In Turkey "there are portraits of Ataturk everywhere," Eric Lawlor writes. "Young Ataturk, old Ataturk...Ataturk the teacher, the soldier, the statesman. Ataturk in tweeds. Ataturk in flannels. Ataturk in a top hat." Turkey's astonishing leader fit all these parts, but as his name implies (Ataturk means "Father Turk") he was more than anything else the stern but essentially benign father of his country.
A war hero (for beating back the British at Gallipoli in 1915) he took power in 1923, founding the Turkish Republic. At the time Turkey was a backward country straddling Europe and Asia, just emerging from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and World War I, in which it had unwisely sided with Germany. Its schools, laws and politics were dominated by Muslim clerics. Eighty percent of the people could not read. Women had few rights. Ataturk tried to change all that, and much more, and mostly he succeeded. Once, when he was asked why he rarely smiled, he said, "Isn't modernizing a nation a serious business?"
In a little more than ten years he did the work of ten centuries. He got rid of the sultanate, exiled the caliph, and closed the religious courts, thus, unique in the Middle East, separating religion from politics. He banned the fez, symbol of traditional orthodoxy, instituted the European weekend, outlawed polygamy and championed women's rights. Today's Tansu Ciller, Turkey's bright, young, forward-looking prime minister is one of the few women heading a government in the Middle East or Asia.
When Ataturk died in 1938 Turkey was well on its way to becoming a Europeanized nation, which was what Ataturk wanted. In recent years it has joined NATO and signed economic agreements with the European Union. But Ataturk's Western reforms are now threatened by the rising political power of the Islamic fundamentalist Welfare Party.