Man As Nation

Al Jadid Staff

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: The Birth of a Republic
A Film by Séverine Labat, 2005
Icarus Films

“Mustafa Kemal Ataturk” commences with images of Modern day Turkey, replete with contradictions and tensions between Islamists and secularists. Since September 11 Turkey has often been hailed as an example of a successful Middle Eastern democracy, in contrast to the multitude of non-democratic Muslim countries that seem prone to Islamic fundamentalism. But Labat hopes to show that the matter is more complicated than this. Through archival footage, newsreels, photos, and interviews with Turkish and Western historians, sociologists, and biographers, Labat’s documentary tells the story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s rise to power, and the complex state of affairs he has left behind. Indeed, the legacy of the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey continues to stir heated debate, which is one of the film’s major themes..

Debating the nature of Ataturk’s authoritarian rule in breaking with the imperial and Islamic past, the film asks: Was he a visionary or simply another enlightened despot? Although Ataturk abolished the Sultanate and Caliphate, he also did away with parliament, which was among the most democratic legislatures Turkey has ever had. His suppression of the Kurdish revolt led to accusations of dictatorship. One Western academic even says that Ataturk was merely copying the Western dictatorial experience of the inter-war period.

While the documentary tends to favor the image of him as an autocrat, Labat nevertheless attempts to present a balanced view. Although some of the scholars interviewed dismiss Ataturk as having been no more than a dictator who tried to do too much too fast, others hold that he cannot be classified as such since his modernizing goals were admirable. A few examples include his introduction of a Civil Code that announced the equality of men and women, his abolishment of polygamy, and his having given women the right to vote. Given all this, Ataturk might most accurately be referred to as simply a modernizer, as opposed to the all-or-nothing labels of dictator or democratic statesman.

Despite varying views, the documentary makes clear that his quick secularization and attempt to supplant Eastern culture with Western culture – such as replacing the Arabic alphabet, abolishing Islam as an official religion in the Constitution, making Sunday a day of rest, and prohibiting the wearing of the veil and other traditional clothing- have not been as a penetrating as is often claimed. His reforms touched on a nerve, delving to the very core of Islamic beliefs and traditions, and affected the city very differently than the countryside. This rendered mixed results for the Kemalist legacy, which accounts for some of the contradictions and tensions in modern day Turkey. 

This review appeared in Vol.16, No. 62, (2010).

Copyright © 2010 by Al Jadid

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