Ataturk's secular vision still thriving
Each morning, as dawn breaks, one awakens to the sound of the first Islamic call to prayer. The muezzin’s voice, beautifully atmospheric as it echoes and resonates about the town, will be heard another four times before midnight.
Each day, as well, around 5pm (11am and 5pm on Sundays), the bells of a nearby Christian church are tolled. On a personal level, this brings to mind childhood Sunday mornings, and my mother shepherding us the mile or so to church, our pace changing to the diktat of three successive patterns that summon us from across the fields.
During the first “bell”, we ambled along at our leisure; the second quickened our step; and by the time of the single, dull thud of the final third, we were almost running.
Although I’m sure it is present to some degree, one gets no sense of competitiveness between the daily Muslim and Christian rituals I have described. The muezzin’s call and the Christian bells enjoy an amicable coexistence, signalling no more than simple declarations of faith by the religious representatives of communities who are free to worship as they choose.
But then this is Turkey, functioning as Ataturk, its architect, intended it to: as a modern, secular state, a shining example to much of the rest of the world, and not least to the region in which it is situated.
Ataturk loved his religion (Islam) but recognised that mixing and confusing it with politics was to its detriment: “The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past.”
As in much else, Ataturk was ahead of his time. And his thinking was, and in some instances still is, some distance ahead of many majority Christian nations.
Ataturk’s concept of personal freedom was not restricted to that of religious practice. Under his direction Turkey granted the vote to women as early as 1934. He declared: “There is no logical explanation for the political disenfranchisement of women. Any hesitation and negative mentality on this subject is nothing more than a fading social phenomenon of the past. Women must have the right to vote and to be elected; because democracy dictates that, because there are interests that women must defend, and because there are social duties that women must perform.”
He was equally robust on what freedom and independence must mean for his country: “By complete independence, we mean of course complete economic, financial, juridical, military, cultural independence and freedom in all matters. Being deprived of independence in any of these is equivalent to the nation and country being deprived of all its independence.”
Value of education
Recognising the value of education, Ataturk embarked upon a programme of building schools; he made schooling compulsory, and reduced the influence of clerics on education by making them subordinate to the government’s ministry for education.
It would be impossible to do justice here to the full extent of the political, cultural, legal, judicial and economic reforms that Ataturk initiated in Turkey. Essentially he planned to the finest detail the modern secular state that exists today. No wonder he is so venerated by the Turkish people.
Over recent months, I have travelled by road to places as far-flung from one another as Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Gaziantep and Antakya, and stayed for varying periods in each of those cities. On every occasion, the connecting highways have been immaculate, and every place has at least one enormous new out- of-town shopping mall as well as a vibrant shopping area at its centre. But most significantly, vital infrastructure such as trunk roads, schools and hospitals are under construction everywhere.
As my experience of Turkey has grown, I have gradually moved from wondering why it has not yet been granted membership of the European Union, to questioning why on earth this self-sustaining nation should feel any need to be a member of the EU.
As with every other majority Muslim country I have visited (including Syria during the past few months), one cannot help but be impressed by the friendliness, hospitality and generosity of the Turkish people. I thank God that my understanding of Islam and its adherents has been formed by personal experience, and not by the tiny minority of unrepresentative fanatics who all-too-frequently grab our attention.
Those familiar only with Turkish holiday destinations, largely manufactured to suit western tastes, might be surprised to learn that the country’s modernity is not of the kind that has reduced other parts of the world to cheap imitations of the West.
Turkey has embraced modernity, yet somehow managed to preserve its own distinct character and culture, another remarkable achievement on the part of Ataturk and his successors. It is to be hoped that the present and all future Turkish administrations will preserve the legacy of Ataturk, by continuing to ensure that all are free to live in peace within its borders.