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Atatürk was born in the Ottoman city of Selânik (Salonika), now Thessaloníki, in modern Greece, where his birthplace is commemorated by a museum at the present day Turkish Consulate. In accordance with the then prevalent Turkish custom, he was given the single name Mustafa. His father, Ali Rıza (Efendi) was a customs officer who died when Mustafa was a child, his mother was Zübeyde (Hanım).
Mustafa studied at the military secondary school in Selânik, where the additional name Kemal ("perfection") was bestowed on him by his mathematics teacher in recognition of his academic brilliance. As 'Mustafa Kemal' he entered the military academy at Monastir (now Bitola) in 1895. He graduated as a lieutenant in 1905 and was posted to Damascus. He soon joined a secret society of reform-minded officers called Vatan (Fatherland), and became an active opponent of the Ottoman regime. In 1907 he was posted to Selânik and joined the Committee of Union and Progress commonly known as the Young Turks.
The Young Turks seized power from the Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1908, and Mustafa Kemal became a senior military figure. In 1911 he went to the province of Libya to take part in the defence against the Italian invasion. During the first part of the Balkan Wars Mustafa was stranded in Libya and unable to take part, but in July 1913 he returned to Istanbul and was appointed commander of the Ottoman defences of the Gallipoli area on the coast of Thrace. In 1914 he was appointed military attache in Sofia, partly to remove him from the capital and its political intrigues.
When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany, Mustafa Kemal was posted to Rodosto (now Tekirdag) on the Sea of Marmara. He commanded a division in the Gallipoli area, and he played a critical role in the battle against the invading allied forces during the Gallipoli landings by British, French and ANZAC forces in April 1915. Here he made his name as a brilliant military commander by defending Çanakkale, and became a national hero, awarded the title Pasha (commander) and came to be known as Mustafa 'Kemal Pasha' (until 1934, when he officially assumed the surname 'Atatürk').
During 1917 and 1918 Kemal Pasha was posted to the Caucasus front fighting the Russian forces with some success, and then to the Hejaz, where the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule was in progress. He became increasingly critical of the incompetent conduct of the war by the Sultan's government, and also of increasing German domination of the Empire. He resigned his command, but eventually agreed to return to serve in the unsuccessful defense of Palestine.
In October 1918 the Ottomans capitulated to the Allies, and Kemal Pasha became one of the leaders of the party which favoured a policy of defending the Turkish-speaking heartlands of the Empire, while agreeing to withdraw from all the non-Turkish territories. Turkish nationalist sentiment was aroused by the Greek occupation of Izmir (Smyrna) in May 1919, in accordance with the Treaty of Sevres (this Treaty was signed by the Sultan under Allied duress but never ratified by the Ottoman parliament).
The government sent Kemal Pasha to eastern Anatolia to suppress a so-called riot which turned out to be a false alarm, but he seized this opportunity to leave the capital and found a Turkish nationalist movement based at Ankara. In April 1920 a provisional Parliament at Ankara offered Kemal Pasha the title 'President of the National Assembly'. This body repudiated the government and the Treaty of Sevres.
The Greeks understood the threat posed to their position in western Anatolia by Kemal Pasha's forces and advanced inland to meet them. Military action between Turks and Greeks was inconclusive, but the nationalist cause was strengthened the next year by a series of brilliant victories. Twice (in January and again in April) Ismet Pasha defeated the Greek army at Inönü, blocking its advance into the interior of Anatolia. In July, in the face of a third offensive, the Turkish forces fell back in good order to the Sakarya Nehri, eighty kilometers from Ankara, where Atatürk took personal command and decisively defeated the Greeks in a twenty day battle.
Kemal Pasha's victory in the War of Independence saved Turkey's sovereignty. The Treaty of Lausanne superceded the Treaty of Sevres and Turkey recovered all of Anatolia and eastern Thrace from the Greeks.
Kemal Pasha spent the next several years consolidating his control over Turkey and pushing strong political, economic and social reforms. Although he claimed to be fostering a democracy, many Turks who opposed his policies were banished from the country. He also ensured that the Turkish political process remained firmly under his personal control, with little or no dissent from his own goals and policies.
In March of 1925, Kemal Pasha pushed through the Maintence of Order Law, which allowed the government to shut down organizations it deemed to be subversive. This law was immediately applied to Progressive Republican Party, the main political party opposing Kemal Pasha's reforms. Unsurprisingly, he won the next election.
Kemal Pasha regarded the fez (the Ottoman hat) as a symbol of feudalism and banned it, encouraging Turkish men to wear European attire. The hijab (veil) for women, while never formally banned, was strongly discouraged, and women were encouraged to wear western apparel and to enter the country's workforce. From 1926, the Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar. In 1928 the government decreed that the Arabic script be replaced by a modified Latin alphabet, which facilitated publishing and made Turkish easier to learn. Citizens between the ages of six and forty were required to attend school and learn the new alphabet. The conservative clergy fiercely opposed these reforms, trying in vain to maintain its traditionally strong influence. As a result of these reforms, literacy increased dramatically. The reforms also included extensive removal of Arabic and Persian words from the Turkish language.
Visual representation of the human form was banned during Ottoman times following the Islamic faith. Kemal Pasha opened new schools, where, as part of the curriculum, fine arts were taught to boys as well as girls, had been traditionally excluded from education. He also lifted the Islamic ban on alcoholic beverages: Kemal Pasha had an appreciation for the national liquor, raki, of which he often consumed vast quantities. In 1934 he promulgated a law requiring all Turks to adopt surnames. The parliament gave him the name Atatürk, meaning "father of Turks," and use of that name by other persons is still forbidden by law.
Seeking to limit the influence of Islam on Turkish political and cultural institutions, which he regarded as one of the principal causes impeding Turkish development, Atatürk abolished the 1300-year-old Islamic caliphate on 3 March 1924 and established a western-style separation of church and state ("mosque" and state) in Turkey. While promoting a secular Turkish state, Atatürk maintained the traditional Ottoman tolerance of religious diversity and freedoms, but viewed these freedoms in the western Enlightenment sense of freedom of conscience. Atatürk prized science and rationalism as the basis of morality and philosophy.
Atatürk died in 1938 of cirrhosis, a probable consequence of his strenuous lifestyle and heavy drinking for many years.
His successor, Ismet Inönü, fostered a posthumous Atatürk cult which has survived to this day, even though the introduction of a genuine democratic system after World War II saw the Republican People's Party lose power in 1946. Atatürk's face and name are seen and heard everywhere in Turkey: his portrait can be seen in all public buildings, on all Turkish banknotes, and even in the homes of many Turkish families. Giant Atatürk statues loom over Istanbul and other Turkish cities. He is comemmorated by many memorials all over Turkey, like the Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul and the Atatürk Bridge over the Golden Horn.
Few countries have been as genuinely and permanently changed by a single ruler as Turkey was by Atatürk. His reforms proved more lasting than the revolutionary changes of many other regimes. Tentative reforms had started at the first half of the 19th century and they were expanded and finalised by him. Although he was by nature an authoritarian, he was farsighted enough to create a political system which could adapt to the introduction of democracy fairly easily. His secularist and modernising reforms proved permanent to this day, and gave Turkey domestic and international peace and a measure of prosperity even in his lifetime. But Kemalism has also left Turkey with a divided identity — Europeanised but not quite European, alienated from the Islamic world but still a Muslim country.
Atatürk's legacy also survives in the Turkish military, which sees itself as the guardian of Turkish independence, nationalism and secularism.
- Atatürk: The Biography of the founder of Modern Turkey, by Andrew Mango
- Quotes of and quotes on Atatürk
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