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Reforms of Turkey under Mustafa Ataturk, with regards to the revelutions from above

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“With Reference to Turkey, Discuss the Ability of the State to Transform Society.”

In the early 20th Century, Turkey went through many significant alterations in its political stance, in relation to the revolution above.  These changes took place after the appointment and under the rule of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  During this period of time other states were going through transformations, such as Egypt an Iran; therefore it was not a surprise that Turkey was following in the same direction.  If however, one is to look at all these three countries in a retrospective manner, then one will be able to identify with ease that Turkey as it stands today is in a better situation then the other two countries, therefore the conclusion can be made that reform was most successful in Turkey.

This essay will concentrate on how reforms were implemented in relation to the revolution above, the extent of their success by comparing it to Iran and Egypt, and furthermore, if they failed to prosper what was the cause of its failure.  But overall I will point out the main reasons why Turkey was more successful in its reform in comparison to the other states.

It is important to acknowledge the stances of the Turkish political system before the reformation took place, and the problems generally faced by the middle-eastern states, how they have become into existence and how they affect the way these countries govern.  Although this essay will make reference to other middle-eastern states, in order to act as a counter-argument, however, the essay will concentrate specifically on Turkey and its President at the time, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who took great care in implementing these reforms, how he gained and retained power, how he tackled the struggle faced by Turkey due to the problems the middle-east generally faced and still ultimately was able to restore success in much of his intended changes.  Finally as conclusion will be made by relating it back to amount of success his work bought about to the country throughout his rule and ultimately comparing it to Iran.  The reason for this comparison is that Iran undertook many of the same reforms at a similar period of time, however, these reforms failed to be successful in Iran but worked well in Turkey, therefore it is essential to understand the reasoning behind this.

It is important to define what a state is and how it should be structured, Max Weber poses a great example of how a state should be organized and how power should be central and using this as a tool legitimately in order to penetrate society. Talk about taxation as a means to strengthen state power as that is where the funding comes from.


It is important here to acknowledge that although Weber poses a great example of how a state should be organized and governed and these examples have appeared to be successful in the past, this however, is not the ideal solution for middle-eastern states.  Weber’s work is a great example of states in Europe which have been established for a very long time, whereas the middle-east being organized into states is a relatively new thing therefore its population perceives it in a very hostile respect.  Another reason for the provocation of such negative feelings is that these states were imposed upon the people of this region by western powers and imperialism, and therefore see it as an invasion.  This is mainly why the governments is place are not successful, in that they are constantly being challenged and the leaders continuously fear the threat of being overthrown as people fail to obey the state laws and institutions.  Another reason for hostility is that the leaders in this region did not gain legitimacy through popular vote nor were they divinely elected and therefore they were seen as the puppets of the west as they were initially implemented by them.

Ataturk was an ex-Ottoman commander and after the collapse of the empire after WW1, he successfully managed to combat against the internal traditionalists’ opposition and foreign intervention and shortly after this triumphant whereby Turkey received their independence, Ataturk gained enough support and popularity which resulted in him being elected and consequently being able to govern Turkey.  It was then in which he was given the opportunity to lead Turkey in the direction that he imagined.  It was held that Ataturk’s principle goals were to “…secure the independence, peace and modernization of the Turkish Republic.”[1]  Furthermore, to achieve “…republicanism, nationalism, secularism, statism, populism and revolutionism.”[2]  It was during his rule in which he worked to implement reforms in the country’s social, political and economic life so that current institutions and attitudes in Turkey would alter and democracy in Turkey would flourish under his successors.  Many of his reforms did imitate the west as he was an admirer of western institutions and attitudes and he was determined to mold Turkey like the image he had of the west.  For Ataturk he intended to modernize stood in his eyes as westernization, and therefore these reforms emphasized Ataturk’s desire to progress towards western influences.

Ataturk did not have an easy rule, because although he had an image in mind of where he wished to take the country it was held that it was “…very doubtful if the idea appealed to more than a small minority of his followers.”[3]  Furthermore, during this time although the Ottoman rule had ended it was still held in high prestige and consequently gave the religion Islam a dominant position.  However, Ataturk was able luckily to eradicate the sultanate, leaving him to rule without the threat of Islam.

Another problem that Ataturk had to face during his reign was this idea of identity and nationalism, however, Turks had long been aware of this, however, the majority of young Turks held that their “…political identity was that of Ottomans, strongly reinforced by their religious identity as Muslims”[4].  Therefore the vast majority of the Turkish population identified themselves with being either Arab or a Muslim, rather than being Turkish, however, some of the population did regard themselves as Turkish and Ottoman, and there were even religious segregation as some referred to themselves as Sunni Muslim or Shia Muslim.  What can be identified here that there is no common allegiance which unified the population under one shared umbrella.  Therefore, Ataturk worked to encourage Turkish unification and Turkish self-esteem by illustrating the ‘excellence of Turkish civilization’.

A survey that was carried out in 1978 that was published and the results state that; “…78 percent believed the Arabs constituted a nation, 53 percent believed the state boundaries were artificial, and the majority supported doing away with them in favor of a larger, perhaps decentralized state.”[5]  From this quote one can clearly foresee from the listed views of the population, that any leader who came to reign during this period would have been faced with countless problems, especially leader like Ataturk who had the objective in transforming Turkey into a strong state by implementing new policies which was contradictory to the entire stance of the Middle-East.  It is vital to keep these problems in mind as I will grow to illustrate how Ataturk’s revolutionary regime dealt with these problems, became and successful leader and build Turkey into what is considered to be a strong state, when taking into account the poor state of Turkey before Ataturk came into power.  It is said that in 1919 there was “…virtually no modern industry, except a few foreign owned plants and utilities…”[6]  It is important to note that as stated they were ‘foreign owned and therefore were predominantly under the influence of Western Imperialists.  Turkey was a country that was culturally segregated and economically weak, a difficult job for any leader to overcome, and Ataturk took this into account as he worked to implement policies in order to insure the progression of Turkey.

What gave Ataturk the upper hand in achieving the success in his ‘revolution from above’ is that the period of time in which he came to power as I mentioned earlier was this he was highly popular amongst the population.  The following quote is in support of this view; “…Kemal was a hero, adored and feared, but never despised.”[7]  In much literature it is stated that many held Ataturk in very high regards.  Furthermore, at this point in time it is important to mention that Ataturk’s work is consider a success was due to the approach he took, which was that he didn’t merely just implement the radical policies, but he made steady progress towards, which meant that he initially had to build a strong foundation for which he could secure his rule and then place policies as they were be more accepted and this appeared to be true in Ataturk’s instance.  Ataturk was fully aware of what he had to and the most important of them all in starting his progress was to consolidated power, this would then give than foundation to work on.  I will now look closely at how Ataturk consolidated power and created this foundation, before looking at the policies itself.

As he was initially in the military he knew how important it was to build and secure allegiances with the top military offices, as it is this group that will eventually give him strength to implement his policies, furthermore, to prevent them from becoming a coup and overthrowing his state, which often happens to middle-eastern states.  Ataturk managed fulfill this task with great ease as he illustrated that his work was committed national interest and as a result in response to the Greek threat at the time, the top military officers joined him in order to create a resistant movement against the Greek.  This allegiance proved to be important as there was a time whereby the Sultan at the time sent for his arrest, however, the commanders stood by Ataturk and refused to detain him.

Next, and what can be regarded as one of the most significant of his works was that Ataturk worked to fracture the connection the Turkish population had with the Sultan, as he was the legitimate ruler of the Muslims.  Ataturk feared the Sultan as he regarded him as a threat as he could quite easily use Islam in a political manner, use it as a tool or mechanism to yield support from the people, and as result this would ultimately challenge the hold and influence that Ataturk had on the population, therefore Ataturk saw it as is promoted religion and so the defeat of the Sultan would mean that Turkey would move away from religion and more towards a secular society whereby religion was not predominant.  The following quote illustrates this view; Ataturk claimed he intended to create a “…new Turkish state without a Sultan caliph.”[8]  Secularism was Ataturk’s core aim and so you will see that the majority of his work progressed to that.

Ataturk started his campaign to influence the people to turn against the Sultan.  The initial move that he made was by manipulating Turkish newspapers into publishing against the Sultan, making bold statements such as he was stubbing the growth of Turkey, and preventing the progression of Turkey as a recognized, respected state.  Furthermore, he wanted to be the only sole communicator to the person, with the Sultan having no interaction with the public, therefore he wanted to manage and have power over the telegraph operators.  Consequently, from his well thought actions and plans, Ataturk on the 13th April, 1920, Ataturk was elected to become the President of the Grand National Assembly, and 4 years after, with much of his influence and control he had of the Assembly, they declared for the Caliphate rule to be eliminated from Turkey entirely.  This was a major turning point for the career of Ataturk, as immediately after he started to make a declaration of national aims he had in mind, which had to appear to be in support of national interest, so that he could gain the support of the country.  Therefore in 1919, resolutions were proposed that the population be united, however, under the title of ‘Turks’, this was to prevent the external influence.  Furthermore, other resolutions were declared which was that the National Assembly that Ataturk was now President of should have control over government, this was ideal for Ataturk as it allowed him to exercise sovereign, unlimited power and control over legislation, and even propose reformation, hence he could use this power to implement his desired policies.

One of the major ways that Ataturk foresaw he could be seen as a respected leader, one that the country would follow and be loyal to was by eliminating invading Greek penetration in Turkey.  He declared full military action to be taken and every man was ordered to fight, as a result the Greek were defeated and as a result not only was he regarded as a military leader of high caliber but also declared the legitimate political leader of Turkey, which is the stance he wished to achieve.  Finally, for Ataturk all threats that stood in his path had been eliminated and he came out looking like a strong leader, and consequently his much deliberated actions he established a strong foundation whereby he could implement his policies that would drive towards secularization.

As he had waited for so long for this executive power, Ataturk was not going to take any chances of his reign being challenged or threatened he passed the Law of Maintenances of Order, which leas to the establishment of “…Special courts, known as independence Tribunals, which condemned Sheikh Said and more than fourty other rebels to be hanged.”[9]  This was an illustration of Ataturk eliminating any other parties that may be a strong opponent that will challenge his rule.

Ataturk then introduced new law codes that were taken directly from the laws in western countries, again the main objective for this was to move Turkey away from religious, Islamic influence, which the Turks had been ruled by during the control of the Ottomans.  These alterations in the legal system consequently seized the existence of Muslim Sheriah Law, which was the law that was in practice before the reformation.  Regardless of religion and ethnicity, the entire population was to abide by these laws and ultimately coincide and coexist together, encouraging homogeneity like all other Western countries.

Furthermore, Ataturk got rid of the wearing of Fez’s, as it was a symbol of Ottoman rule.  This was the most controversial of his policies as many believed it to be part of their identity, however, it was not long after that Ataturk introduced a new sort of headwear that imitated the dress of the west, this hat was called a shapka, modeled inline with the West.  This may appear to be a humerous reform, however, Ataturk’s intention behind it was to remove people from their traditional values and allowing changes to take place, he ultimately wanted his people to imitate the west and furthermore, as and think like the west and he thought that the alteration of the dress code was a good place to start.  However, although this was the most controversial of his reforms this was the most subtle.

It was not long after, in 1926, Ataturk removed the constitutional provision decreeing Islam as the state religion, however, there were rebellions that took place as a result of this, however, the Law for the Maintenance of Order was extended to stop such riots.  He then moved on to the written language that was taught in the countries education system, he strongly believed that language reform was a key ingredient for the creation of new Turkey, and therefore wanted purification of the language used.  Furthermore, the revised Turkish language was believed to give the Turks a new national identity, as Arabic was considered the dominant language and the Turks spoke Ottoman Turkish which was a mixture of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian.  Ataturk wanted a language that was purely Turkish and modern with the intention to ultimately uniting the people under one common banner, establishing Turkish nationalism, and encouraging the population to identify themselves as Turks rather than Arab or Muslim.  Non-Turkish symbols were prohibited as they were seen as remembrance of the past and that of the Ottoman rule which Ataturk wished to avoid.  Literature eventually got converted from Ottoman Turkish to a more modern purely Turkish language, although they didn’t wanted any influence in the language, there were many Latin influences.  Although Ataturk declared that these language reforms were to benefit the people as the literacy rates were so low, it is more likely that Ataturk intended to “…cut another tie with the past, and to the Islamic east, and push the nation towards the future of the west.”[10]

Furthermore, in the education system Ataturk made compulsory the study of Turkish history, whereby before schools taught the history of the Ottoman Empire and rule.  Ataturk wanted this idea of Turkish nationalism to remain and therefore he made sure that it was even absorbed from a young age, and so children in school were required to repeat; “I am a Turk, honest and diligent…”[11]

These were some of the most significant changes, however, Ataturk made alterations and reformation of all aspects of lives of the people, from political, social and economic.  

On assuming office, Atatürk initiated a series of radical reforms in the country's political, social, and economic life that aimed at rapidly transforming Turkey into a modern state. For him, modernization meant Westernization. On one level, a secular legal code, modeled along European lines, was introduced that completely altered laws affecting women, marriage, and family relations. On another level, Atatürk urged his countrymen to look and act like Europeans. Turks were encouraged to wear European-style clothing. Atatürk personally promoted ballroom dancing at official functions. Surnames were adopted: Mustafa Kemal, for example, became Kemal Atatürk, and Ismet Pasha took Inönü as his surname to commemorate his victories there during the War of Independence. Likewise, Atatürk insisted on cutting links with the past that he considered anachronistic. Titles of honor were abolished. The wearing of the fez, which had been introduced a century earlier as a modernizing reform to replace the turban, was outlawed because it had become for the nationalists a symbol of the reactionary Ottoman regime.

By 1928, Atatürk had implemented the reforms necessary for Turkey to become a secular state; he removed the constitutional provision decreeing Islam as the state religion, abolished the caliphate which was symbolic of the Sultanate's religious authority, eliminated all other Islamic institutions, introduced a Westernized system of law and dress, and also instituted the use of the Latin calendar and alphabet. As well, by 1934, women obtained the right to vote. All of these reforms, besides fostering the secularization of the state of Turkey, also emphasized Atatürk's desire to move Turkey toward its European influences.

Negative impact ataturk had

Positively, the press often opposes these laws, being seen as the voice of the conscience of the nation and trying to be a check on the government. This causes numerous government imposed shutdowns of press institutions and also causes many journalists to face state sponsored intimidation, fines, and prison time. Negatively and conversely, the press also often inverts and becomes the mouthpiece of governing political parties and of large corporations in order to receive social, political, and monetary benefits.

The use of the press and broadcasting stations as the organ of large corporations is currently a major concern in Turkey. Media centralization/concentration in the hands of ever fewer owners threatens the health of quality journalistic output and quality journalistic practice in the country and is also becoming detrimental to journalists' ability to maintain employment.


It is important to note that although Reza Shah of Iran implemented much of the same policies towards secularization as Ataturk, there were substantial differences between their regimes which are important to take into account.  Reza Shah failed to articulate his goals with the same level of clarity as Ataturk did, which was one of the significant factors that failed to give Iran enough room for progression in the western direction.  Another major downfall, which had major impact on the countries and the amount of success they experienced, was the fact that Ataturk’s government acquired legitimacy by the virtue of electoral victories; therefore he maintained the support of the people, alternatively Shah’s objective was to consolidate his own power.  Therefore, although both leaders proposed reformation to their countries, it was only in one country that they flourished and as a result left differing legacies in the field of political and economic cultures.  Consequently despite the ruthless nature of Ataturk’s rule, ultimately the policies that he implemented bought stability to a country that was not so long established.  It is held that it is Ataturk’s work and policies that placed Turkey on the correct path in joining the United Nations in 1945 and NATO membership in 1952.  these are both great examples of Ataturk’s success of his goals as Turkey has progressed to westernization.

At this point in time it is essential to consider the leadership style the Ataturk underwent, as it is this charisma that has enabled Turkey with strong building blocks to establish a strong-nation state, however, there were some negative impacts that were imposed as a result of his rule which I will discuss in more detail.


M. E. Yapp.  The Near East Since the First World War.  2nd Edition.  Page 155   (1996)

 Roderic Davidson.  Turkey, a Short History.  3rd Edition.  Page 147.  The Eothen Press.  (1998)

 Richard Robinson.  The First Turkish Republic.  Page 63.  Harvard University Press.  (1963)

Rod Hague and Martin Harrop.  Comparative Government Politics.  6th Edition.  (2004)  Palgrave Macmillan

Cyrus Ghani.  Iran and the Rise of Reza Shah.  I. B. Tauris Publishers.  (2000)

Political Leaders and Democracy in Turkey.  Edited by Metin Heper and Sabri Sayari.  Lexington Books.  (2002)

Men of Order.  Edited by Touraj Atabaki and Erik J. Zurcher.  I. B. Tauris Publishers.  (2004)

The Modern World.  Turkey: Volume VI.  Arnold J. Toynbee and Kenneth P. Kirkwood.  (1926)

[1] M. E. Yapp.  The Near East Since the First World War.  2nd Edition.  Page 155   (1996)

[2] M. E. Yapp.  The Near East Since the First World War.  2nd Edition.  Page 155.  (1996)

[3] M. E. Yapp.  The Near East Since the First World War.  2nd Edition.  Page 155.  (1996)

[4] M. E. Yapp.  The Near East Since the First World War.  2nd Edition.  Page 156.  (1996)

[5] Roderic Davidson.  Turkey, a Short History.  3rd Edition.  Page 147.  The Eothen Press.  (1998)

[6] Richard Robinson.  The First Turkish Republic.  Page 63.  Harvard University Press.  (1963)

[7] Richard Robinson.  The First Turkish Republic.  Page 28.  Harvard University Press.  (1963)

[8] Richard Robinson.  The First Turkish Republic.  Page 66.  Harvard University Press.  (1963)

[9] Roderic Davidson.  Turkey, a Short History.  3rd Edition.  Page 150.  The Eothen Press.  (1998)

[10] Roderic Davidson.  Turkey, a Short History.  3rd Edition.  Page 152.  The Eothen Press.  (1998)

[11] Roderic Davidson.  Turkey, a Short History.  3rd Edition.  Page 157.  The Eothen Press.  (1998)

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