In the political sphere, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is considered to be one of the most talented, sophisticated and respected politicians in the history of statesmanship. His peers are other greats at the pinnacle of politics, such as Winston Churchill, Otto von Bismarck, Genghis Khan, Julius Cesar, Marcus Aurelius and Mansa Musa, only to name a few. Although his legacy comprises many notable achievements, he is mainly known for transforming the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic, effectively safeguarding the existence of the Turkish people of Anatolia. That being so, the Turks reserved a special place for him in their history, which is even reflected in his name. Atatürk means Father of the Turks and he is the only person to ever carry this name. To this day, the Turks’ respect for this man is tremendous and this produced a problematic situation in modern Turkish society. In this article, I am introducing the Atatürk Paradox, which describes a situation in which a people is living contrary to their proclaimed belief system.

Atatürk: A Human Ideal

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had a memorable career. Under the Ottoman rule, he quickly moved up the ranks in the Ottoman army and proved himself to be a tactical mastermind on the battlefield. In those earlier days, his first major breakthrough was his success as a commander during the Gallipoli campaign. After the First World War was lost, however, the Ottoman Empire had to give up all of its non-Anatolian territories to the allied forces. Also, much of the remaining Anatolian territories were seized by the British, French, Italian, Armenian and Greek. Atatürk was able to mobilise the populations of the remaining provinces and led a remarkable independence campaign against the occupying forces. After successfully clearing Anatolia from the intruders, he designed the Turkish Republic as we know her today.

But he did not stop there. Until his death in 1938, he remained the President of the Republic and was able to restore Türkiye’s international position as a relevant actor in politics. He was the mastermind behind everything – from economic and military policy, over social and education policy, all the way to legal systems and administration structures. In political circles, it is acknowledged that the whole design was, in the context of that time and the circumstances, a masterpiece. All the components were carefully adjusted to one another to ensure smooth and productive functioning – and all that with very few resources. Accordingly, his peers honoured this man with meaningful gifts in form of the highest decorations after his death, which can be seen in his mausoleum in Ankara to this day.

Also in the personal sphere, Atatürk proved to be a role model. He read around 4000 books in his lifetime and even wrote a couple of books about geometry and mathematics. Atatürk always stressed the importance of the young generations and how important their education is to secure the nation’s long-term survival and development. Also, he reinforced the importance of women, who have a central role in all Turkic cultures. All in all, his legacy is truly one to look up to. And this is where the paradox starts.

Nothing like the Father

In today’s Türkiye, Atatürk is still held in high regard. His pictures and statues can be found in truly every street of Türkiye. Public buildings are legally obliged to have his pictures hanging in the relevant offices. There is a national commemoration holiday for him. His mausoleum in Ankara is one of the most visited places in Türkiye. Thinking about his life, it is easy to understand why Turks respect him so much and honour him in this way. However, if we adopt a linear logic, much of Turkish society must have adopted his lifestyle, since it views him as a role model. Just like athletes would imitate their idols and try to adopt their habits, in order to become more successful, Turks should, then, also follow Atatürk’s path of eternal self-development despite all hardships. In such a case, the overall potential of the Turkish society should massively increase and also be subject to continuous growth in most to all aspects of societal, economic and political life. In other words, if Turks really loved Atatürk that much they would have adopted his lifestyle.

Looking at Türkiye now, we see a country that is on the verge of an economic collapse, losing diplomatic significance and is riddled with inefficiencies in policy-making – all that less than 100 years after Atatürk’s death. Further, society is riddled with internal struggles between conservatives, moderates and radical lefts. Whereas other countries can maintain peaceful coexistence between different ideological camps, in Türkiye, the population is split up even geographically on the basis of their ideology. This holds true for cities where whole neighbourhoods can be categorised according to the ideological preferences of the inhabitants, but also whole provinces reflect this phenomenon. Violence against women is at an all-time high, too. On the educational side, Turkish students are less capable than the OECD average and in some areas, their capabilities are even on the decline. Students from economically strong families strongly outperform less advantaged students and, thus, are significantly advantaged in the labour market. The list goes on and on, but the message should be clear: the Turkish society does not reflect the lifestyle of its greatest role model, Atatürk. Although Atatürk paved the way and showed what needs to be done, the Turkish society moved in the opposite direction. This is, what I call, the Atatürk Paradox. A preliminary definition of this paradox would be: “The Atatürk Paradox is a phenomenon that describes the admiration of a set of norms and values while embodying contrary behavioural patterns”.

A Structural Approach

In order to understand why we are in this situation, we need to trace the process from the beginning in an abstract way. Here, I will refrain from following the specifics of this case too strictly, as this theory can also be applied to a wide range of other cases, too. Our starting point is that a person or entity (here Atatürk) achieves success by strictly abiding by a certain set of values (V1) that guide the behaviour. In the case of Türkiye, Atatürk formed a successful state based on his set of norms and values (V1). We can call this state or situation (S1). Naturally, the followers of V1 (let us name them F1) are advantaged over those that do not adopt or even reject the framework outlined under V1, which puts them in a considerably stronger power position towards groups that follow other lifestyles/ideologies etc (F2). Because there is a stark power discrepancy between F1 and F2, F1 perceives that further development is less urgent to maintain S1 and the development curve is slowing down. Here, the normative framework under V1 is increasingly maintained through rhetorical means rather than through action, as action has marginal diminishing returns of investment with increased power distance towards the other part. On the other hand, F2 is perceiving a higher urgency to develop with an increasing power distance to F1. F2’s development curve slopes upwards. For F2, action is more important than rhetoric. However, because F1 and F2 have fundamentally different views, F2’s development is naturally based on a different set of values (V2). To quickly return to our case, while F1 (followers of Atatürk’s normative framework) are putting aspects of technical and secular views in the foreground, the opposing F2 part of the society is focusing on traditional and religious aspects of societal development. Since the development curve of F1 slows down and the F2 development curve accelerates, at some point, there will be a shift in power and a new society/situation emerges – S2. This happened in 2003 when the conservative party took power in Türkiye. At the transition point from S1 to S2, the power discrepancy is too little for both sides to adopt their behaviour and the development curves only slowly adapt. At the current point in time, the power discrepancy between F2 (the currently dominant power) and F1 (the former dominant power) is not big enough for F1 to accelerate its development and switch back from rhetoric-oriented behaviour to action-oriented behaviour.

This stage, where the urgency for action is less than the convenience of rhetoric distancing, is what is called the Atatürk Paradox. Within this transition phase, F1 is protecting its V1 through rhetoric means, meaning that they admire Atatürk and his lifestyle, but do not back this admiration up with deeds because it requires more work. At some point, the power of F2 with a fundamentally different set of values (V2) will be so much bigger than the power of F1 that their existence will be endangered – just as it was the case when F1 was dominant and F2 was in crisis. Once that point is reached, F1 will automatically switch from pure rhetoric to action, while the development curve of F2 will have slowed down due to the lessened urgency to further develop as they are much more powerful. At this point, F1 moves out of the Atatürk Paradox and F2 enters the Atatürk Paradox (of course with a different set of values). Summarising, it can be said that the Atatürk Paradox describes the counterintuitive behaviour of admiration without application on the basis of power distances of opposing societal camps. This inherently means that a society needs to have at least two major groups that are highly dissimilar in their norms and values. So, our final definition of the Atatürk Paradox must be the following: “The Atatürk Paradox is a phenomenon that describes the admiration of a set of norms and values, while embodying contrary behavioural patterns, due to a perceived lessened urgency to develop and to maintain an advantaged power position towards followers of different norms and values.” Further, it can be added that the perception of a less urgent development is based on the marginal diminishing returns of investment of action with every step that F1 gains power against F2 or vice versa.

The interesting relationship between Atatürk and the Turks did not only create many questions but was also the starting point to finding answers for a phenomenon that can be observed in other societies, in religions and in our personal lives, too. With the theoretical underpinnings of the Atatürk Paradox, we can now better understand why people act so dissimilar compared to the normative instance that they seem to admire so deeply.