The Ottoman Empire, the Sick Man of Europe in the nineteenth century, finally was put out of its misery by military defeat in World War I, to be replaced by the enlightened despotism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a war hero at Gallipoli, who established a provisional government in Ankara as the head of the Turkish National Movement, and successfully thwarted the Allies who had threatened to move on the Turkish heartland in Anatolia.
Ataturk systematically instituted political, economic, and cultural reforms, to create a modern, secular, nation-state in what was left to the Turks – Anatolia and the sliver of European Turkey — after the Ottoman Empire dissolved. Ataturk’s reputation as a hero of the fighting in the Dardanelles made it possible for him to impose his vision of a post-Ottoman Turkey. And because the Turkish defeat in the Great War so incontrovertibly revealed the weakness of the Ottoman state, the reforms that he pushed to modernize and secularize the Turkish state, even though revolutionary in the Muslim context, were also hard to oppose. His first important secular act was the dissolution of the Caliphate in March 1924. This was a tremendous blow to Islam, but non-Turkish Muslims were in no position to force a secularizing Turkish leader to maintain the Caliphate, and in any case, the Arabs in the Middle East – remember Lawrence of Arabia? – had, thanks to the help of the British, just removed their Turkish overlords in Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, and certainly would not miss Turkish rule. Ataturk and his associates wanted to make sure that, as a contemporary account put it, “the Turkish nation would be absolute master in its own house, and […] it should retain neither pretensions nor liabilities outside what it regards as the proper boundaries of its own ‘national home.’”