Atatürk’s Reforms

Atatürk’s Reforms (Turkish: Atatürk Devrimleri) were a series of political, legal, cultural, social and economic reforms that were designed to modernize the new Republic of Turkey into a democratic and secular nation-state. They were implemented under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in accordance with Kemalist ideology.

The reform movement began with the modernization of the constitution, including enacting the new Constitution of 1924, and the adaptation of European laws and jurisprudence to the needs of the new republic. This was followed by a thorough secularization and modernization of the administration, with particular focus on the education system. The development of industry was promoted by strategies such as import substitution and the founding of state enterprises and state banks. Central to these reforms were the belief that Turkish society would have to Westernize itself both politically and culturally in order to modernize.

Political reforms

Until the moment the republic was formally proclaimed, the Ottoman Empire was still in existence, with its heritage of religious and dynastic authority. The dynasty was abolished by the Ankara Government, but its traditions and cultural symbols remained active among the people (though less so among the elite). Atatürk’s political reforms involved a number of fundamental institutional changes that would see the end of these traditions, and a carefully planned program of political change was implemented to unravel the complex system that had developed over the centuries.

Not only were all the social institutions of Turkish society reorganized, but the social and political values of the state were replaced as well. This new, secular state ideology was to become known as Kemalism, and it is the basis of the democratic Turkish republic. Since the establishment of the republic the Turkish military has perceived itself as the guardian of Kemalism, and it has intervened in Turkish politics to that end on several occasions, including the overthrow of civilian governments by coup d’état. While this may seem contrary to democratic ideals, it was argued by military authorities and secularists as necessary in the light of Turkish history, ongoing efforts to maintain secular government, and the fact that the reforms were implemented at a time when the military occupied 16.9% of the professional job positions (the corresponding figure today is only 3%).

Establishment of the Republic

The most fundamental reforms allowed the Turkish nation to exercise popular sovereignty through representative democracy. This involved dissolving the two main offices that had claims over the sovereignty of the people; the Ottoman Dynasty on November 1, 1922, and the Caliphate on March 3, 1924. Following the latter, the Sultan and his family were declared personae non gratae of Turkey and exiled.

Those ancient institutions were replaced by the Turkish Republic (“Türkiye Cumhuriyeti”) that was proclaimed on October 29, 1923 by the Turkish Grand National Assembly by a law, and subsequently by adoption of the Constitution of 1924. The bicameral system of the Ottoman Empire — composed of an Upper House of viziers, assigned by the Sultan, and a Lower House of deputies selected by two-level elections — was dissolved, which had already been defunct since the Allied Invasion of Istanbul in 1920 and consequently, the foundation of the Turkish Grand National Assembly the same year. The new system, which gave primacy to national independence and popular sovereignty, established the offices of Prime Minister and President while placing legislative power within a unicameral Grand National Assembly. The Assembly was elected by direct election using a type of proportional representation.

The establishment of the Republic did not mean the end of reform, as Atatürk and his fellow ‘revolutionaries’ continually presented their reform agenda before the National Assembly, the only body with authority to approve the necessary laws.

The direct involvement of the executive at this level of the legislative process may have been contrary to the spirit if not the letter of the new constitution (and the concept of the separation of power expected within a representative democracy), but it was legitimised by the ongoing approval of the electorate. Through this, at least at the legislative level, the fledgling democracy developed while awaiting the true multi-party elections that were to take place in 1946.


The establishment of popular sovereignty involved confronting centuries-old traditions. As such, the reform process was characterized by a struggle between progressives and conservatives; on one side Atatürk and his reform-minded liberal elite, on the other the broad mass of uneducated, conservative common people.

The changes meant the end of the millet system of religious/ethnic communities. The people of each millet had traditionally enjoyed a degree of autonomy, with their own leadership, collecting their own taxes and living according to their own system of religious/cultural law. Under the Kemalist reforms official recognition of the Ottoman millets was withdrawn. It was replaced by a common, secular authority. Many of the religious communities failed to adjust to the new regime This was exacerbated by the emigration or impoverishment, due to deteriorating economic conditions, of families that hitherto had financially supported community institutions such as hospitals and schools.

The secularism of the Kemalism is not antitheistic or anti-Islamic. In fact, the Kemalist state’s support for Islam was demonstrated by the establishment of Directorate for Religious Affairs (Turkish: Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı), created “to execute the works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshipping places”. This is also true for other religions. It acted firmly against anti-religious acts. The government asserted the equality of religions and free worship rights of all Turkish citizens in their own private space to the protection of the Republic. The state protected freedom of worship while itself standing aloof of any form of religious influence. Kemalist ideology‎ targeted political Islam, but it posed a threat to the independence of the state and its ability to govern with equal concern for all.

The changes were both conceptually radical and culturally significant. The religious education system was replaced by a national education system on March 3, 1924, and the office of caliphate, held by the Ottomans since 1517, was abolished on the same day. The Islamic courts and Islamic canon law gave way to a secular law structure based on the Swiss Civil Code.

Social reforms

The Kemalist reforms brought effective social change on education, by establishing a public education system, and women’s suffrage. However, attempts to reform the Ottoman system of feudalism (Turkish: Ağalık) were less well-received. Some social institutions had religious overtones, and held considerable influence over public life.

Religious insignia

The Ottoman Empire had a social system based on religious affiliation and religious insignia extended to every social function. It was common to wear clothing that identified the person with their own particular religious grouping and accompanied headgear which distinguish “rank”, “profession” throughout the Ottoman Empire. The turbans, fezes, bonnets and head-dresses surmounting Ottoman styles show the “sex”, “rank” and “profession” (both civil and military). These styles were accompanied with a strict regulation beginning with the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent. Sultan Mahmud II followed on the example of Peter the Great in Russia in modernizing the Empire and used the dress code of 1826 which developed the symbols (classifications) of feudalism among the public. Kemalist view of change, like the Reforms of Peter I of Russia or Sultan Mahmud II, was achieved through introduction of the progressive customs by decrees, while banning the traditional customs. The view of their social change proposed; if the permanence of secularism was to be assured by removal of persistence of traditional cultural values (the religious insignia), a considerable degree of cultural receptivity by the public to the further social change could be achieved. The “dress code” give a chance for removal of persistence of traditional values in the society.

Kemalists defined a non-civilized (non-scientific, non-positivist) person as one who functioned within the boundaries of superstition. The ulema was not a scientific group, and it was acting according to superstitions developed throughout centuries. Their name was “Gerici“. On February 25, 1925 parliament passed a law stating that religion was not to be used as a tool in politics. The question became how this law could be brought to life in a country whose scholars are dominated by the ulema. Kemalist ideology waged a war against superstition by banning the practices of the ulema and promoting the civilized way (“westernization”), with establishing lawyers, teachers, doctors. The ban on the ulema’s social existence came in the form of “dress code.” The strategic goal was to change the large influence of the ulema over politics by removing them from the social arena. However, there was the danger of being perceived as anti-religious. Kemalists defended themselves by stating “Islam viewed all forms of superstition (non-scientific) nonreligious”. The ulema’s power was established during the Ottoman Empire with the conception that secular institutions were all subordinate to religion; the ulema were emblems of religious piety, and therefore rendering them powerful over state affairs. Kemalists claimed “the state will be ruled by positivism not superstition.” A good example was the practice of medicine. Kemalists wanted to get rid of superstition extending to herbal medicine, potion, and religious therapy for mental illness, all of which were practised by the ulema. They excoriated those who used herbal medicine, potions, and balms, and instituted penalties against the religious men who claimed they have a say in health and medicine. On September 1, 1925, the first Turkish Medical Congress was assembled, which was only four days after Mustafa Kemal was seen on August 27 at Inebolu wearing a modern hat and one day after the Kastamonu speech on August 30.

Official measures were gradually introduced to eliminate the wearing of religious clothing and other overt signs of religious affiliation. Beginning in 1923, a series of laws progressively limited the wearing of selected items of traditional clothing. Mustafa Kemal first made the hat compulsory to the civil servants. The guidelines for the proper dressing of students and state employees (public space controlled by state) was passed during his lifetime. After most of the relatively better educated civil servants adopted the hat with their own he gradually moved further. The Hat Law of 1925 introduced the use of Western style hats instead of the fez. Legislation did not explicitly prohibit veils or headscarves and focused instead on banning fezzes and turbans for men.

Another control on the dress was passed in 1934 with the law relating to the wearing of ‘Prohibited Garments’. It banned religion-based clothing, such as the veil and turban, while actively promoting western-style attire.

Convents and dervish lodges

Social change also included centuries old religious social structures that has been deeply rooted within the society, some are established within the state organisation of the Ottoman Empire. The abolishment of caliphate position removed the highest religious-political position at the government level, but left the Muslim brotherhoods (Muslim associations for any purpose, working as a society of Muslim believers) who were institutionalized under convents and dervish lodges, which were the official establishment of the extension of political power among the society without any organizing structure. By enactment of the law related to religious covenants and dervish lodges, such institutions declared totally illegal.

Women’s rights

The reforms in the Turkish civil code, including those affecting women’s suffrage, were “breakthroughs not only within the Islamic world but also in the western world”.

Legal equality between the sexes was instituted between 1926–1934 with changes to a multitude of rules and regulations. Women gained many rights for the first time, including the rights to vote.

Turkish women’s rights campaigners differed from their sisters (and sympathetic brothers) in other countries. Rather than fighting directly for their basic rights and equality, they saw their best chance in the promotion and maintenance of Kemalist reform, with its espousal of secular values and equalit

Legal reforms

The Ottoman Empire was a religious empire in which each religious community enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. Each millet had an internal system of governance based upon its religious law, such as Sharia, Catholic Canon law, or Jewish Halakha.

The leading legal reforms instituted by Mustafa Kemal included a secular constitution (laïcité) with the complete separation of government and religious affairs, the replacement of Islamic courts and Islamic canon law with a secular civil code based on the Swiss model, and a penal code based on that of Italy (1924–37). The reforms also instituted legal equality and full political rights for both sexes December 5, 1934, well before several other European nations.

In 1920, and today, the Islamic Law does not contain provisions regulating the sundry relationships of “political institutions” and “commercial transactions”. The Ottoman Empire dissolved not only because of its outdated systems, but also its traditions were not applicable to the demands of its time. For example, the rules relating to “criminal cases” which were shaped under Islamic Law were limited in serving their purpose adequately. Beginning with the 19th century, the Ottoman Islamic codes and legal provisions generally were impracticable in dealing with the wider concept of social systems. The non-Muslim millet affected with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe modernized the Christian Law. Islamic Law and Christian Law became drastically different. Polygamy has not been practiced by law-abiding citizens of Turkey after Atatürk’s reforms, in contrast to the former rules of the Megelle. There were thousands of articles in the Megelle which were not used due to their inapplicability.

Legal reforms of Kemal could be perceived as the last step of a failed history of modernization in Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire tried to modernize the code with the reforms of 1839 (Hatt-i Sharif). Hatt-i Sharif tried to end the confusion in the judicial sphere by extending the legal equality to all citizens. In 1841 a criminal code was drawn up. When the Empire dissolved, there was still no legislation with regard to family and marital relationships. The adaptation of laws relating to family and marital relationships is an important step which is attributed to Mustafa Kemal.

Educational reforms

The educational reforms combined with the opening of People’s Houses throughout the country and the active encouragement of people by Atatürk himself with many trips to the countryside teaching the new alphabet. However, “its effect on the struggle against illiteracy was disappointing”.

The literacy reform was also supported by strengthening the private publishing sector with a new Law on Copyrights and congresses for discussing the issues of copyright, public education and scientific publishing.


The unification of education had two important features. The first one was the democratization and the second one was to activate secularism in the field of education. Unification came with the Law on Unification of National Education, which introduced three regulations: First, all medreses and schools administered by private foundations or the Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (Presidency for Religious Affairs) were connected to the Ministry of National Education. Second, the money allocated to schools and medreses from the budget of the Diyanet was transferred to the education budget. Third, the Ministry of Education had to open a religious faculty for training higher religious experts within the system of higher education, and separate schools for training imams and hatips.

With the unification of education, along with the closure of the old-style universities, applied a large-scale program of science transfer from Europe. One of the corner stone of educational institutions, the University of Istanbul, accepted German and Austrian scientists who the National Socialist regime in Germany had considered ‘racially’ or politically undesirable. This political decision was accepted as the building the nucleus of science as a modern institution in Turkey. The reform aimed to break away the traditional dependency [since the Ottoman Empire] on the transfer of science and technology by foreign experts.

Language reforms

On November 1, 1928, the new Turkish alphabet was introduced by the Language Commission at the initiative of Atatürk, replacing the previously used Perso-Arabic script. The adoption of the Latin alphabet and the purging of foreign loanwords was part of Mustafa Kemal’s program of modernization.

The removal of Arabic script was defended on the ground that it was not appropriate for the authentic Turkish phonology, which needs a new set of symbols to be correctly represented. The Ottoman Perso-Arabic script was an abjad, which made it too ambiguous for the Turkish language, in which vowels are far more important than in Arabic. A well-known example of the deficiency of the Arabic script is the phrase محمد پاشا اولدو, which can represent either Mehmet Paşa oldu (Muhammad became a Pasha) or Mehmet Paşa öldü (Muhammad Pasha died). Ottoman writers had to work around such ambiguities via circumlocutions, usually of Persian or Arabic origin.

The abandonment of the Arabic script was not merely a symbolic expression of secularization by breaking the link to Ottoman Islamic texts to which only a minor group of ulema had access; but also Latin script would make reading and writing easier to learn and consequently improve the literacy rate.

Economic reforms

Economic reforms included the establishment of many state-owned factories throughout the country for the agriculture, machine making and textile industries.

Many of these grew into successful enterprises and were privatized during the latter part of 20th century.

Atatürk considered the development of a national rail network as another important step for industrialization. In 1927 he established the Turkish State Railways, developing an extensive rail network in a relatively short timespan.