more analytic and evaluative comments in later posts in this series.

The nature of the fledgling state was very French influenced, in that it was a very unitary state with a very assimilationist attitude towards non-majority cultures and languages, along with a project for creating citizens of an enlightened republic. The comment of the 19th century Piedmontese-Italian politician Massimo d’Azeglio, ‘we have made Italy, now we must make Italians’ applies in a more radical way to Atatürk’s Turkey, who was someone of much more radical republican inclination than d’Azegio. Roughly speaking the work of French republicanism and reformism from 1789 to the 1920s was squeezed into Atatürk’s period of leadership, from 1919 until his death in 1938.  For this reason, the Kemalist program is sometimes referred to as Jacobin in Turkey.

Sharia law was abolished and previous adaptations from western law were turned into the complete incorporation of the Italian criminal code and the Swiss civil code as Turkish law codes. The first republican constitution made reference to Islam as the language of the state, but from the beginning it was the intention of Atatürk (who in Enlightenment style was a deist) and his associates to weaken the role of religion in public life, as in France. The laicist ambition became more explicit over time and mosque was separated from state. The Ottoman Empire, particularly in its later centuries, was regarded negatively as non-Turkish and decadent. State education reflected this along with positive attitudes towards science and the modern. Co-education of the sexes became normal.

The language itself was transformed, as the Ottoman use of the Arabic alphabet was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet for a language that was sufficiently changed in both grammar and vocabulary to become a distinct language. Persian and Arabic grammatical influences were removed along with many words from the Persian and Arabic languages. New vocabulary was based on old Turkish roots going back to central Asia. Surnames for Muslims were legally enforced for the first time. President Mustafa Kemal (Kemal is a name given by his school teacher, according to Ottoman Muslim practice of the time) became the first person to receive a surname under this law: Atatürk.

Religion was not just pushed out of the public sphere, as the state sought to reduce the general social influence of religion, prohibiting religious brotherhoods and saints’ tombs. A religious affairs ministry was set up to regulate Sunni Islam, controlling the Friday midday sermons and repressing the more radical expressions of religion. Civil marriage was made compulsory on the French model, so that religious marriages were no longer recognised.

These changes, usually known in Turkey as the Atatürk Reforms or Turkish Revolution, were accompanied by a very strong drive towards assimilation into a majority Turkish culture, as defined by the republican elite. The Kurdish language (or languages), most the Kurmanji dialect (or language) in Turkey was not made part of the education system and was actively discouraged by the state. The same applies to the Zazaki language, or dialect, of the Tunceli region which as far as I can see is more a dialect of Farsi than Kurdish (or is a language closer to Farsi than the Kurdish language, which are certainly all related).

Not surprisingly, given such radical state led changes, violent resistance and state violence to overcome resistance is a major issue at this time. In 1925 Sheik Said Nursi led a revolt of Kurds to defend religious tradition and the traditional tribal-patriarchal power structures the state was challenging. This was put down with considerable violence. A rebellion around Tunceli (which was previously known as Dersim and is still frequently referred to as such) in 1937 to 1938, was in reaction to a 1925 law requiring the dispersal of the population to ensure Turkification. The rebellion was put down with considerable counter-insurgency state violence, which killed civilians as armed rebels. In the end, the law was never enforced in Tunceli or anywhere else.

Politically, Atatürk welcomed the principle of pluralism, but was not willing to follow it in principle. At Atatürk’s own initiative a Free Republican Party was founded as an opposition to his own Republican People’s Party in 1930. The intention was that it would be a loyal opposition concentrating on economic issues, but it became radicalised beyond the intentions of its leaders as it became a gathering point for various kinds of radical opposition including religious conservatives and leftists. The party was dissolved in the same year and the Republican People’s Party was uncontested in national elections until 1946 and first conceded electoral defeat in 1950.

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