Kemalism: Lessons for Pakistan
The Nation
August 15, 1999
You may belong to any religion or caste or creed…that has nothing to do with the business of the State… We are all citizens of a state… in the course of the time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense, as citizens of the State.

These are excerpts from the historic speech that the Founding Father of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah delivered while presiding over the first session of the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1974 in Karachi—three days before the creation of Pakistan. This speech is one of the clearest expositions of a secular State. Unfortunately, Jinnah did not live long enough to realize this ideal—and, until this day, Pakistanis are caught in the dilemma of determining as to which political course is better for them: secular or Islamic?

“Each person has liberty to think and believe freely, to possess a political view of his own fulfillment, and to act in any way to suit himself as far as the regulations of any religion are concerned,” said Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, years before Jinnah made a similar remark in his Constituent Assembly speech.

One can, therefore, safely argue that one of the reasons why Jinnah emphasized a secular political path for the newly-born Pakistan in his most important speech just before Pakistan’s independence might have been due his appreciation for Kemalism, the ideology encompassing Ataturk’s ideas and policies.

Six Principles

Based on the six principles of Republicanism, Nationalism, Secularism, Populism, Etatism and Reformism, the ideology of Kemalism was officially adopted by Turkey in the 1930s, years before the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Since then, Kemalism has not only determined the nature and dynamics of Turkish policies, it has, as Feroz Ahmad write in his book, The Making of Modern Turkey, also been “a source of permanent ideals and ideology for all nations which had yet to realize their national aspirations.” In the 1940s, Muslims of the subcontinent were one such nation which had ye to realize its nationalist aspirations.

As to how Kemalism could have influenced Jinnah’s political thinking, the answer can be sought in a historical perspective. Pakistan’s connection with the Turks predates 1947, the date of its independence from the British. The centuries-old Mughal rule in the subcontinent and its rulers’ allegiance to the Ottoman Sultanate, the spread of Islam in the subcontinent by Sufis hailing from Turkic regions are factors which historically linked the Muslims of the subcontinent with the Ottoman Turks.

No surprise then that when the Ottoman Empire stated collapsing as a result of Western machinations and military assaults, Muslims of the subcontinent rose in rebellion against the British colonial power. The movement, which reached its peak in the early 1920s, was called the Khilafat Movement. Even though it ended as soon as Ataturk ended the Ottoman rule, the financial support, including money and gold, that Muslims of British India provided voluntarily to the Republic of Turkey then contributed to the establishment of Turkish Ish Bankasi and the building of Turkish Grand National Assembly—a great gesture of Indian Muslim solidarity with the Turks which the latter have not forgotten until this day.

The question is, if there really existed such a deep historical connection between the Turks and the Muslims of India, why is it that Pakistan has in the last over a half a century been unable to benefit from the spirit of Kemalism? That Jinnah died within a year after the creation of Pakistan is the main reason. Had he lived longer, he could have solved what has been Pakistan’s number one problem since 1947: even though it is constitutionally an Islamic republic, the ground realities, public needs and national interest demand it to be declared as a secular republic. If this happens, Pakistan, like Turkey, will not only be better positioned within the Muslim world, it will also not lose its Muslim identity.

Friendship between Pakistan and Turkey goes beyond the realistic notions of inter- state ties. It transcends history, geography and culture. Yet while the Turkish leadership under President Demirel and Prime Minister Ecevit fights against the rise of political Islam; the Pakistan leadership under President Tarar and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dreams of a State based on Shariah in Pakistan.


The question is, why should there be such a huge gap in the political vision of the leaders of the two countries, Turkey and Pakistan, sharing common historical and cultural roots? Turkey is the only real secular country in the Muslims world. Secularism is the essence of Kemalism. For many writers in Pakistan, if there exists any model ideology and state structure within the Muslim world which it can emulate, it is only Turkey’s. For the rest of the Muslim world—consisting mostly of unrepresentative political systems and crumbling economic structures—Turkey can be a role model. Had Jinnah lived longer, he might have succeeded in emulating Kemalism in Pakistan, way back in the 1950s—an ideology which one might be terming today as Jinnahism.

Kemalist secularism did not merely mean separation of state and religion but also the latter’s separation from educational cultural and legal affairs. It meant the realization of independence of thought and independence of institutions from the dominance of religious thinking and religious institutions. The principle of secularism as developed by the Ataturk revolution is more extensive than its western counterparts. Aside form the liberation of legislative, executive and judicial powers from religious influence, it does not let any traditional thinking or practice in the name of religion hamper a nation’s individual or collective way of life.

Had all of these traits of Ataturk’s secularism politically inspired the post-Jinnah leadership in Pakistan, today it might not be following an uncharted political destiny, reflected by increasing wave of sectarianism. Like Turkey, Pakistan also became a republic after independence, the difference is that Turkey was established as a secular republic and Pakistan as an Islamic Republic.


Republicanism as another main principle of Kemalism means that “popular sovereignty belonged only to the nation” and “no power is superior to the Grand National Assembly.” Looking at present-day Pakistan, no power on earth is superior to its National Assembly, and, for all practical purposes, the country enjoys supremacy of parliament. But the issue is the Constitution, which says that sovereignty belongs only to Almighty God, not directly to the people. It is here that Pakistan’s Republicanism, based on Islamic ideology, differs from Kemalist Republicanism, which is based on popular will.


Kemalism’s third principle is nationalism, which, as Pakistani writers mostly view, is a unique asset for the Turkish nation. It unites the nation, especially whenever it is in dire straits. Jinnah had emphasized the principle of nationalism in the same spirit as Ataturk did: Turkish nationalism was based on common history, geography and culture of the Turks—regardless of their race or religion—so was Pakistani nationalism.

At the time when Pakistan was created, the country had five main ethnic communities: Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun, and Baloch. And Jinnah, in his Constituent Assembly address, had made it clear that these various ethnically-different nationalities would be one nation called Pakistan. Unfortunately, nationalism in Pakistan has failed to emerge as a force, as it has in Turkey: various ethnic and religious cleavages are a divisive factor in Pakistani society.


An important aspect of Turkish nationalism is humanism. Turkish nationalism became a symbol of peace at a time when extreme racism was visible in Europe. This love of peace found its clearest definition in Ataturk’s words ‘Peace in the nation, peace in the world.’ Until today, therefore, Turkish nationalism has not taken any negative shape. It is essentially not racist. The main reason why Ataturk had stressed nationalism was to restore confidence among the Turks. They felt disillusioned by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and defeat in several wars in the last couple of centuries. But the tenet of nationalism put them on the path of modernization.

The rise of Muslim nationalism in the subcontinent in the late 19th century and early 20th century was exactly due to the same reason. It was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who, by establishing the first Muslim university, the Aligarh University, wanted the Muslims to march on the road to modernizations after acquiring modern scientific learning. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan, had the same dream. So did Jinnah. In addition, Pakistani nationalism, as defined by Jinnah, was also going to be based upon Ataturk’s non-racial, pacifist version of nationalism.


The fourth principle of Kemalism is Populism, which was considered by Kemal Ataturk as the foundation of Turkish democracy. ‘People’ in the Ottoman Empire did not have any political value. It was only after Ataturk’s revolution that they acquired a political meaning. As Ataturk said about the Grand National Assembly: “This parliament is the parliament of the Turkish people. Its position and authority can only be effective if based on the faith of the Turkish people and on Turkish land.” All of Ataturk’s reforms were for the people. Himself of a humble origin, Ataturk undertook these reforms only for the welfare of the people. He believed in complete equality of all citizens before the Law. As a charismatic and populist leader, he identified himself with nothing but the people.

In Pakistan, it was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who practiced populism and emerged as a populist leader in the early 1970s. But he ended up becoming a political dictator, eventually hanged by the military junta of General Ziaul Haq. Benazir Bhutto’s populism was short-lived, destroyed to the core by the alleged abuse of power by her husband Asif Ali Zardari. Nawaz Sharif’s rise to power is also partly reflected by populism—which undoubtedly was a factor in his 1997 landslide electoral victory.


A principle of Western origin, Etatism is another ideological gift of Kemal Ataturk to the Turkish nation. Etatism was a reaction to outright capitalism that resulted as a corollary of liberalism in the 19th century. Etatism laid the foundation of Welfare State in Western democracies: meaning that State should intervene in economy in order to prevent the emergence of monopolies, which exploit the workers. In other words, the State must regulate business activity in the interest of the people.

In Pakistan’s case, Etatism was taken to extremes by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto when he started socialist reforms and nationalized the industry. It was a step of harrowing consequences. Like Turkey and many other developing states, Pakistan has been following, since the late 1980s, the policy of privatization. It is undertaking such free- market reforms which aim at limiting the role of the State in economic activity for the sake of public welfare.

To put it differently, what we are seeing in the post-Cold War period is the rise of outright capitalism of the late 19th century. If one goes by the principle of Etatism in Kemalism, the State establishment in Turkey or in Pakistan should not leave market forces to operate on their own—as this, in the long run, would increase social disparities and economic worries among people.


The last principle of Kemalism is Reformism, also called Revolution. One of the reasons why the Ataturk revolution continues to survive in Turkey, over three-quarters of a century since its creation as a Republic—even though with some ups and downs on the way—is that none of the elements of Kemalism was supposed to be stagnant. Reformism reflects the commitment of the ideology of Kemalism to a reformist, revolutionary change. Reformism, in other words, indicates the importance of dynamism within Turkish polity, whose evolution has to be in synchronicity with the sprit of the time.

Like Turkey, Pakistan’s political system has experienced reformism, even though after half a century. Despite the fact that most of Pakistan’s history is characterized by military rules; today, it has the most powerful civilian government in the last over half a century.

Kemalism was not an ideology to be indoctrinated by the State—as Italian Fascism, German Nazism or Soviet Communism was. Kemal Ataturk was against any such policy. The very basis of all of the six principles of Kemalism is the public willingness to accept them. Their imposition on the people by the state or its leadership was never advised as an option by Ataturk. All of these principles are inter-related: one loses meaning without the other.

Lessons Learned

Pakistan has experienced all of the principles constituting Kemalism—except the most crucial one, Secularism. It was centuries ago that the Americans and the Europeans had separated religion from state and politics, laying the basis of modern democratic governance. The Turks under Kemal Ataturk followed suit three quarters of a century ago. It is tragic that countries like Pakistan, and some elements in Turkey, are still engaged in the long-settled debate over religion and politics.

The frequency with which militant Shias and Sunnis kill each other in Pakistan or the fiasco of Islamic Revolution in Iran, or undisputedly totalitarian nature of Islamic rule in Saudi Arabia are gory realities of the Muslim world, reinforcing the validity of Kemalism as a universally applicable political and economic ideology.

Has Kemalism been rationally transformed with the passage of time or implemented by the leadership in as good a manner as it was envisioned by Kemal Ataturk? Should secularism be perceived narrowly or within a broader perspective? Can all of the principles of Kemalism be applied to Pakistani situation in the same way as they have been applied to the Turkish situation? And, lastly, if Jinnah and Ataturk were to visit their countries today, would they be happy to see the present state of politics and society there—or utterly disappointed?

All of these are debatable questions, subject to different interpretations and, at best, constitute points that need to be pondered over for any further discussion on the subject.