Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
29 June - 5 July 2000
Issue No. 488
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A Diwan of contemporary life (344)

When Turkey was born, it immediately set out to sever its umbilical cord. Istanbul had fallen to the Ottomans more than 450 years earlier. The Allies occupied parts of Turkey when Turkey waved the white flag of surrender at the end of World War I. Mustafa Kemal sought to erase the last remnants of power and influence the dying empire and the allied forces had had on the country. As with all nascent nations, Turkey suffered its share of birth pangs, in this case the form and shape its constitution would take, how secular or otherwise its people would be and where the seat of its power would lie. Al-Ahram, writes Dr Yunan Labib Rizk*, covered all three aspects for an Egyptian public watching Turkey grow up

New Turkey

PashaOn 8 October 1923, Al-Ahram blared the People's Party decision to declare Turkey a republic following what the newspaper described as a "republican coup d'état". The new republic would have Ankara as its capital, a move loaded with symbolism.

Istanbul, originally Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman sultan Mohamed the Conqueror on 29 May 1453. The conquest of the ancient Byzantine capital marked the end of the long confrontation with the eastern Roman Empire, which had long served as a launch pad for crusader incursions into the Levant. By the early 16th century, Istanbul had brought Syria, Egypt and western Arabia under Ottoman control, transforming it into the seat of the Islamic caliphate, a transformation epitomised by the conversion of the famous Christian symbol, Haghia Sophia, into a mosque. These conquests established the nascent Ottoman Empire as the principle military and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. It was not long before Ottoman forces turned northwards, gradually bringing under their wing most of southeastern Europe until they reached the gates of Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the greatest European power of that age. This frontier remained the boundary of the northern extension of the empire for more than two centuries, until the Russian-Turkish war (1768-74) brought the Ottomans' first major military defeat, after which the tables were turned and there began the gradual erosion of their European possessions.

The relocation of the Turkish capital from Istanbul, with all its historical and religious implications, to Ankara, a city of a relatively obscure past in the heart of Anatolia, ushered in a new era in Turkish history. No longer would the state pit itself against Europe, whether offensively as what occurred until 1774 or as occurred thereafter when it took a defensive posture. Rather, Ankara would enter a relationship of a different nature, founded upon its disassociation from the East and the Islamic world and its bid to affiliate itself with its former enemies.

Nevertheless, it would take some time before this transition came about and the Egyptian press watched closely as these developments unfolded. The centuries-long relationship between Cairo and Istanbul that began in 1517 had left a profound impression on the Egyptian consciousness, and it was only natural that the newspapers, and Al-Ahram in particular, would allocate considerable space to the at times subtle and other times dramatic events that took place on the banks of the Bosphorus and in the Anatolian heartland.

When Turkey surrendered at the end of World War I, the allied forces occupied parts of Turkey. The French declared a protectorate over Kalikiya, the Italians over Adalya and the Greeks over Izmir. British forces, meanwhile, occupied Istanbul itself, taking over the Ministries of War and the Navy, and all communications authorities and services. In response, Mustafa Kemal, inspector-general of the 9th Army, disobeyed the sultan's order to return to Istanbul and rallied the Turks in Anatolia against the Allies. His campaign succeeded in routing the Greek forces, bringing the Turkish forces to the point of confrontation with the other allied forces. The standoff was resolved in an armistice agreement in Mudanya; other substantive issues were ultimately resolved in the Lausanne Peace Conference in July 1923.

Essentially Kemal obtained what he had bargained for -- an independent Turkish state based in Anatolia, but that would eventually take possession of Constantinople, the Dardenelles and eastern Thrace in the wake of the departing allied armies. But in Lausanne, Ankara also put its seal on the end of Turkey's relations with all of the Ottoman Empire's former possessions in the Arab world, from the Tigris-Euphrates valley, through Syria, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, to Egypt and Sudan. Henceforth, Turkey would be confined to Asia Minor, with a small annex in Europe. It was as though the new Turkish government under Mustafa Kemal had already resolved to rid itself of the past.

Perhaps the crowning achievement to this transition occurred on 4 November 1922, when the Kemalist government deposed Sultan Mohamed VI, ending more than six centuries of Ottoman rule. Yet the final death throes of the Ottoman Empire lasted another 16 months. Although the nationalist regime deposed the last of the Ottoman sultans, it, nevertheless, retained the Turkish caliphate. On 24 November 1922, Ankara designated one of the more amenable members of the Ottoman house, Prince Abdel-Majid, as Mohamed VI's successor to the caliphate, legitimising his appointment through a speedily conducted rite of succession. Whatever dreams Abdel-Majid might have had of securing greater power were short-lived. In March 1924, he was deposed and the Ottoman caliphate abolished.

But during the previous interval there had been signs of the imminent end, whether in the actions of Mustafa Kemal himself or in the resolutions adopted by the National Assembly. Perhaps the most important development had been the elections for the National Assembly, which brought in a majority of Kemalists enough to strike the final blow to the dying empire. Not that the Kemalist majority was about to brook any opposition. To strengthen their hand, they barred "all members who did not declare their support for the new constitution" from entering the assembly. They also passed a law "leveling the penalty of high treason on anyone who refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Great National Assembly or the principle of national sovereignty, or supported the restoration of the sultanate." In addition, the Kemalists formed themselves into a new party -- The People's Party -- to counter the Union of Advancement and Progress that had taken over effective power in Istanbul in 1908 and that was held responsible for steering Turkey into the disastrous alliance with the Central Powers in World War I which ended with Turkey's ignominious defeat.

Certainly the Turkish people must have known that major changes were afoot when, on 14 July 1923, it was announced that "the headquarters of government will remain in Ankara." Until then, the commonly held view was that the government would only remain in that small inland town pending the resolution of affairs concerning the allied occupation of certain areas of Turkey. But that Ankara's temporary status was not terminated once these affairs were settled had many baffled. Al-Ahram's special correspondent in Istanbul attempted an explanation. "It was presumed for some time that the political circles surrounding Mustafa Kemal Pasha would choose to remain in the Anatolian city. After three years of residence there, the parliamentary deputies and senior military officers have become accustomed to it as the new residence for the Turkish government, particularly now that Ankara possesses all that is necessary to serve as the nation's capital instead of Istanbul."

However, the correspondent's explanation is not entirely convincing. It is highly unlikely that the Kemalists' whims alone would account for the radical shift away from the nation's ancient capital on the Bosphorus. At any rate, the correspondent may well have retracted his view as he observed later developments he had not foreseen.

Latifa Mustafa Kemal and Latifa Hanem make for a rather conservative couple
They opt for more casual, leisure attire, after shedding more than just their inhibitions at a very unconventional wedding
In September 1923, Kemal issued several statements to the effect that Turkey must become a republic with a "people's government." These were no idle words, as two subsequent Al-Ahram reports bore out. On 27 September, the newspaper reported that the government in Ankara had "suddenly" issued a resolution to transform the form of government in Turkey to a republic and that Turkish newspapers were divided on the issue. Tanin supported the creation of a republic, with its capital in Istanbul and modelled after that in France, in which the powers of the president were restricted. Tawhid Afkar, on the other hand, argued that the republican system of government did not conform to Ankara's declared principle of national sovereignty. "As for the other newspapers," Al-Ahram continues, "they support the decision and rejoice that the question of the form of government has been determined and that Kemal Pasha shall be president of the republic."

On 28 September, Al-Ahram discussed the shape of the republic to come in further detail. The Turkish constitution would be thoroughly amended to permit the formation of the new system of government, the first president of which would be Mustafa Kemal. It continued, "The term of membership in the National Assembly will be four years, it will meet for five or six months a year, and will delegate broad powers to the ministers."

If any further doubts remained about the future shape of Turkey's government they were put to rest in October 1923, when the parliamentary commission of the People's Party moved to introduce a bill to change the name of the country to the Turkish Republic and to retain Ankara as its capital.

On 8 October Al-Ahram commented on this development under the headline, "The Republican Coup." The new system of government, it wrote, will take elements from all known republican systems. "Its president will be accorded the vast powers granted to the president of the United States, its National Assembly will have the power vested in the Russian Soviet Council and the president of the Turkish republic will be elected by the parliament in the manner that takes place in France."

Al-Ahram's commentary predicted that Kemal would be elected as the new republic's first president "by a unanimous vote, in view of the absence of any rival to that position and in view of his great popularity in the country." It added, "True, some opposition has begun to evince itself in the National Assembly, but it is still very minor, voicing no more than some isolated criticism of some of the government's actions." In spite of the criticism, the writer believed Kemal to be a true patriot and visionary. "As long as God grants him a long life, he will bring to the Turkish Republic a great future, restoring to it the glory of the Ottoman Sultanate in the days of its brilliance. He will raise the country to the ranks of advanced nations, to a pillar of civilisation in the world, to become a model for the peoples of the East who yearn for freedom, independence, progress and advancement."

At 6.00pm. on Wednesday 29 October 1923, the National Assembly met in Ankara. After the assembled members (158 members) had discussed some side issues, one of the members proclaimed, "The Turkish people do not want to bow to a man with a crown. They want to be master of their own fate and to steer the course of Turkey, the republic. All who believe otherwise are pro-monarchists and merit destruction and death."

The call was hailed by other members, and after more speeches of this nature, the assembly adopted two resolutions. The first was that "Turkey shall be declared a republic, with Islam its religion and Turkish its official language. The president of the Republic shall be elected by the assembly from among its members. His term of office shall equal the electoral term of the assembly, and in this capacity he shall chair the Great National Assembly. The prime minister shall select his cabinet from among the members of the assembly as well."

The second resolution stated, "The assembly has elected by unanimous vote Mustafa Kemal Pasha as president of the Republic."

Observers were struck by the fact that the resolution conferred upon a single individual, both the presidency and the chairmanship of the assembly, thus blurring the bounds between the legislative and executive authorities. The deputies who supported this constitution contended that they were determined not to have as their head of state a man without power, a mere figurehead. Rather, as Al-Ahram reported, "they want the president of the Republic to be a real head of government."

Observers were also surprised at the resolve with which Ankara was chosen as the seat of the new republic. Under the headline, "Between Ankara and Istanbul, or between the old Turkey and the new," Al-Ahram denied reports in Istanbul that Kemal's influence had begun to ebb. It also said that when its correspondent visited the new capital, he observed that there were many government bureaucrats and civil servants and that "they are paid regularly." This was clearly a certificate of good health, for the correspondent said, "At no time in the past has the government of Turkey been better than it is now." But he did not find the stability in the capital all that remarkable. "The people here have great faith in one another, and thus believe what they hear and could never be said to be resentful of the government. Whatever shortcomings the new government may have, they are far fewer than the flaws of all governments that Turkey has had up to now put together."

AN INFANT REPUBLIC IN ANKARA and a caliph descendant from the old Ottoman crown in Istanbul was a curiosity that would last another five months, until March 1924. Clearly, Kemal wanted to tread carefully before taking a decision that would arouse the wrath of conservative elements in Istanbul and, perhaps, alienate the rest of the Islamic world. The new government still had to establish itself on a solid footing, and, in all events, Sultan Abdel-Majid posed no real threat.

In fact, one body of opinion contended that the continuation of the caliphate could be to Turkey's advantage. According to Tanin, the prevalent opinion in Ankara was that "the preservation of a strong caliphate will enhance Turkey's powerful influence in the Islamic world, which, in turn, can bring great benefit. As the protector and standard-bearer of Islam, Turkey can generate a powerful force upon which to rely in its foreign policy."

It is difficult to determine how widespread this view was in Turkey, but it seems apparent from some of Kemal's actions that he did not overly welcome it. Perhaps his marriage to one Latifa Hanem in January 1923 best served as an indicator that Turkey's new leader was determined to put the past to rest. Covering the ceremony, Al-Ahram relates that, as the nuptial couple stood face to face before the podium, "surrounded by witnesses," Mustafa Kemal Pasha addressed the judge, saying, "Your Honour, we have decided to marry Latifa Hanem. Please perform the necessary procedures." The account continues, "The judge turned to the bride and asked, 'Do you, Latifa Hanem, take Mustafa Pasha as your husband?' Latifa answered, 'I do.' And, with no further ado the marriage was concluded."

If this brief, unconventional wedding ceremony raised eyebrows in the Islamic world, the behaviour of the newlyweds would cause even greater consternation. Al-Ahram comments that Latifa, "contrary to Islamic customs," accompanied her husband everywhere he went. Further yet, "she wears breaches, which are generally worn for the practice of sports, and yellow shoes, and she rides a horse and reviews the troops alongside her husband." More amazing yet was that, on one occasion, Latifa accompanied her husband to the National Assembly, where "she stepped up to the gallery designated for ambassadors and was received with great fanfare. Then she descended to the assembly hall, where she was greeted by all members of the council one at a time."

But if anything suggested that Kemal was soon to abolish the caliphate, in spite of the reservations of his supporters, it was the publication, in the summer of 1923, of The Caliphate and National Authority. Of anonymous authorship, Al-Ahram surmised that the book had been commissioned by the intelligence agency in Ankara, at the behest of Kemal.

Following a brief introduction reviewing the divergent Islamic schools of thought on the necessity of the caliphate, the author concluded that the caliph must be a descendant of the Quraysh tribe and that the post itself was a form of power of attorney. What Al-Ahram described as the essence of the book appeared in the second chapter, discussing the difference between the two concepts of the caliphate and power arguing "the legitimacy of the actions Ankara has taken with regard to the Islamic caliphate, provisions for which are not a religious issue but secular and political."

The book says the true caliph must "possess all necessary virtues and attributes, be chosen by the people and invested with their full will and consent, and be devoid of worldly ends and various personal ambitions." Such a person, it claims, does not exist, and has not existed since the four "Rightly Guided" caliphs who immediately succeeded the Prophet. The conclusion in short is that the existence of the caliphate is not an integral tenet of Islam.

In addition to using this book to rock the belief in the necessity of the caliphate, the Kemalists began to propagate the notion that the republican system was closer to the spirit of Islam. In a republic, they said, "the people gain greater glory, further advancement in the sciences, industries and the arts, and have greater strength in faith, because every individual feels his existence in society and sees himself working for the general good." They also claimed that the defenders of the republic were closer to God, proof of which could be seen in how the sultan and caliph forfeited the rights of the nation in the Treaty of Sevres, whereas they had succeeded in stopping foreign encroachment.

Soon the intentions of Ankara, as chronicled in Al-Ahram, became increasingly evident. Sheikh Mustafa Fawzi, the Turkish minister of Shari'a (Islamic law) made a two-week visit to Istanbul without once having met the caliph. A People's Party commission subjected a Turkish admiral to a lengthy interrogation because of a visit he paid to the caliph. It was said that such visits serve to strengthen the status of Abdel-Majid "at a time when republican rule has not yet taken firm root in the country." Commenting on the incident, Al-Ahram wrote that association with the caliph aroused the suspicion and censor of the Kemalists.

It was not surprising, in view of these indications, that on 2 March, the People's Party issued three resolutions, the effect of which was to create a secular republic. The first called for the deposition of the caliph, the abolishment of the caliphate and the expulsion of all members of the Ottoman house from Turkey within 10 days. The members of the former ruling family would henceforth be deprived of all rights of Turkish citizenship and all their palaces would be sequestrated. The second resolution abolished the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) and empowered the president to appoint a head of Islamic affairs, a position that would be subsidiary to the premiership. The third abolished religious schools in order to unify the educational system and bring all schools and academies under the Ministry of Education. This ministry, in turn, would be responsible for creating a body of religious scholars to engage and train specialists in religious affairs and education.

The resolutions were brought before the National Assembly. As expected, they were passed "against a very weak opposition," as Al-Ahram observed. In Dolmabahce Palace where Abdel-Majid resided, the last of the Ottoman caliphs surrendered to his fate. Nevertheless, he made one final plea to Ankara "not to exile the descendants of the dynasty that ruled Turkey for six centuries," and not to abolish the caliphate, so as "not to give credence to the foreigners' claim that Islam is an obstacle in the path of progress and civilisation." Needless to say, his appeal fell on deaf ears. As the curtain drew to a close on the end of the Ottoman caliphate, Abdel-Majid and his family were being escorted out of the country under heavy guard, as Mustafa Kemal moved into Dolmabahce Palace for a few days to celebrate the victory of the republic.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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