The 10 most influential!

Newspaper Hürriyet published an article this weekend about the 10 most influential names in Turkey. Four men (no women) gave their top 10 and explained their choices. It caused discussion of course, for example because Atatürk wasn’t in any of the lists (which was because it was a list of living people, but of course some people say Atatürk will never die) and because PKK-leader Öcalan was mentioned several times (which some people condemned because putting him on such a list would ‘legalize’ him).

Anyway, it inspired me to make a list of the 10 most influential people in the history of the Turkish Republic who are no longer among the living. So Atatürk is in, Öcalan is out. Some people may wonder why Talat Pasa, for example, is not on the list. That’s because he, and several others who played significant roles in the pre-Republic years, died before the founding of the republic.

I included not only main stream politicians who had an obvious influence, but also people who had great significance in groups in society that have not ever been part of the powers that be.

Like every top 10, this one too is highly debatable. The comment section is open!

1. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)
Founder and first President of the Republic.

2. Turgut Özal (1927-1993)
Prime Minister between 1983 and 1989 and President between 1989 and 1993. He transformed the Turkish economy from an inwardly focused, subsidized state economy into an open market economy. He started economic change after the military coup of 1980, after which he became deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State. In 1983 he became elected Prime Minister and continued his reform program.

3. Said Nursi (1878-1960)
A Muslim scholar, born in a village in Bitlis in what is now South-East Turkey. In his early years, up to 1926, he was respected for his modern ideas about religion – he proposed for example schools that would both teach religion and science. Atatürk offered him a position after the foundation of the republic, but he refused. After that, he was prosecuted again and again by the state and exiled from one place to the other. He kept on writing about Islam.
I put Said Nursi high on my list not only because he still has many followers, but also because he had a big influence on Fethullah Gülen, who is the most important, respected, influential and distrusted religious leader at the moment in Turkey, residing in the USA.

4. Ismet Inönü (1884-1973)
Army General, Prime Minister, and second President. His political influence is said to have been huge even while Atatürk was still President. He played an important role in the War of independence and was chief negotiator of the Turkish delegation that negotiated the Lausanne Treaty, the treaty that led to the international recognition of the sovereignty of the Republic of Turkey.
Inönü lead Turkey from a one party system to the first free democratic elections in 1950, which his party, the CHP, lost. After the military coup in 1960, Inönü became Prime Minister again. He stayed politically active until the early seventies.

5. Halide Edip Adivar (1884-1964)
A feminist leader, novelist, corporal and sergeant in the army during the war of independence, academician and (briefly) a politician. Already as a young woman she wrote enough about education and the status of women to be hired by the Ministry of Education of the Ottoman Empire to reform schools for girls. She travelled extensively in the Ottoman Empire and later in Turkey, Great Britain and India, working as an inspector, teacher and lecturer at universities. She was involved in the nationalist movement and fought in the War of Independence.

6. Seyh Said (1866-1925)
The first and biggest ever uprising of Kurds in Turkey, in 1925, was named after its leader, Seyh Said. The uprising failed, and Seyh Said was arrested and hanged in Diyarbakir. The 1925 uprising took place in the region of Dersim (re-named Tunceli in 1936), where Kurdish clans had their own feudal structures and didn’t want interference from the centrally governed state. The 1925 uprising was not the last: the clans kept revolting, until the Dersim massacres of 1937 finally broke the Kurdish resistance in Dersim. Seyh Said was the first Kurdish leader to stand up against the assimilation policies of the republic, but not the last. To this day the Kurdish question remains unresolved.

7. Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963)
Turkey’s most important poet. He was a communist, often referred to as a ‘romantic revolutionary’. His poetry was very accessible and often about the hardships of labourers and about life in prison. He was continually prosecuted for his political beliefs and wrote much of his poetry in prison. In 1951, his citizenship was taken away from him. He moved to Moscow, where he died in exile. His poetry has been translated into more than 50 languages.

8. Hrant Dink (1954-2007)
Turkish-Armenian human rights activist and journalist. Campaigned for minority rights in Turkey and for the reconciliation between Turks and Armenians by talking openly and without taboos about history. He was the most visible member of the Armenian community in Turkey and he inspired many Armenians to also not be afraid anymore to show their identities. Dink was prosecuted several times for ‘insulting Turkishness’. He was killed by a young nationalist in front of the office of bilingual paper Agos in Istanbul, of which he was editor in chief.

9. Adnan Menderes (1899-1961)
In 1950 Menderes became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Turkey. He was very popular and again won the elections in 1954 and 1957. His policies included closer ties with Muslim states, encouraging private enterprise, and lifting restraint on religious expression. He challenged the ideals of Atatürk, earned the enmity of the army and was overthrown by a military coup in 1960. He was hanged in 1961.
The way his life ended has had significant influence on Turkish politics in the decades after his rule. Politicians have always kept in mind how his life ended, and the military has since then overthrown three more governments. Only in the last decade has the power of the military been significantly reduced.

10. Türkan Saylan (1935-2009)
Physician and campaigner for womens rights and for the education of poor children, especially girls. Saylan worked as a dermatologist and leprosy expert in rural Turkey for a long time, and was inspired there to try to give more poor children a proper education. She focussed especially on girls. In 1989 she founded the Association to Support Contemporary Life, which has since then given grants and scholarships to at least 58,000 students. Her work continues and still inspires many. A significant contribution not only to the lives of these young boys and girls, but also to the awareness of the importance of education.

3 replies
  1. Emre Kurt
    Emre Kurt says:

    Quite fair. But I would prefer to see Deniz Gezmis instead of Turkan Saylan. Somehow the influence of Turkan Saylan and Halid Edip are similar. In my opinion putting both of them in the list is unnecessary. Deniz Gezmis has played a significant role on leftist revolutionary movements but also has an important role on the behavior of the right wingers. He became an idol as a charismatic revolutionist in Turkey as Ernesto is all around the world. I think Deniz Gezmis deserves to be in the list. Unfortunately there are not many women in the list in the male chauvinistic country.
    Best regards

  2. Shane Gilchrist
    Shane Gilchrist says:

    I am not sure about Menderes in the top 10 – he played a huge role in the Istanbul pogroms of 1955 where he encouraged the Turks to attack the Greek population who stayed behind in Istanbul after the independence.

  3. Bulent Murtezaoglu
    Bulent Murtezaoglu says:

    Rather than disagreeing with the selection I’ll offer corrections (non-exhaustive) you can google for details.

    On Ozal:

    He started economic change after the military coup of 1980, after which he became deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State.

    Actually the change started on Jan 24th 1980. The PM and the political authority behind it was Demirel. Ozal was ‘basbakanlik mustesari.’ You can think of the process as what happened under Ecevit after the crisis of ’01 with Kemal Dervis except with a coup happening after the process started that banned Ecevit while employing Dervis. Here’s Demirel responding to heat:

    On Seyh Said:

    The first and biggest ever uprising of Kurds in Turkey, in 1925, was named after its leader, Seyh Said.

    Not the first. It is significant not because it was the biggest but because it affected the regime.

    The 1925 uprising took place in the region of Dersim (re-named Tunceli in 1936)

    No. Dersim didn’t really join. Different regions (this is significant).

    On Menderes:

    Menderes and Bayar (president) are responsible for turning the image of Ataturk into what he is now. (Building of Anitkabir, re-introduction of Ataturk on money, passing the Ataturk law.) So while the ‘challenge’ you mention can be seen, it is an odd kind of challenge. Their closeness of ‘Muslim’ states is questionable too since at the time Arab nationalism rather than Islam was the driver in Arab lands. Besides, they sided with the French on Algeria. I’d include entry to Korean war and NATO in the list.


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