The Modern Republic of Turkey

Dr. Andrew Jackson

From the Ottoman Empire to Atatürk and Beyond

During the Middle Ages (500-1500) Turkic nomadic tribes roamed throughout northern Mongolia and Central Asia led by strong leaders called khans. Living in tents and worshiping nature, these skilled horsemen armed with bows not only pastured their animals but continued to expand their influence in other geographical regions. In the 500s they overran Mongolia, developing a loose nomadic empire. They continued to migrate in all directions, raiding native peoples and extending their reputation as a militant people to be feared.

Although a number of Turks had already converted to Nestorian Christianity, the character and religious identity of the Turkic nomads began to change when they came into contact with the Arab Muslims who had moved out of the Arabian Peninsula and conquered the Persian Empire (modern Iran) in 633. The Turks slowly assimilated Islam into their shamanistic religious practices. They rose to power as they began occupying military and political offices within the Arab Kingdom.

The Turkish Selçuk Empire

At a time of Arab decline, the Selçuks—a strong Turkic clan—migrated out of Central Asia and conquered Persia. They established the Great Selçuk Empire with Baghdad as its capital. The Selçuks dominated the Middle East, transforming the image and status of the Turks forever.

Here Come the Turks

Although the Turks of the eastern Great Selçuk Empire had no initial interest in expanding westward into the Christian lands of Anatolia, the independent Turkic Ghazi warrior groups—holy warriors of the faith of Islam—did. Because of their mobility on horseback they were able to carry out successive military campaigns against the Christian border province of Armenia, penetrating the Byzantine eastern fort system. In response to these ongoing Ghazi raids into eastern Anatolia, the Byzantine army marched east only to lose a battle of historic consequence at the town of Manzikert (modern Malazgirt) in 1071. With this victory, the doorway was wide open for the Turks to enter Anatolia permanently. Following the military successes, the Turks entered central Anatolia and settled in the city of Konya (biblical Iconium). The sultans of this new independent Turkish empire became known as the Sultanate of Rum (Caesars of Rome) as they established a regional stronghold within the realm of the eastern Roman Christian empire.

Independent Turkish Principalities

With the arrival of the Selçuks, the Christian Byzantine Empire shared the land of Anatolia with the Turkish Selçuk State. However, this initially tranquil situation soon changed drastically when the Mongols blitzed through the Middle East, toppling the Turkish Selçuks in both Persia and Anatolia. The Mongols’ bloody rampage broke up the Selçuk State and drove wave upon wave of Turks into Anatolia. As a result, the land of Anatolia was divided into ten independent Turkish principalities. These small Turkish kingdoms—led by ambitious tribal chiefs—grew in strength by attracting and absorbing migrating Turkic warriors and tribes. Although the Turks initially held minority status in Anatolia, these successful waves of immigration began to paint the land with a permanent Turkish identity.

The Rise of the Ottoman Empire

The greatest historical surprise was the emergence of a small northwest Turkish principality in the early 1200s. It would eventually grow into the extensive Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans initially chose the city of Bursa as their first major capital. From Bursa they crossed the Dardanelles waterway and conquered Adrianople (modern Edirne), making it their new capital. After taking over the Balkan Christian states, they later conquered and occupied Constantinople in 1453, renaming it İstanbul.

Just as Western Europe was experiencing the explosive Christian renewal of the Protestant Reformation, the Ottoman Empire reached its height of power under Sultan Süleyman (1520-1566). His aggressive leadership brought a flourishing Ottoman building program and an expansion of the empire’s geographical borders. However, following the death of Sultan Süleyman, its influence over the Ottoman Empire began to decline.

The Young Turks

By the early 1900s—following several failed attempts at political reform—the stagnant Ottoman Empire was eclipsed by a more socially progressive Europe and became known as “the Sick Man of Europe.”  As the power of the Ottoman Empire quickly deteriorated, disenfranchised peoples living in distant Ottoman frontiers began to demand their independence.

Outlawed Turkish organizations—disillusioned with the Ottomans’ social decline and political desperation—worked to restore order to the spreading chaos. One of these secret reform organizations was the Committee of Union and Progress. The members were called the Young Turks, and one of their top military leaders was Mustafa Kemal.

At the turn of the twentieth century a significant portion of Anatolia’s population were Armenian Christians. As the Ottoman Empire was coming to an end, the Anatolian Armenian people endured massive death and suffering that peaked in 1915. Although we do not know the actual number of Armenians who lost their lives, it is estimated that it could have been as high as one and a half million. During this time, thousands of Armenian survivors either fled Anatolia or were expelled.

The Fall of the Ottoman Empire

As World War One erupted, the Ottomans unwisely sided with Germany. With Germany’s defeat, the victorious Allies implemented a plan to divide the lands of the Ottoman Empire among themselves. Just as the French, Italian, Russian, and British armies were in the process of claiming their portions of land, the Greeks invaded the Aegean region of Anatolia. This set aflame the patriotic heart of the demoralized Turkish people. Starting in eastern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal formed a nationalist resistance movement to fight Turkey’s War of Independence (1919-1923) and defeated the advancing Greeks. With the Turks’ victory and new sense of destiny, the Allies retreated from their plan to occupy the land of Anatolia, and the modern Republic of Turkey was established.

Atatürk and the Republic of Turkey

Mustafa Kemal was named the first president of the newly-founded Turkish Republic on October 29, 1923. As a sign of their extraordinary reverence for him, the Turks crowned him Atatürk—the “Father of the Turks.” It is hard to imagine the admiration that Atatürk receives from the Turkish people even to this day. His pictures and statues are seen throughout Turkey, with countless buildings, streets, and parks bearing his name.

As the founder of the Republic, Atatürk’s primary goal was to modernize Turkey by moving it towards Westernization. During the 15 years that Atatürk governed, his focus was on his Anatolia-centric reforms and the task of creating a western Turkish Republic out of the remnants of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. He implemented remarkable social, political, and religious reforms that would sharply distinguish it from the Ottoman Empire. Although there are too many to mention here, he replaced Islamic laws with new laws based on European codes, adopted a modified Latin alphabet over the old Arabic alphabet, abolished Sharia law, and gave full legal equality and political rights to women. His most amazing reform was the abolishment of the Sultan—the successor to the prophet Muhammad and spiritual leader of the Islamic world—on November 1, 1922. This one act brought an end to the 623 years of Ottoman rule and has affected the entire Muslim world to this day. The Islamic caliphate of the Ottoman Empire was officially ended on March 3, 1924.  The elements of the political system envisioned by Atatürk’s reforms developed in several stages, but in 1935 when he removed the reference of Islam, the new political system of Turkey became a secular, democratic republic that derived its sovereignty from the people. He established laws that guaranteed freedom of religion and removed Islam as Turkey’s official state religion.

Atatürk’s comprehensive reforms remain the bedrock of modern Turkey. He left behind a compelling vision for Turkey’s future. The ideology of Kemalism was integrated into Turkey’s constitution, and until recently, the military functioned as the national defender of Atatürk’s western-oriented secularism.

Population Exchange

One of the most tragic consequences of the Turkish War of Independence took place on
January 30, 1923. Based on an agreement between the governments of Turkey and Greece signed in Lausanne, Switzerland, a major population exchange took place that affected approximately 2 million people—around 1.3 million Anatolian Christian Greeks and 500,000 Turkish Muslims in Greece. The Greeks were sent back to Greece, and the Turks were sent back to Turkey. As a result, most of them were made refugees by force and denaturalized from their original homelands.

Turkey After Atatürk

Since the death of Atatürk in 1938, Turkey has faced significant political, social, and religious challenges. Unfortunately, some of these challenges have been resolved by military intervention; however, many of them still remain.

Approximately 11 months following Atatürk’s death on November 10, 1938, Turkey faced the global upheaval of World War Two (1939-1945). Initially, Turkey tried to take a neutral stance in the war, but as the war unfolded, it turned toward America and the West. Turkey joined the Allies in February of 1945, only two months before Hitler committed suicide. Neutrality was unsustainable, and protection came in the form of the Truman Doctrine, which gave aid to Turkey. In 1946, Turkey transitioned from a one-party to a multiparty republic with the launching of the Democratic Party, and

Turkey and Greece joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1951.

After World War Two the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the superpowers of the world. During the Cold War period (1947-1991), Turkey lived tightly within its borders, and its foreign policy was strongly America-centric. It followed America’s containment policy towards the Soviet Union in helping to stop the spread of communism throughout the Middle East.

It was during this Cold War period, that Turkey’s military played a significant role in keeping social and political stability and assuring Westernization and the implementation of the six principles of Kemalism. From 1960 to 1980, Turkey experienced three military coups—in 1960, 1971, and 1980.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP)

With co-founder Abdullah Gül, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan founded The Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001. From 2002 to 2016, the AKP won five national elections. During the period that the AKP has been in power, Turkey has experienced significant economic and infrastructural development and a gradual move from away from Kemalist principles towards a more traditional outlook.

On the evening of July 15, 2016, Turkey experienced a coup attempt that failed. A “state of emergency” was imposed on July 19 that remains in place today.

On April 16, 2017, a constitutional referendum was held in Turkey that proposed a set of 18 measures to revise Turkey’s constitution. It was passed by the voters of Turkey. One amendment details the replacement of the existing parliamentary system with a presidential system. These constitutional changes significantly increase the powers that will be vested in the winner of the 2019 presidential election. It remains to be seen how this will impact everyday life in Turkey.