If I asked you to name the important events of the early 20th century, you’d probably mention the start of World War I in 1914, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the stock market crash in 1929, and Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1933.
But for millions of people around the world, the most consequential year was 1924. That was when the last caliph – Islam’s supreme religious and political leader, the Prophet Mohammed’s heir -- was deposed, the 1,400-year-old institution of the caliphate abolished and all members of the Ottoman dynasty sent into exile.
This was the moment in history when, as Osama bin Laden phrased it, “the whole Islamic world fell under the Crusader banner.” Three months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s chief ideologue/theologian, now bin Laden’s successor, wrote that the “hope of the Muslim nation [is] to reinstate its fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory.”
The man most responsible for abolishing the caliphate -- despised by Islamists everywhere -- was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the subject of a timely new biography by military historian and columnist Austin Bay.
Bay focuses on Atatürk’s military achievements which, he argues, have been neglected West. But reading his fascinating book, two questions struck me as pivotal to understanding the war being waged on the West not just by al-Qaeda but by a long list of jihadi groups (the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Shabaab, Hezbollah, Hamas to name just a few) and a short list of jihadi regimes (the Islamic Republic of Iran primary among them). The first question: Why did Atatürk consign the caliphate to the dustbin of history? The second question: Would those reasons apply today?
Bay points out that Atatürk was the “only undefeated general of the Ottoman empire.” Nevertheless, he went on to reject “Ottoman imperialism and colonialism” which could be called, with equal accuracy, Muslim imperialism and colonialism. As a cadet and young officer, he was “schooled on Europe’s technological, cultural, and educational advances…” He learned French which he considered “the language of culture and progress.” He was inspired by the European ideal of freedom and liberal constitutionalism.
When he came to power, Atatürk determined to remake the broken heartland of the Ottoman Empire as a Westernized nation-state.