If I asked you to name the most important events of the early 20th century, you’d probably mention the start of World War I in 1914, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the stock-market crash in 1929, and Hitler’s becoming chancellor of Germany in 1933.
But for millions of people around the world, the most consequential year was 1924. That was when the last caliph — Islam’s supreme religious and political leader, the Prophet Mohammed’s heir — was deposed, thus abolishing the 1,400-year-old institution of the caliphate, and sending all members of the Ottoman dynasty into exile.
This was the moment in history when, as Osama bin Laden put it, “the whole Islamic world fell under the Crusader banner.” Three months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s chief ideologue/theologian, and now bin Laden’s successor, wrote that the “hope of the Muslim nation [is] to reinstate its fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory.”
The man most responsible for abolishing the caliphate — reliably despised by Islamists everywhere — was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is the subject of a timely new biography by military historian and columnist Austin Bay.
Bay focuses in on Atatürk’s military achievements, which, he argues, have been neglected by the West. But reading his fascinating book, two questions struck me as more important to understanding the war being waged on the West not just by al-Qaeda but by a long list of jihadi groups (the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Shabaab, Hezbollah, and Hamas, to name just a few) and a short list of jihadi regimes (the Islamic Republic of Iran primary among them). The first question: Why did Atatürk consign the caliphate to the dustbin of history? The second question: Would those reasons apply today?
Bay points out that although Atatürk was the “only undefeated general of the Ottoman empire,” he went on to reject “Ottoman imperialism and colonialism,” which could be called, with equal accuracy, Muslim imperialism and colonialism. As a cadet and young officer, he was “schooled on Europe’s technological, cultural, and educational advances.” He learned French, which he considered “the language of culture and progress.” He was inspired by the European ideal of freedom and liberal constitutionalism.
As a result, when he came to power, Atatürk determined to remake the broken heartland of the Ottoman Empire as a Westernized nation-state.
The key was to separate secular and religious authority — strictly limiting the latter. He reformed education and introduced a Latinized Turkish alphabet to facilitate literacy and better link Turkey to Europe and distance it from its Arab and Persian neighbors. He made it compulsory for Turks to take surnames, in the European fashion, which made record-keeping simpler. (Atatürk means “father of Turkey.”) He granted rights to women, believing that a nation that does not educate and empower half its population can only limp, not run.
Bay concludes that Atatürk “continues to inspire reformers and modernizers throughout the world.” But does he?
In the season we hopefully call the Arab Spring, it is sobering to recall, as Bay does, that Atatürk’s achievement remains unique: No other Muslim-majority nation has become a “Western parliamentary democracy and secular state.” The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, increasingly powerful in many parts of the Arab world, do not hang Atatürk’s picture in their offices.
Consider what has changed: In the early 20th century, the nations of Europe were confident and bold, pushing the frontiers of science, technology, and industry. Turkey, by contrast, was “the sick man of Europe.” Atatürk concluded that what was ailing his homeland was that it was not European enough, not modern enough, and not organized for modernization.
Today, it might be argued, the sick man of Europe is Europe — under the flag of the European Union, a flag no one would fight and die for. In one European country after another, signs are not of spring but of fall.