First of all, I would like to express my condolences to our nation, or rather to all humanity, for Atatürk was a pioneer not only for our nation, but for the entire world. In what sense? We could say because of his achievements or the Republic he founded, but he is also a pioneer in terms of enlightenment. I will focus on the enlightenment-related aspects of Atatürk, for history is not just a collection of facts and events, it also comprises the people who shape these events and act as subjects. Therefore, we would be mistaken if we were to disregard people, pioneers or wise persons, philosophers, or artists and have an exclusive focus on facts and events in our attempt to understand history. This is why I take Atatürk seriously, for creating an exemplary society for all humanity, and not just for our nation.
And enlightenment is the essence, the foundation of this. This is a project, a project of enlightenment. Atatürk has a beautiful saying, which goes as follows: “You don’t need to see my face to see me. You see me if you understand my ideas, and share and feel my feelings.”
If we approach Atatürk from this perspective, what he did and the institutions he built are of course very important. However, after we view him as Mustafa Kemal, as an individual, I think we should also view him as a person that was enlightened and enlightened others as well. And independence lies at the foundation of this. He says, “Freedom and independence are my character.” I think this is the foundational stone of enlightenment because what we mean by enlightenment is a person’s ability to use their own reason, and for their will to be free. Reason under the tutelage of external elements, beliefs, and certain ideologies is unenlightened reason. This can manifest in multiple ways. If a person is incapable of using his own will, then he is adrift, dragged along instead.
Atatürk expresses this idea as follows: “We have gained victories in wars, but we need an army of wisdom for our society, for our nation to rise.” This army of wisdom (irfan) consists of our teachers and system of education. This is why, he says that we need to “educate individuals to be free in their ideas, free in their conscience, and free in their wisdom.” This is very important. What does it mean to be free in one’s ideas? It means having the ability to shape one’s own thoughts, ideas, designs, and perspective on life. It means the individual gaining prominence; it means asserting and realizing oneself.
Now, we can view what Atatürk has done as a three-step design. The first, as everyone knows, is the War of Independence. The second is the reforms. And the third is enlightenment. Following the reforms, he wanted to enlighten people, enlighten the society through education.
I believe the main point that deserves emphasis here is the ability to shed various appurtenances, including tribal identities, the ummah identity, and other similar ideological identities, and become a tangible individual, realize oneself, and especially, to bring oneself into existence with society. From this perspective people need enlightenment. This has a subjective aspect, as I have mentioned earlier, in the form of being “free in ideas, free in conscience, and free in wisdom.” It also requires institutionalization; it needs socialization, as you know. This, in turn, is complemented with science, reason, and humanity. In other words, we should be able to construct societal life, national life, and our institutions on a foundation of reason and science, and equip it with the love of the humanitarian human being. This is very important; when we say the love of the human being, people might say “Of course, I love people too; I love all people.”
The emphasis on enlightenment, however, and the point Atatürk has emphasized, is to arrive at the human being free from all distinctions of gender, religion, belief, and nationality, and love that human being. This is “the model of the universal human being”. Therefore, the project Atatürk aimed for was to create the model of a human being that would embrace everyone, without exception, and have this manifest in actual individuals. So, what did that mean? It meant enabling those who had been dissolved within society, the nobodies, to realize themselves as specific persons, as specific artists, philosophers, scientists, or wise persons. If we were to think of society as a tree, these such fruits of society, these achievements would also serve as a set of values by which to assess a nation’s progress on the path to reaching the level of civilization.
I would like to quote Atatürk on this. In the following, he explains what he values: “Will is the tendency and desire of the conscience. However, will requires a means to appear and become visible, and sovereignty is this means.”
In this sense, the Reforms of the Republic Atatürk carried out were a matter of sovereignty as well, because previously people were subservient to theocratic order and a dynasty, and they were not free. This is very important. People were not able to solidify or realize will over their own lives. This is why a revolution was needed, but if the revolution had been limited only to institutions, the society would have had a hard time internalizing it. This meant education was also needed, and it had to be an enlightenment-based education. When we look at the time period in which Atatürk lived, among the other nations were conspicuous, totalitarian regimes such as fascism, national socialism, and other forms of socialism… There were political systems that were specifically based on leaders, while at the same time on ideologies. We can describe these regimes either as totalitarian or dictatorial.
At that time, Atatürk was an ‘educator’ among dictators. He was an enlightening person, an educator, and a pioneer. When we look carefully, we see that ideologies premise facts. They tend to be absolutist, in other words; they create certain designs, and try to fit society into those designs. In a sense, this is a religious attitude; in other words, the prioritization of facts by ideologies is a contemporary or modern reflection of the longing for previous religious attitudes and a desire for theocratic state order. Atatürk did not embrace this idea. Atatürk was focused on the concrete individual. He aimed for a human being generated by enlightened, concrete individuals, secured with legal protection, and equipped with rights and freedoms, and for us, a society generated by this human being. From the perspective of enlightenment, this is critical realism. Atatürk’s position is critical realism, as reflected in his own words: “I am not leaving you any tenets or any dogmas,” he says, “I am leaving you reason and science.” In this sense, to understand Atatürk is possible not by being content with praising and glorifying him, nor by being proud of what he did, but by understanding him.
Atatürk wants societies to interact with one another; he wants people to find themselves in one another and to love one another, but to do this with the consciousness of a nation-state. What does that mean? You know, prior to nation-states, there were tribes. People’s identities were defined by their tribes, beliefs, sects, religious orders, or the like, and their love and hatred for one another were determined by these identities. Atatürk wanted people to overcome these things, and achieve national consciousness. National consciousness is a product of enlightenment. As you know, nations appeared after the French Revolution, and were built on the principles of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The principle of equality here is interesting. In the West, especially in France, and later in Europe as it spread, it emerged as a problem. Why? Because they had classes. There was the aristocracy –the bourgeoisie was not yet born– but more importantly, there was the clericus. These were the clergy, the men of religion, and opposite the clericus, there was the laicus, the lay people. Many wars had been fought and much blood shed as a result of the conflict between these classes, a conflict of liberation. In our society, however, we did not have this problem because the principle of “no clergy in religion” (la ruhbâne fiddin) meant that a distinction between the clergy and the lay people did not exist within its belief system. Hence, it was easy for Atatürk’s egalitarian attitude to spread through society. Instead of building the Republic on the basis of a class, a dynasty, a belief, or an ideology, he created a societal design based on the concrete individual whose rights and freedoms were guaranteed by law.
Atatürk insists on this point, and says, “Put these values into practice, use every opportunity to keep them alive, and have society accept them. Get society to love these ideas so that they turn into feelings.” This is very important. This is a fire; enlightenment is a fire. If we fail to feed the fire, if we don’t keep the fire going, the fire may go out and people may lose their enthusiasm. We indeed had a very strong foundation laid out in our society. We had a very enthusiastic early period, as you know; we had “People’s Houses” and “Village Institutes”, which provided strong roots. This was what society desired too. People were fed up with the totalitarian oppression, lack of rights and freedoms, lacking status of women in society, and lack of art in the previous order. This was not a bestowed gift, either; it was a society achieving what it desired.
In this sense too, Atatürk was a pioneer and not a leader. Leaders manage the status quo, whereas pioneers expand horizons. This is why I see him as a pioneer, as a pioneer of enlightenment. There is something very interesting here, something people sometimes describe as Jacobin, as a top-down project. They say this was an attempt to force certain concepts and institutions on a society, concepts and institutions that did not exist in local customs and traditions, and were borrowed from the West. I don’t agree with this idea. They did exist in local traditions. For example, humanism is a project in the West, and not yet realized. However, in our society, we have long experienced its fruits with Rumi, Yunus Emre, and Haji (Haje) Bektash Veli, among many others. When Yunus Emre says, “I love the created because of the Creator,” and adds, “Those who know not seventy two nations as one, are not human,” he demonstrates that he went beyond linguistic, religious, and racial distinctions and arrived and aimed directly at the human being, and that this was already part of our civilization. Atatürk was someone who institutionalized these values and put them into practice.
* This is the transcript of a speech Metin Bobaroğlu gave on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as a pioneer and the importance he placed on enlightenment, on the TV show “Hülya Aydın ile Yeni Vizyon” [New Vision with Hülya Aydın] on TV8, the 10th of November, 2005.
** Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz and revised by the editorial board.