Kemalism, a possible solution to a more peaceful Middle East

Kemalism, a possible solution to a more peaceful Middle East
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ( 1881 – 1938 ), founder of the Kemalist ideoligy. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The end of the first Word War defined another geopolitical route for Turkey and forced by its own security needs not by foreign compulsion – it integrated a set of Western ideas dubbed “The six arrows” – “republicanism, populism, nationalism, secularism, statism” and “reformism- within the set of traditional values that had been in place for centuries. The result was Kemalism, which still answers the country’s security needs to this day. Given its characteristics, Kemalism may answer the necessities of the other Muslim societies as well.

Why would Kemalism answer the necessities of the other Muslim societies?

In most Middle Eastern states people still define themselves in terms of tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, language and customs. Western values such as “individualism, human rights” and “the relation between state and individuals” are not defined in the type of political Islamism promoted in places such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. The regimes in these countries reject Western values because they erode their authority and threaten their very survival and they promote Islamism because it allows them to legitimize themselves, to mobilize their population, to motivate economic backwardness and as a substitute to Ummah for social cohesion and political integration. This in turn maintains a certain level of cultural backwardness – different from one Islamic state to another – which leads to economic and social backwardness and inevitably perpetuates instability within the region.

This is why the Middle East needs more Western values, such as “secularism” and less Islamism, be it political, religious or radical Islamism. True, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon are secular states, but in all these cases the state has become an instrument which destroys social cohesion, religious unity and welfare population. In other words, they are not “Kemalistic” states.

Kemalism would provide Western ideas without abandoning traditional Islamic values. Equally important, it would do so in a peaceful manner because Western values would become a choice, not a set of ideas that are imposed. Ironically, it could also encourage the reaffirmation of other beneficial Islamic concepts, which have fallen into neglect, such as “Umma” – denotes a religious community, combining both the “nation” and the “religion” senses”-, concept which nowadays appears fragmented because of religious sectarianism and tribal relations.Kemalism also has the attribute of being adaptive. This is important because in some Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia or Oman, the notion of “republicanism” would be incompatible with the existing political framework, which could lead to Rejectionism. So Kemalism would have to be adapted to the characteristics of each Muslim society, case in which we’d talk about new forms of Kemalism, such as for example Syrian or Saudi Kemalism.

Turkey, a likely promoter of change

History has shown time and again that cultural differences make European and American attempts to insert Western ideas in the Middle East futile. Muslims do not see “The rule of law” as the answer to the political problems of the Middle East and “The secular state”and Democracy” are seen as corrupt instruments of power imposed by the former colonial states or as a result of the East – West conflict during the Cold War. Simply put the Muslims do not see the world through the spectrum of Western values. Being a Muslim state, with a long historical experience in the region and being culturally compatible with the other Muslim Middle Eastern societies, Turkey may be the only state in whose case Rejectionism has fewer chances to occur.

The Islamic Resurgence, the greatest obstacle in front of Kemalism

The Islamic Resurgence is Islam’s answer to the forced Westernization attempted by the colonial powers in the Middle East. It started in the 70’s and within 20 years or so it spread to virtually every Muslim country in the world to various degrees. Consequently, most of these countries embarked on a process of Islamization which still continues to this day. The Resurgence was an intellectual, cultural, social and political movement meantto reinstitute Islamic law in place of Western law and to reaffirm the superiority of Islamic values over Western values. Thus religion, tribal ancestry, language and customs were reaffirmed as the dominant values. They are the same traditional values which dominated Muslim societies for the last 1.400 years or even more. And tradition creates resistance to change. The Islamic Resurgence – promoted by the states or not – perpetuates this state of facts, which makes it the greatest obstacle standing in the way of Kemalism.

How could Kemalism spread naturally?

As I see it there are two possible ways to do that. Both are however difficult to achieve at this particular time or in the near future.

  • A strategic partnership in the Middle East

A construction such as a strategic partnership would ensure the spreading of Kemalism in the Middle East, while Kemalism would be a continuous support for a strategic partnership among Muslim countries.So we’re talking about a symbiotic relationship between ideology and a geopolitical construction in the Middle East, which would ensure a certain level of cooperation between its members and thus to more stability.

  • The “Economic Muslim Union”

The second way Kemalism could spread naturally could be through the means of a political-economic union between most – or all – Middle Eastern states, by following the model of the European construction process. With all its political and economic problems, the European Economic Community has in fact achieved its purpose, which was to prevent another major European war by creating an economic and political interdependency between France and Germany. But it has not just achieved peace, it also promoted economic prosperity and not just for a tight group of people, but for whole countries. And economic prosperity is a pre-condition to the modification of the social structures and subsequently to intellectual interchange and scientific thought, like those that took place during the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment.

By following the European model, an “Economic Muslim Union” based on economic and political interdependency between Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia – as improbable as that may sound right now – could in time lead to economic prosperity in these countries and in the countries in between. Economic prosperity would lead to modifications within the social structures, which in turn would lead to the adoption of at least some Western ideas. This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that a population which has achieved a certain level of prosperity will inevitably demand values such as proper governance. It is simply a natural process. At this point we would see the gradual emergence of Kemalism in these societies.


Even before Ataturk, Turkey had been influenced by the hundreds of years in which it existed next door to Western culture. Ataturk was not even the first leader to have attempted a modernization of the Turkish state using Western ideas. Previous sultans tried to do the same thing during the Tanzimât period between 1839 and 1876, but ultimately those reforms were insufficient from preventing the Ottoman state from collapsing. By drawing the lessons of this history we could assume that the adaptation of the Muslim Middle Eastern societies would not happen suddenly and it would meet stiff resistance from a great variety of groups which would see their interests threatened and which occasionally might even reverse the process. But we must not forget that even in Turkey’s case that happened.

Turkey was not an exception to the Islamic Resurgence either, but it had a much smaller impact than in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran or any other Muslim country for that matter. That happened because Kemalism had been in place for decades before the Resurgence began. This is why Turkey is still not an Islamic state and based on the country’s evolution we can predict that it will not become so in the future either, not even with the Justice and Development Party – which at its origins is an Islamic party – in charge of the country, who could not Islamize the country too much even if it wanted to. Over 90 years of Kemalism that led to the development of a strong sense of national identity in Turkey prevent any such endeavors. That was in fact one of Kemalism’s six purposes. And it achieved it without abandoning traditional values. This is why nowadays the Turks identify themselves first and foremost as Turkish, not as Sunnis, a rare thing in the Muslim world.

One way or the other Kemalism is preferable to Islamism and we have the Syrian civil war and the Islamic State as proofs of that. And Kemalism makes Turkey the closest thing you can get to the concept of Islamic democracy”, which King Hussein of Jordan said would lead to a “modernizing Islam”.

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