Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Nationalism in Turkey

The breakup of the Ottoman Empire and growing Western political and economic interest in Southwest Asia spurred the rise of nationalism in this region. Just as the people of India fought to have their own nation after World War I, the people of Southwest Asia also launched independence movements to rid themselves of imperial rulers.

At the end of World War, I, the Ottoman Empire was forced to give up all its territories except Turkey. Turkish lands included the old Turkish home-land of Anatolia and a small strip of land around Istanbul. In 1919, Greek soldiers invaded Turkey and threatened to conquer it.

The Turkish sultan was powerless to stop the Greeks. However, in 1922, a brilliant commander, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, successfully led Turkish nationalists in fighting back the Greeks and their British backers. After winning a peace, the nationalists overthrew the last Ottoman sultan.

In 1923, Atatürk became the president of the new Republic of Turkey, the first republic in Southwest Asia. To achieve his goal of transforming Turkey into a modern nation, he ushered in these sweeping reforms.

  • separated the laws of Islam from the laws of the nation
  • abolished religious courts and created a new legal system based on European law
  • granted women the right to vote and to hold public office
  • launched government-funded programs to industrialize Turkey and to spur economic growth

As president of Turkey, Atatürk campaigned vigorously to mold the new republic into a modern nation. His models were the United States and other European countries.

Atatürk believed that even the clothing of the Turks should be changed to reflect a civilized, international dress. To reach this goal, Kemal set rules for clothing. He required government workers to wear Western-style business suits and banned the fez, a brimless red felt hat that was part of traditional Turkish clothing.

Atatürk died in 1938. From his leadership, Turkey gained a new sense of its national identity. His influence was so strong that the Turkish Parliament granted him the surname Atatürk in 1934, which means “father of the Turks.”