03 April 2004

Essay on Ataturk's Legacy Beyond Turkey

A few days ago, the Head Heeb posted a thought-provoking essay on Atatürk's legacy:
Mention Kemalism, and you're likely to ignite a debate about the history of twentieth-century Turkey. Books have been written about whether Atatürk's reforms were racist and quasi-fascist, necessary to Turkish modernization or both. There has been very little discussion, however, about Kemalism outside Turkey. Although some aspects of Kemalist ideology were unique to the Turkish situation, a case could be made that Kemalism is one of the twentieth century's dominant models for ethnic conflict resolution.

One of the legacies of colonialism is the creation of artificial nations, often including diverse ethnic groups with a history of conflict. The governments of such countries have followed two primary conflict-resolution models. The first involves co-opting pre-existing ethnic identities into the national political infrastructure by ceding each group an official or quasi-official political space. This can take the form of federalism, formal power-sharing arrangements within a unitary state, special legal status or unofficial rotation of senior posts between ethnic groups. Such co-option is not always conducted on a basis of equality - Malaysia [emphasis added], for instance, assigns its Indian and Chinese minorities a distinctly subordinate political role - but it recognizes and supports the continued existence of separate identities within a single nation.

The second model rejects co-option in favor of replacing pre-existing identities with a created nationalism, and this is where Kemalist roots can be seen.... It is possible to construct a model of Kemalism with the following characteristics:
  • It generally arises in countries with a history of conflict between indigenous groups or groups that have lived there long enough to indigenize themselves.

  • It develops most commonly in post-colonial or post-revolutionary situations where national identity is considered part of a liberation struggle.

  • Among its fundamental principles are that recognition of separate group identities is incompatible with conflict resolution and modernization, and that such identities have to be replaced with a created nationwide identity in order to promote public solidarity.

  • Given that many indigenous groups will not adopt such a national identity voluntarily, a strong state and repressive measures are necessary to create it.
With this model in mind, the global influence of Kemalist ideology is readily apparent; the echoes of Atatürk can be found in Kenyatta's advocacy of one-party rule as a necessary measure against "tribalism" or Kagame's relentless campaign against "divisionists."

It may be possible to divide Kemalism into two varieties: cultural (or "hard") Kemalism and political (or "soft") Kemalism. Cultural Kemalists argue that any expression of separate group identities, including practice of minority customs or languages, must be repressed as incompatible with national solidarity. Political Kemalists allow purely cultural expression of minority identities, but draw the line at ethnically-based parties or advocacy of ethnic autonomy.

Possibly the most famous example of hard Kemalism is the Turkish state's repression of Kurdish language and folk practices. [Bulgaria's assimilatory policies toward minorities are also described.] ...

The more common form of Kemalist ideology, however, is "soft" or political Kemalism. In some cases, such as Kenya and Tanzania, politically Kemalist policies were adopted pre-emptively as a post-colonial nation-building strategy. Sukarno [emphasis added], who was one of the few post-colonial leaders to openly acknowledge Atatürk's influence on his ideological thinking, likewise considered Kemalist Turkey as a model for a secular Indonesian state....

The debate over global Kemalism can therefore be framed in the same way as the controversy over its role in Turkey: is Kemalist repression an evil or a necessary evil? The answer may be a combination of both.
The whole essay is worth a careful read--as are the comments in response.

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