How did Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nudge the Turkish people to leave behind their Ottoman ideologies

The Ottoman Empire found itself on the losing side of World War 1. And so, the Allied powers decided to break it down. The Ottoman Sultan would be able to rule Istanbul and parts of the Anatolian peninsula. But the rest of the empire would be divided by the British, French, Italians, and Greeks. And land would be given to the Kurds and the Armenians. 

When the Anatolian peninsula revolted, the Sultan sent Mustafa Kemal to sort them out. But Kemal instead revolted himself and helped the Anatolian soldiers reorganize themselves and started a resistance movement against the Ottoman empire and the Allies.

Kemal pushed the Greeks out over a period of 2 years. And took advantage of the Allies internal bickering. The Allies were more interested in making sure that none of them obtained more territory than in crushing Kemal’s rebellion. And so, after the Greeks were driven out of Anatolia, instead of uniting and collectively crushing Kemal, the Allies backed down individually, one by one. And on July 23, 1923, Turkey was officially recognized as a country!

Changing the Ottoman ideology

Mustafa Kemal separated the state from the religion. He abolished the Caliphate. And made Turkey a secular country. This made him a lot of enemies. Kemal himself was not against Islam or religion. He was just against fanaticism. And he wanted to rule. He knew that as long as the Caliphate existed as an institution, his rule would be undermined.

A lot of Kemal’s enemies were imprisoned and a few were even executed on trumped up charges. But imprisoning enemies and abolishing an institution is easy. How do you change the ideology of the masses that backs the institution?

Western countries have taken centuries to convert from theocracies to democracies. To become secular. Mustafa Kemal achieved the same thing in 15 short years.

One of the first things that Kemal did was a move inspired by Peter the Great. In the early 18th century, Tzar Peter wanted Russians to show him loyalty over the Orthodox Christian Church. And so, he started taxing everyone who kept a beard!

The Orthodox Church followers believed that Man is made in the image of God – which includes the beard. Shaving the beard is a grave sin. But when it came time to pay to keep the beard, a lot of people just shaved it off. This “choice” of theirs edged them closer to Peter the Great.

Kemal did something similar. To westernize his country and make it more European, to make the people feel more secular and less Islamic, he banned the fez hat. People had to stop wearing the fez hat that symbolized the Ottoman empire. And replace them with more western looking hats. (Kemal also discouraged women from wearing the veil, but didn’t outright ban it.)

Disconnecting the old

But it was the other thing he did that truly made people disconnect with the Ottoman empire and start seeing themselves as citizens of Turkey. Kemal banned the Arabic script and Latinized the Turkish alphabet!

In 1928, Kemal appointed an Alphabet commission and gave them the task of creating a new alphabet. The commission came back and told him that they would plan a 5 year transition period. During which, schools would start teaching the language (after the teachers first learnt it themselves). And newspapers would be printed in Arabic and the new alphabet side-by-side.

But Kemal rejected the plan. And told them: “the change will happen in three months, or it won’t happen at all!”

This caused quite a furor. But Kemal pushed it through. Civil servants were given a choice: either learn the new Latin alphabets or find a new job. Prisoners who would learn the new alphabet were given reduced sentences. Children picked up the Latin alphabet more quickly. And soon, the children were teaching their parents the new alphabet!

And because the Latin alphabet is a lot easier to learn than Arabic, a million Turks became literate within a year!

By 1931, Arabic script could hardly be found anywhere! This one change made the whole country feel anew. Feel like Turkey and not the remnants of the Ottoman empire.

In 1935, Mustafa Kemal was given the name Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: the father of Turks! Even when he passed away in 1938, there were no upheavals or aprisings. No one challenged anything he had done. Because people’s mindset had already changed. His policies and vision was carried forward by his deputy Ismet Inonu for the next 16 years without any hindrances!

Symbols have power

Ataturk realized the power of symbols. Symbols foster a group’s culture and identity. Change the symbols and you can change people’s mindset. You don’t have to challenge the person’s beliefs directly and make him antagonistic. You can just make him feel connected to different symbols and his ideology will change.

And that’s what Ataturk understood implicitly. He got people to change their clothing and their language. And the people’s thoughts changed and became more western!

So how do you harness the power of symbols? First understand what symbolism means. Anything that allows people to express themselves is symbolic: language, flags, songs and music, clothes, group names. Symbols help people express: “this is who I am!”

To make use of symbolism, you first have to decide the type of behavior you want to encourage from people around you. You have to decide what you stand for. And what you stand against. And then you have to think of the symbols that can be associated or disassociated with that behavior. 

Removing unwanted symbols

Legend has it that Muhammad Al-Dahr – a Sufi cleric – broke the nose of the Egyptian sphinx in the 13th century. Why? Because even though Egypt was largely a Muslim country since 647 AD, and they abhorred idol worship, people still worshipped the Sphinx and made offerings to it in hopes of controlling the flood cycle. Six centuries after changing their religion, the symbol of Sphinx still made people perform actions they didn’t wholeheartedly agree with. Because the symbol was just so grand!

Only by cracking the nose did people’s behavior change.

Fixating on the right symbols

In 1929, when the Indian National Congress demanded for complete freedom from the British, Congress leaders suggested that Indians should stop paying land revenue tax. But Mohandas Gandhi had other ideas. He decided to stop paying tax on salt. He marched for 24 days towards Dandi beach and made a pinch of his own salt.

Gandhi understood symbolism. Unlike land, salt affected every Indian – rich or poor. He got millions of Indians to join him in his movement because of it.

Action Summary:

  • Symbols have power. Symbols bind you. They make you feel connected. Symbols form the basis of culture. They help in reinforcing the identity of the people. So choose your symbols wisely.
  • Consciously work on crafting your symbols and your employees will stick with you. Your client’s thoughts will resonate with your message.
  • First ask: what behavior do you want to encourage. And then find elements that can express the emotion behind that. Go with something that the widest audience can associate with.