Ahmet Seyhun's Competing Ottoman Ideologies
Translations of articles written by Namik Kemal, Ziya Gokalp, Celal Nuri İleri, Prince Sabaheddin, Ahmed Riza, Said Halim Pasha and others, enables non-Turkish speakers to grapple with some of the most important ideas, which still have consequences for Turkey today.
Islamism, liberalism, nationalism, positivism and cosmopolitanism are just some of the themes the book criss-crosses, which Seyhun hopes captures the diversity of thought taking place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As someone who is somewhat wary of nationalism, I found the selection of Ziya Gokalp (1876- 1924) essays, quite edifying and worthy of further interrogation.
Gokalp, who is today remembered as the father of Turkish nationalism, played a critical role both as an educator and a politician in creating the Republic.
A sociologist by training, he broke down the idea of the Turkish nation into three separate currents: Turkism, Islam and Westernisation, which he strongly argued while different from one another, are all mutually complementary of each other and are all necessary.
|He broke down the idea of the Turkish nation into three separate currents: Turkism, Islam and Westernisation, which he strongly argued while different from one another, are all mutually complementary of each other and are all necessary|
In his essay on customs and formalism, he argues, "The English are a nation without rules. Nevertheless, they have a very strong tradition which evolved continuously throughout history. The factor that caused the progress of the English nation is their attachment to their traditions."
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He contrasts this to Turkey, "If the history of the Turkish people is studied, one will see clearly that it consisted of stages of isolation from each other. There was no continuity in our historical tradition.
"Our institutions are like the treasuries of the states built on conquest, suddenly filled with the plundered loot, but then very soon emptied because not based on a national economy.
"Instead of transforming our institutions, which were developed and evolved throughout history, to the living traditions, we have chosen to discard them and borrowed foreign institutions from different countries. We adopted these institutions without understanding their historical evolution."
To me this passage captures the anxiety at the heart of his project, if Turkey was to become a successful modern state, it would have to identify its traditions, form institutions out of them or continue to fall into decay.
He argues nationalism is an important vehicle for this as the 20th century is the age of nationalism, attempts to create an equal footing between different ethnic and religious groups under an internationalised cosmopolitanism, doomed the Ottoman state.
But while trying to figure out what a Turkish nation ought to be, he shows considerable scepticism towards the idea of "race", which he claims, "this theory is completely undermined and refuted, thanks to the scientific studies of anthropologists."
|This passage captures the anxiety at the heart of his project, if Turkey was to become a successful modern state, it would have to identify its traditions, form institutions out of them or continue to fall into decay|
In particular he thought the idea that skin colour corresponds to social characteristics was pseudoscientific and had little use for thinking about Turkishness. What really comes across in his essays is the struggle to exactly say what being Turkish means.
At the other end of the spectrum, some thought that what Turkey and the wider Muslim world needed was not nationalism, but Islam. Said Halim Pasha (1865- 1921) told readers, "The Islamic social system is based on equality and liberty in the most natural and genuine sense of the term... It is considered liberal to declare that human beings are born with certain natural rights, including freedom. I would say that nothing is more erroneous and more anti-liberal than such an assertion."
While urging Muslims to return to the teachings of the prophet, he also urged using the prophetic teachings to develop social and scientific insight and to subvert the authority of Muslim scholars who have tried releguate these fields on inquiry.
Pasha views the West as unworthy of emulation as its models are unstable, while change is necessary, it should be subordinate to a higher moral ethic, which he saw Islam as providing.
|Pasha views the West as unworthy of emulation as its models are unstable, while change is necessary, it should be subordinate to a higher moral ethic, which he saw Islam as providing|
What all of the essays and authors have in common is despite their ideologically diversity, the overall decline of the Ottoman and Muslim world(s) is never really questioned. They all have different frameworks and prescriptions, but in a curious way, they all share this notion and it is interesting to see how each school grapples with it.
These debates would of course be of interest to anyone looking to get a better appreciation of the ideas floating around during this period, directly from the thinkers themselves, but it might also be of great interest for those trying to understand the modern Turkish republic today.
Many of the current debates have echoes in these older ones and Ahmet Seyhun has wonderfully laid them out in a highly readable and enjoyable manner.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt
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