Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, and friends,
It is my honour to be here as a part of this symposium, celebrating Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. I would like to thank my respected friend Ambassador Apakan and the Turkish Mission for their coordination of the Third Annual Atatürk Symposium to remind us of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and reflect on his long-lasting impact. I am pleased to join my esteemed UN colleagues, Ambassador Gary Quinlan of Australia and their close neighbours Ambassador Jim McLay of New Zealand to make opening remarks for our knowledgeable speakers, Professors Ludwig and McCarthy and Dr. Bay.
I have a particular reason for being here. For us in Afghanistan, our journey toward modernisation in the early 20th century is closely linked with that of Turkey, and to the ideas and aspirations of the Young Turks and Kemal Atatürk.
With the gradual crumbling of the Ottoman Empire on the eve of the First World War, the Young Turks emerged as a major force within the empire. They profoundly influenced the thoughts of nationalist and modernist forces throughout the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, a progressive elite felt a close ideological kinship with the Young Turks, with particular influential elements in the Afghan ruling class seeing Turkey as a source of inspiration. Among them was Mahmud Tarzi, father-in-law of Afghanistan’s next king, who had lived in the Ottoman Empire – in Syria – for a long time, and was known as the founder of modern nationalist ideology in Afghanistan. It was mainly through him that the influence of the Young Turks’ and later, Kemal Atatürk’s thinking came.
In 1919, the new King, Amanullah Khan, ascended to the throne of Afghanistan. Influenced by the widely felt progressive aspirations of the time, mainly through Mahmud Tarzi and other members of a political movement of the time, the ‘Young Afghans’, he was a modernist, nationalist king, deeply committed to progress and change . The new King engaged in a historic struggle and managed to lead Afghanistan to full independence from Britain at the start of his reign. With Afghanistan’s independence, King Amanullah devoted himself to securing Afghanistan’s future. Like Kemal Atatürk, the King saw modernisation as the way forward, and to him this meant westernisation.
However, King Amanullah’s success in achieving independence made him a hero and rallying point for anti-colonial, nationalist and pan-Islamic movements across the Muslim world, particularly in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. But with Soviet Russia to the north and British India to the south, Afghanistan’s geopolitical situation required a delicate balance. For the king to become a symbol of pan-Islamism would threaten this balance of powers, and it took a while to distance himself from championing the pan-Islamic cause and focus instead on reforms.
King Amanullah’s reforms were broad. He ended slavery, established the first Afghan constitution, penal code and many important modern institutions aimed at building a society based on the rule of law. He embarked on a major education agenda, founding modern western-style schools and sending dozens of Afghan students abroad throughout Europe. He emphasised women’s rights, saying that “the keystone of the future structure of new Afghanistan will be the emancipation of women”; to this end he established the first family code. Queen Soraya was the first First Lady in our part of the world that appeared in public without a veil or “limited” veil. He particularly emphasised girls’ education, constructing girls’ schools and sending girls to France, Switzerland, and Turkey. King Amanullah began to modernise the basic health systems, communications infrastructure, as well as the Afghan army. Telephones, telegraphs, a postal service, numerous print media, radio broadcasting, the metric system, cars and airplanes were first introduced in Afghanistan at that time. Besides these substantive changes, under King Amanullah Afghanistan began to modernise socially and culturally as well. Some symbolic changes such as mandatory use of European clothing for public workers and other measures sent shockwaves through the country and the region. The many photographs of Afghans in western attire from the period are testament to the transformation that Afghanistan’s culture was undergoing.
King Amanullah turned to other nations for support with his reform efforts –Soviet Russia, France, Germany, Italy, the USA, Japan, and even Britain – but more than anywhere else, he turned to the fledgling Republic of Turkey. Afghanistan became only the second country in the world to recognise the new Republic, with the 1921 Turkey-Afghanistan Alliance Agreement, signed in Moscow, even as Turkey was fighting to establish its independence. The Agreement reflected the full mutual trust that Turkey and Afghanistan shared, going so far as to give each a voice in the other’s foreign policy, pledging not to enter into agreements with third parties without each others’ consent.
The Agreement ushered in a period of very close cooperation, as Turkey became integral to Afghanistan’s development and modernisation efforts. The Turks sent educational and military missions to Afghanistan. Turkey’s future Chief of General Staff, Kâzim Pasha, helped train the Afghan army and its officers. Turkey helped build the civil service by sponsoring the first administrative school; got involved in Afghan girls’ education and women’s rights; and later set up the medical training program that became the nucleus of the future Kabul University. Turkey was also instrumental in the drafting of our first Constitution and laws in the 1920s.
King Amanullah understandably saw Turkish involvement in Afghanistan as the key to progress, a manifestation of our shared aspirations for modernisation and to end backwardness. And in many ways, the King’s modernisation project paralleled that of Kemal Atatürk. But Amanullah’s programme was not a non-religious one, and broke from the western secular-modernist model by maintaining a connection between religion, state and law.
The debate between secular-modernism and the religious element is highly pertinent to today’s world. The Al-Qaeda sort of religious extremists denounce the nation-state as un-Islamic and a “blasphemous idol”, though the mainstream view in most Islamic countries is that secular-modernist reform is not inherently anti-Islamic or even non-religious. Rather, the key to modernisation is simply modernity and modern values, as both King Amanullah’s and Kemal Atatürk’s reforms show – values such as freedom, rule of law, progress, prosperity and human rights.
Where Atatürk’s modern state survived, however, Amanullah’s failed. When the King met Mustafa Kemal in Turkey in 1927, forming a strong personal connection, Atatürk is said to have advised him to always maintain the strong support of an army with which to resist counter-pressure from conservative forces. But the failure of the King’s reforms was not due to the lack of a strong army or strong support from the army, or any anti-religious character of his reforms as claimed by his enemies. Rather, where Turkey could tap the uniting power of Turkic nationalism for the new Republic, Afghanistan was disadvantaged by a powerful and divisive tribal and religious elite opposing the reforms. But most importantly, Afghanistan’s strategic location often made it a pawn in the game of international geopolitics, which has sadly undermined many of our past attempts to modernise, from King Amanullah’s to the end of the Cold War.
Now we are engaged in a new attempt at modernisation. Yesterday’s Bonn Conference, ten years after the fall of the Taliban, marked a historic milestone for my country, the largest international gathering on Afghanistan in history, where the international community pledged its continued support for another decade after the end of transition in 2015. In this international support, Turkey’s role is crucial, and now as in Atatürk’s day they have proven themselves a steadfast ally. Just last month Turkey generously hosted the Istanbul Conference on regional security and cooperation, and established the Istanbul Process. Turkey has also been fully supportive of us as we reclaim our historic role as an economic and cultural hub in the ‘Heart of Asia’.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is often remembered as a great leader, revolutionary and moderniser. But we in Afghanistan also remember him as a true friend to our nation, and in this regard his legacy lives on. Today, as we did ninety years ago, Afghanistan can count on the leaders and people of Turkey for inspiration, support and friendship, for which we are deeply honoured and grateful.
I thank you.
Slide Show by Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations