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NPR podcast 'Throughline' takes a closer look at the birth of a nation: Turkey


Turkey sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, a location that is both culturally rich and strategically important. The founder of the modern Republic of Turkey was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. And after he became its first president in 1923, he came to define a national identity while also trying to rid his country of everything that did not fit that vision. For the 100th anniversary of Turkey's independence this coming Sunday, the NPR history podcast Throughline looks back at Ataturk's complex legacy. Here are Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Before he became Ataturk, Mustafa Kemal was born into a world that doesn't exist anymore, the Ottoman Empire. For centuries, it was a powerful global player that spanned three continents.


ARABLOUEI: But by the late 19th century, a mood of discontent was spreading, which gave rise to a new movement determined to reform the empire. The reformers became known as the Young Turks. They staged a revolt and took power. Mustafa Kemal joined them.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Vive la patrie, vive la nation, vive la liberte.

ARABLOUEI: But before long, their progressive idealism would be put to the test.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Armenians had been living in a part of the Ottoman Empire called Anatolia long before the empire existed. And some Armenians believed it was time they carve out a nation for themselves there. The Young Turk government was not about to let those ideas grow.

LERNA EKMEKCIOGLU: So they decided to eliminate the threat of Armenians before it becomes a threat. It involves three processes, outright massacre, kidnapping, and the third one is the forcible Islamization of Armenians.

ARABLOUEI: This is Lerna Ekmekcioglu. She's the author of the book "Recovering Armenia: The Limits Of Belonging In Post-Genocide Turkey."

EKMEKCIOGLU: I am an Armenian from Turkey, and I am a survivor of descendants of the Armenian genocide.

ARABLOUEI: The Armenian genocide was an ethnic cleansing campaign that happened during World War I. It left as many as 1.2 million Armenians dead, and countless more were displaced. Growing up in Turkey, Lerna heard stories about it in hushed whispers.

EKMEKCIOGLU: You couldn't speak about what had happened publicly.

ARABLOUEI: To this day, the Turkish government contests the use of the word genocide. They argue that this was a political uprising during a chaotic period when disease and famine were also rampant, and that all sides perpetrated violence.

ABDELFATAH: OK. You might be wondering, where does Mustafa Kemal fit into all of this? Remember, he was a part of the Young Turk movement, the same people who had led the genocide against the Armenians.

ARABLOUEI: But Kemal personally had been stationed far away, fighting in World War I, leaving his reputation relatively untainted. And in spite of the Ottoman Empire's defeat, Kemal emerged as a war hero, which is how the prevailing Western powers saw him.

SONER CAGAPTAY: When he said I'm going to liberate Turkey, people did not say, oh, who are you to do this?

ABDELFATAH: That's Soner Cagaptay. He's the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.

CAGAPTAY: The people lined up behind him and said, oh, yeah, this guy can do it, because he had already established himself as a great general.

ABDELFATAH: On October 29, 1923, the Republic of Turkey was formed with Mustafa Kemal as its leader.

ARABLOUEI: And Turkey would be a completely new nation.

CAGAPTAY: Almost like in the old days, when you had to reset a computer, you did ctrl-alt-del, I think Ataturk did the Turkish version of ctrl-alt-del. He basically, like, hard booted the Ottoman Empire in 1923. He's like, I'm just going to delete the old software. It's not working. I'm going to bring a new software, put it into the computer and start a country from scratch.


ABDELFATAH: And he believed the first step to doing that was to literally fast-forward time.

CAGAPTAY: So one night, Turkey's citizens go to bed. It's 13-something. They wake up, it's 1926. Someone has just forwarded time for them by 600 years.

ABDELFATAH: Up to this point, Turkey, like the rest of the Muslim world, had used what's known as the Hijri calendar to track time. The Hijri calendar is around 600 years behind the European Gregorian calendar, which sets Year 1 as the birth of Jesus.

ARABLOUEI: The next thing he went after was language.

CAGAPTAY: He decided to change Turkey's alphabet. He said, look, we can't be a country of Europe if we are writing Turkish in the Arabic script. We have to switch to a Latin-based script.

ARABLOUEI: So overnight, he forces newspapers, book publishers and even libraries to switch to a totally new alphabet.

CAGAPTAY: And in one generation, people won't be able to read letters written by their grandparents or their parents.

ABDELFATAH: The reforms were swift, they were dramatic, and they left little room for dissent.

CAGAPTAY: Not everyone was happy under Ataturk, you know? People who wanted to be conservative and wear religion on their sleeve felt that this was not their country. And of course, if they tried to rise up, they were taken to courts and jailed and punished.


ARABLOUEI: While Armenians had created an uneasy peace for themselves in the new nation, ethnic Kurds had not. Mustafa Kemal waged bloody campaigns against Kurdish nationalists, and elements of that conflict continue to this day.

ABDELFATAH: Mustafa Kemal viewed the world in black-and-white. You either had power or you didn't. You were either fully Turkish or you weren't. And what that meant was that there had to be a certain homogeneity, a certain conformity that everyone within this new nation opted into.

ARABLOUEI: In 1934, he passed a law mandating that every citizen adopt a Turkish last name. And he officially changed his own surname to Ataturk, father of the Turks. Kemal understood the power of narrative in papering over the divisions. He needed to control the story and his place in it. And 100 years later, his presence still looms large. Every year, millions of people visit his tomb.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The name of Ghazi Mustafa Kemal will forever be inscribed indelibly upon the rolls of history.

MARTIN: Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah are the hosts of NPR's Throughline. You can listen to more of their story wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.