The Turkish revolution is not a revolution that took place under normal conditions; it is a society gaining self-awareness after emerging victorious from the War of Independence. In other words, enlightenment here was realized through action. You tell people about the idea of enlightenment in order to motivate them to take an action.

But the peoples of Anatolia gained this by themselves, emerging victorious from a war of survival by relying on themselves because they had no one else to rely on. This is my understanding of it.

Gaining self-government means gaining one’s self. This could no longer be delegated to anyone else. “What if we had gone back to a monarchy, wouldn’t it have worked? We had a nice history too…” No, it wouldn’t have worked. At a time when we did not have a truce with the British who occupied Istanbul, when we had not yet made peace, under those conditions, we had a Sultan who left the country aboard the enemy’s ship. This is why it wouldn’t have worked. This doesn’t mean badmouthing all the sultans; each event is unique. It would be an injustice to generalize this attitude of Mehmed VI (Vahdeddin) to Abdulhamid, Abdulmejid, or the other sultans.

After all, Mustafa Kemal once warned a member of parliament who was badmouthing Abdulhamid. He was someone who did not deserve to be badmouthed at all, for he suffered so much to keep the country together, but this was not the case with Mehmed VI. It was impossible to make a deal with him because he had already ordered a warrant for Mustafa Kemal’s execution. Some claim that he provided covert support, sent gold liras, etc. He signed an execution order! You can’t take this back. Regarding the issue of the Caliphate, it was not a rejection of religious authority. The Caliphate was an instrument used by the Ottoman Empire to keep the ummah together. The ummah had already dissolved, each nation had declared their independence. Anatolia was the last to do so. Communities and societies under the Ottoman yoke had declared their independence. You could not keep them together by saying we have the Caliphate, you owe allegiance to us. There were multiple caliphates at the time; it was not a special thing either.

Science requires conducting research and disciplined thinking about objective conditions. In this sense, the Turkish revolution is an authentic revolution. As it gains self-existence, the society gains self-awareness, ratifies its own parliament, and governs itself. This is the first step of enlightenment, but if it is not supported by science, art, and philosophy, it will be low-quality and deteriorate. This is because the arts underlie European enlightenment in the West. Mustafa Kemal is aware of that, and says, “Art is one of the life veins of a society. A society without art is a society severed of its life vein.” That society cannot survive.

Village institutes are at the origins of this movement, and vital work was undertaken in these institutes to support the arts, but village institutes are now a lost instrument. Enlightenment requires action, mere words do not suffice, and its institutions should develop, both civil and official. These village institutes were institutions based on the idea of achieving development and enlightenment starting with the villages, and certainly require further study. This very important institution was one hundred percent Turkish; it was not transferred nor copied from someplace else. As you know, Hasan Âli Yücel and İsmail Hakkı Tonguç together pulled off this feat, but unfortunately, these institutions were viewed as communist nests by the Americans, who ordered them closed, and the Democrat Party closed them down.

The enlightenment of this society is so interesting, and it fits Kant’s definition of enlightenment, “getting out of a predicament of one’s own making, through one’s own efforts.” In village institutes, villagers, students and teachers built their schools together, with their own efforts.

The other day, I listened to Osman Şahin, someone who attended village institutes. He is a great author, too; do read his books. He says, “I saw soap in the village institute for the first time, and wished my mom could have seen it too. Imagine, you have something called soap, you use it to wash with, and it foams…” Osman Şahin from Mersin, who used to live in a Yörük tent, sees soap in the village institute for the first time, and listens to Beethoven. Village institutes were designed for villages, but villagers also participated in them directly.

Now, this issue of “direct participation” is very important; John Dewey calls this “retroduction”. There is induction and there is deduction, as proposed by Aristotle. Science proceeds by examining individual events analytically and then making generalizations, discovering laws, which can change over time, but with which work can also be done. Philosophy, on the other hand, works with deduction; it takes universals/categories and generates perspectives with them, generates what are called theories. John Dewey says, These are all logic games; they don’t directly intervene in life. To influence life, there must be a thought system based on action. This is a third proposition, one he calls retroduction.

It is not like the state builds a school in a village and centrally appoints a teacher, who then educates pupils there in front of the blackboard. That would be one way of doing things. On the other hand, you could ask the villagers to decide which activity is a better fit for the village, be it raising chickens, growing olives, growing peaches, or whatever, given its soil conditions, etc., and then offer to send engineers with a construction project after villagers choose a proper location, on the condition that the villagers themselves will actually construct the building. Retroduction is returning to oneself, taking action; what I am trying to say is that the villagers directly participated in this project.

This is real enlightenment. This is what I mean when I say enlightenment has its origins in the War of Independence. The society organizes itself entirely from within, and achieves its own independence itself. A lot of local leaders and patriots came together under the leadership of Ataturk and organized to save the country. It was the people themselves who made up the independent units initially and then united as the National Forces (Kuva-yi Milliye) under the leadership of Ataturk. The Ottoman regular army was dispersed and all its weapons were confiscated, and the whole country was under occupation, yet the people refused to surrender. There is no other case like this in the entire world. Refusing to surrender, the people organize themselves, then prove their maturity (rushd) by uniting the separate organizations, and eventually decide to have a Republic as the form of government. This is the sort of history we are talking about…

If we had been able to do the same thing in education too, we could have made the gains permanent. There were village institutes in the villages and people’s houses in the cities, and both were very important. These were the instruments of enlightenment. If you remove these instruments, Ataturkism (Kemalism) becomes empty rhetoric, and turns into presumptions. The emptying out of ideologies usually takes the form of severing its ties with action, rather than ideas.

This is a point I often make: Karl Marx started a very important, very powerful ideological movement on the basis of the problematic of oppressors and the oppressed, and this spirit of revolution has been influential worldwide, especially among the youth. “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. Unite and take charge of your own lives,” he said, and thus also revealed the secret: “You have nothing to lose.” Then, loans were extended so that people would have things to lose, and revolution was prevented. The entire American society is indebted, and so is the entire Turkish society. Everyone lives with credit cards. Can you be a dissident under these conditions? Can you boycott things? No, you can’t, because you are in debt, and you have dependents to look after. This was why Herbert Marcuse said, “Workers cannot do anything, they are already renting their labor. They have families. How many days could they last if they were to boycott? In the age of savage capitalism, without outside support and labor unions, they cannot make revolution.” Who could? Students could, because they have nothing to lose. Indeed, it was the protests of 1968 that changed the world. For that period, under those conditions, Marcuse was right.

Ataturk also revealed a secret, and that secret was used against him. “We cannot complete our civilization, our enlightenment through victories in the battlefield. We can only reach civilization through victories in the field of education,” he said, and revealed the secret. The counter-revolution adulterated education, closed down village institutes and people’s houses, and banished the passionate, enthusiastic teachers of the day, and it was over. You cannot believe the teachers who served at that period; at 80 or 90, they are still as passionate as if they were 18 years old, still excited, and still speak with enthusiasm. 

We have designed such a material world that sacrifice and ideals have disappeared; we have materialized everything that was idealized. And when you start thinking about the cost, self-sacrifice ceases to exist. Self-sacrifice is a religious attitude but it is not of religion; it is of humanity. Humanity put forth human religion, and the main theme of religion is compassion, that is to say, self-sacrifice. The first stage is designating rights and giving everyone their due, in other words, “justice.” The second stage is being able to give up one’s rights, and not because one is subjected to injustice, voluntarily by saying “This is my right and I am giving it up.” This is self-sacrifice. This is how family works; a commune is a family. We have commune or self-sacrifice in the family. Parents work outside and earn money, and come home and in self-sacrifice share their earnings with their children; they don’t say “You did not work for it, so I am not giving you anything. Go make your own money.” This is a commune. Once we leave the sphere of the family and enter the process of socialization, however, everyone must be given their due, and “justice” must rule. In other words, societies are built upon justice. When the Republic was founded, this was the perspective adopted in handling the reforms.

The principle of secularism means that the state –not its individuals– is cleared of religion and is equidistant from all religions and cultures. Turkish society is a society that needs this principle the most because we were a cosmopolitan society during the Ottoman period. There were so many races, religions, sects, and languages in the country that it would be pure tyranny if a government adopted any one of those and excluded the others. At the level of institutions, the principle of secularism is the basis for establishing justice. Secularism is a principle of justice, and it requires being equidistant from all religions and cultures. It is a neutral institution, but one that respects the beliefs of society. Society can manage to keep its multiple faiths intact and still ensure that they are respectful of one another only through secularism in the state, and this is why this principle is the spirit of revolution.

There is this idea that secularism is somehow incompatible with religious sensitivities. Şemseddin Yeşil, known to be a descendant of Ali through both his parents, says the following in a speech on secularism: “Western civilization cannot teach us about secularism, for secularism is the essence of the Quran.” The Quran has the principle of “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.” For you is what you worship, and for me is what I worship. You are free to think or believe in anything you like, and so am I, but we shall coexist. The most universal concept of the culture of co-existence, ever since Plato, has been “justice”. Justice is what religions keep saying, what philosophy keeps saying, and what ideologies keep saying. However, justice is a universal concept; it is always said to apply in the context of the equal distribution of rights. In fact, justice should serve as the principle overseeing the development of the state by its institutions, and the domination of one state institution over another; for that is secularism.

In all previous forms of government, including the Ottoman Empire and the dynasties governing empires in Europe, this was impossible. Monarchical power is above everything else, including the people. This is arbitrary government by a dynasty; they own all the land, and the idea of a motherland does not exist. Vatan, the Turkish word for motherland, meant hometown in the Ottoman period. When you asked someone what their vatan was, it meant you were asking about their place of birth. The contemporary meaning of motherland became part of our intellectual world through Namık Kemal, Ziya Pasha, and others who followed them.

What was the motherland of the Ottomans? If that referred to an actual piece of land, what did this land comprise? What was the motherland that could not be divided or lost? Was Tripoli not part of that motherland? Egypt, Iraq, Syria… Weren’t these all the property of the Ottoman dynasty? Yes, but they were not the motherland because to be a motherland, its people must be governing themselves. If a people governs itself, it follows its own customs. A custom can have a land of this size or that size; it is not related to the size of the land.

Now, let’s briefly remember what happened. First, a transition from a theocratic order to a secular order… As I have explained above, what is meant by secularism is the government being equidistant from all beliefs and ideas, and no one agency being dominant over the others; in other words, secularism is a concept within the context of the principle of the separation of powers.

I said theocratic order came first, but the contents of this concept were different from theocratic order in the West. What I call theocratic order emerged in the late Ottoman period. To keep a crumbling empire together, Turkist, Turanist, and religious policies were proposed; this was a political proposal in response to the question of how to keep these nations together. The Caliphate was one of these responses. The person who acquired the Caliphate, Selim I, never used it. The person said to have acquired the Caliphate from Egypt only brought some holy relics from there, and placed them in Topkapı Palace. He made no claim to being the Caliph or a religious leader. No sultan had actually used the title until the reign of Abdulhamid, when the Empire was about to dissolve, and the sultan used this card in an attempt to retain the allegiance of other Muslim lands, to keep the Empire together. When they saw that the idea did not have many supporters, no one took it seriously, and everyone clung to their national identities and declared independence anyway; they finally realized that this glue was not going to work. This is why secularism is the foundation of national sovereignty as well.

Regardless of whether this society treats Kemal Ataturk as a symbol or accepts him as a reality, this is what he said: “The Turkish nation has declared its own independence. We have only provided its leadership.” This society is mature. I repeat, this was not something done via a regular army. Individual, separate forces came together to form an army, and ultimately it was the people’s doing. This is very important. This is why the people would not accept returning to monarchical order, and in the end they didn’t. The transition was made from a dogmatic legal order to a reason and science-based parliamentary legal order. This is a very important milestone: accepting the guidance of one’s own reason…

When it comes to education, the bigger cities had all schools up to high school, and there were universities too, but the “unity of education” (tevhid-i tedrisat) reform was very important because it provided for a mandatory universal education and created a common awareness through that education. The transition was made from disorganized neighborhood schools to a unified national education that furnished national identity. At the time, madrasas did not teach any technology or mathematics. In previous periods, madrasas had taught those subjects. Seljuk madrasas could have competed with today’s universities, and so could have the madrasas of the early years of the Ottoman Empire, but later, they started to teach a curriculum that focused on interpreting religious texts and producing only religious fatwas. If it weren’t for the army, the Ottoman Empire would not have had any institutions teaching modern engineering and medicine. Painting was also introduced by the pashas. The military was pretty much the only institution whose members received a modern education, and the historical process of the military played an important role in all revolutions. Ataturk did not create a revolution out of the blue. He built upon past experience, and founded the republic with the desire of the people by merging it with his own accomplishments.

Even more importantly, look at the economy of the Ottoman Empire. A powerful empire that existed for centuries dissolves, but the society remains. What is dissolved is the state, the administration. The administration changes, but at the end of the day, this change is carried out by Ottoman pashas; the state remains even in the case of a regime change. However, there was not a single workshop, let alone a factory, even in Istanbul, even though Istanbul and Salonica were the most important cities in the entire Empire because they were the most integrated into Western civilization. There was no art. This despite the fact that Abdulhamid had an opera in Yıldız Palace. He was an opera fan, and had opera and ballet in his palace. The Sultan wanted this himself; he made efforts to continue the reforms that had started with Mahmud II, to transfer values that had emerged in other societies to his own society. This accumulation would later emerge as earned acquisitions in the Republic, but they were not shared with the people at that time. Only the military, that is to say the pashas, were aware of these things. The presence of an elite that could produce culture and elevate society to higher values and to civilization was not enough to create a productive economy.

It was a looting economy, an economy based on regular military incursions, including to Europe. On average, there was a military campaign every four years, which meant a state of continuous mobilization. So, if the military is always busy, what about the young people? There was a mandatory military service of 12 years, which later declined to seven years. This means that all the young people were away, and what can the rest produce? Minorities were exempt from military service. Assyrians and Armenians specialized in crafts. Jews specialized in commerce. Greeks produced the way of life; they constructed houses among other things. Turks fought. Ottoman structure was based on this sort of merit, but the Empire dissolved when Turks were limited to fighting. Turks didn’t know craftsmanship, didn’t know commerce, and didn’t know agriculture; they were always away on a military campaign.

In the absence of production based on one’s own labor, when someone merely collects the fruit of other people’s labor using force, they show no appreciation for labor, disregard justice, and become angry all the time. They have to be angry because this is what makes waging war possible. So, a transition was also made from that sort of economy to a production-oriented economy. This was a revolution in itself.

The transition was made from a complicated, difficult to understand, and elitist language occupied by foreign elements to a Turkish that is true to its essence and roots, that is functional, and that allows new words to be derived. The Turks, Oghuz tribes people, Turkmens, Yörüks (Nomads) and others were routinely insulted with the words etrak-i bi-idrak, or “uncomprehending Turks”, and most of them were Alevis. People of these origins speak a clear Turkish; their religious leaders all speak and worship in Turkish. This doesn’t mean Turkish is superior to other languages. It simply means that every society needs to develop its language to an extent that is functional and allows for the derivation of new terms. We have built this language over 94 years. Some people think we have been using Turkish throughout our history, but that is not the case at all. Karamanoğlu Mehmet Bey was the first to use Turkish in official business. Ataturk was the second. He took the language of this society and elevated it to a level that allows for the making of philosophy, the making of art, and the making of politics. We can gain consciousness through this language now.

This language used to be under occupation, not just by Arabic and Persian, but also by French, English, German, and Italian words. You cannot derive new terms from foreign words because you don’t have access to their roots, and this blunts the ability to think. This is why I would like to talk about Orhan Hançerlioğlu. For example, he said the following in one of his speeches: “Istiqlal (independence) is an Arabic word. It could be Persian or English too, it doesn’t matter, but what matters is that istiqlal is not Turkish. We had a War of Istiqlal, right? Don’t we say we have fought a war of istiqlal? Our national anthem is named after istiqlal, and Ataturk has the famous saying, ‘Istiqlal is my character.’ Fine, but we cannot think with istiqlal.” Orhan Hançerlioğlu says we cannot think with this word; this word is like a virus. We cannot derive any words from istiqlal in Turkish because we don’t have its root; it is a loanword. The Turkish word for istiqlal, however, is bağımsızlık and it is derived from the root bağ (tie), and as Hançerlioğlu mentions in his book, you can derive 32 different words from this root, including bağımlı (dependent), bağımsız (independent), bağlaç (conjunction), bağdaş (cross-legged), and bağlılaşık (correlative).

Just like a tree, words propagate from their roots, and when we use a word, other words derived from the same root serve as a background of connotations and related meaning. When we are paying attention to the word in the foreground, our mind provides depth and background and intuition through connotations with other words in the language, and this facilitates understanding. To rid the language of these foreign words, Ataturk gathered the departments of history, geography, and language together. Look at the spirit of the revolution, try to appreciate how valuable, how just these actions were…

One of the most important things was the transition from women who were abstracted from life, kept behind latticed windows, not considered to be mature, and denied the same status as men as witnesses in court, to the modern notion of women who are free, can make their own decisions, are equal to men before the law, and equipped with legal protection.

Today, the spirit of this revolution, the people’s ability to stand on their own feet, to govern themselves, can only be revived if as they govern they elevate their values at the same time. This, in turn, requires art, philosophy, and science.

Enlightenment can be rekindled at any moment, but not by severing its roots nor by transplanting it; it can be resurrected anytime only from its roots. However, we have to make a distinction between Western enlightenment and our own enlightenment. Western enlightenment takes the form of opposition to aristocracy, organized religion, and religious meddling in government. There, religion is institutionalized; it has an official clergy who meddles in and dominates government, and is an institution met with opposition. Here, the opposition is not to religion or a religious organization, but to bigotry and ignorance. Therefore, our enlightenment does not overlap with Western enlightenment.

Our enlightenment starts in Basra. The Turks from Central Asia had values that were very distinct. They arrived here as a society in which men and women were equals, and the Sultan and Sultana ruled together, but then their customs were replaced by Arab customs and women’s rights were taken away. However, there were also the pro-enlightenment works of Ikhwan al-Safa (the Brethren of Purity) from Basra from the Arab world, followed by the Qarmatians, Anatolian Ahis, and Bektashis etc. These were organized, pro-enlightenment communities, and enlightenment there was achieved through practical action, not through a mental process, nor by sharing words of wisdom with one another, but through production.

I believe Tasawwuf is very important in this context. Taassub (bigotry) can only be eradicated by Tasawwuf (Sufism). Tasawwuf is the perfect antithesis to taassub; it is the essence of religion. Tasawwuf has music and dance. Look at Rumi, he had both dance and poetry. His music is music at its peak; the highest forms are used. The Mevlevi ritual is unique, like none other in the world. The ritual itself is a symphony. The four trusted great forms are specifically used by Dede Efendi… There is music, dance, poetry, and philosophy all together, meaning it has an artistic and philosophical essence, and it is humanitarian; it is centered around the human.

In other words, this society achieved enlightenment of its own origins, and can rekindle enlightenment of its own origins. This is my humble opinion.

* This article has been reproduced from a speech Metin Bobaroğlu gave at the Anatolian Enlightenment Foundation on October 30, 2017. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.