The definition of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as a modern Western leader is actually reminiscent of an Eastern way of thinking. Like Peter the Great, he dreamt of becoming Western and developed his visions into giant social engineering projects.
Peter the Great had a startling intelligence and propensity for hard work. In disgust over the onion-shaped towers in Russia, he set about the westernization of St. Petersburg – as well as everything that was traditional and old – even though this endeavor claimed the lives of tens of thousands of slaves.
Behind this attitude was a mix of admiration and anger for the West. The West did something. It re-created Paradise on earth. It did so by using reason, and making Reason the new god. The West had banished the Creator from its territories and enthroned Reason, giving the world's leadership over to it. The result was clear and undisputed: Reason seemed to have granted the Promised Lands in this world to those who worshipped it.
Western humanism faced defeat in World War I and again had to accept it in World War II because those Promised Lands had turned into a slaughterhouse. “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” realized Theodor Adorno and demanded that Western civilization confront its violence. This applied to Max Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School as well.
Just as the power play over religion and the abstract world had gone bankrupt, the world conquest that relied on Reason had drowned in blood and genocide. The West, which had begun with its own universe, during post-modern times dismantled its structure to the foundation and set about analyzing its faulty beams and columns.
In our country, on the other hand, positivist and Jacobin social engineering efforts were being waged with a Pharaoh-like ambition. Just as we had missed the modern age, we were missing the post-modern age as well. Rather, we were trying to wear the old clothes discarded by the West. Criticisms voiced by Adorno, Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School did not reach the brains of our secularists. They were still getting dressed.
In this light, we should realize that the movement started by the National Order (Milli Nizam) and Necmettin Erbakan in the 1970s – represented for awhile by Turgut Özal – that re-emerged as the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in the early 2000s, is how this critique is being made on our soil.
Kemalists failed to perform this critique because "change" was not what they had created. Turkey's Muslims, among others, suffered greatly from these attempts at social engineering, which were partially successful. However, as Muslims were just whom Kemalists wished to change with their engineering efforts and were therefore at the opposite end of the process, few were drawn to Kemalist ideals.
As such, it is not surprising to see that Turkey's devout showed the strongest opposition to Kemalism, equaling them in strength. Turkey's Muslims are suis generis. Yes, they have changed, but they have not been transformed into what Kemalists wanted them to be. In opposition, they had the voice to say "stop." Their criticism of the state could come only from Islam and the light of God. Religion assumed a liberating role in the face of decaying Kemalism.
The reasons are clear. Kemalism was very successful in transforming and taming all social opposition by drawing comparisons between the opposition and itself. The neo-nationalist left and nationalist conservatism are Kemalists' Frankenstein monsters. Islam, on the other hand, survived as the most powerful structure that could oppose Kemalism. Muslims were modernized and suffered crises under Kemalist rule. They saw occasional defeats. In the end, though, they found a lighthouse in Islam that would continue to offer them guidance.
This was a great event for Turkey – a miracle, even. Muslims were able to bring about the democratization of this country, not only because they relied on their religion as a source of power, but because they were victimized and made into a group labeled “others” because of their religion. In this way, they could stand outside the system and free from complicity. The Kemalists' hatred and fear of Muslims actually prevented their conversion to Kemalist ideals, allowing Muslims to slowly grow into a strong oppositional force. This will be the downfall of Kemalism and beginning of our chance.