He was born in the Ottoman Empire (later Turkey), so I assume he was a Muslim. But when I checked his attitude towards religion, it became clear that he saw religion as an obstacle in making progression. This made him abolish the Sharia law, the caliphate, the Arabic alphabet/calendar, etc. This seems strange to me, if he was a Muslim.

So was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk an atheist, a Muslim or something else?

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    What did your preliminary research show? This question may be closed as trivial since the answer is in Wikipedia. Ataturk was a secularist.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 19:39
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    @MarkC.Wallace Well, secularism does not necessarily imply atheism, but neither does it preclude being a Muslim. Does Wikipedia actually say whether he was a Muslim or an atheist? If not, then I think this question is valid, although it does spent a paragraph confusing secularism with not being a Muslim.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 19:46
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    @Semaphore - excellent point - Wikipedia quotes a Muslim scholar as saying that Ataturk was not Muslim because the scholar does not approve of Ataturk's behavior. How should we answer the question if Ataturk claimed to be Muslim, but contemporaries denied this? Kind of like Jefferson was accused of atheism, but claimed to be Christian. If you do cursory preliminary research, the question becomes non-trivial. I've checked my list of credentials, and discovered that nobody has granted me the power to determine whether anyone is a Muslim </wry>
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 19:50
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    @Alex: Perhaps the reason is that historically, in Islam religion and the state were the same thing, so by separating religion from the state, he becomes an apostate. Whereas Christianity more or less explicitly separates religion from the state - the bit about "Render unto Caesar..."
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 2:46
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    @jamesqf As a general rule, whatever the founder of a religion said, or even whatever it is written in their sacred books, and what the rulers of said religion do afterwards have nothing in common. Saying that christianity made separation of church and state easier because "render unto Caesar" it's like saying that christianism favored communism because "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God".
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 12:31

1 Answer 1


Grace Ellison was a British journalist who interviewed Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in person. She described one interview in her 1928 book Turkey To-day. This interview would be quoted by Andrew Mango in his 2011 biography titled 'Atatürk' to illustrate Atatürk's secular and rationalist credentials.

Of particular relevance here are her questions about the modernising reforms that he was proposing and his responses to those questions (pp23-24).

Atatürk said:

"... In two years’ time every woman must have her face uncovered and work side by side with men; and the men will wear hats. The day when clothes were the symbol of a religion has passed. The fez which symbolized a faith despised by Western civilization must go, and all the fanaticism that goes with it!"

Ellison raised the question of how the hodjas [Muslim schoolmasters] might react to his reforms. Atatürk replied:

"The hodjas! Indeed you are right! We have been a priest-ridden nation too long. Our reverend friends must learn to behave themselves. If they refuse, — well, they can always join the Sultan."

Ellison went on to quote Atatürk as saying:

"You speak of religion," said he, when I had expressed my doubts as best I could. "I have no religion; and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea."

  • (my emphasis)

This would certainly suggest that he self-identified as an atheist or, at the very least as an agnostic.

However, notwithstanding that last remark, it is clear that Atatürk had no wish to impose his own views on others. Ellison continued:

"He is a weak ruler," said the Ghazi, "who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch the people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth, and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will ; every man can follow his own conscience; provided it does not interfere with sane reason, or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow-men."

  • (my emphasis)

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