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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. “National projects” and their regional framework

Three types of policy

Yusuf Akçura
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Üc tarz-i siyaset (Three types of policy)

2Originally published: Cairo, 1904, in numbers 24 (14 April); 26 (28 April); and 27 (5 May) of the newspaper Türk.

3Language: Ottoman Turkish
The excerpts used are from the 1991 reprint published by the Turkish Historical Society, Ankara, pp. 19–24, 31–35.

About the author

4Yusuf Akçura (Akçuraoğlu Yusuf or Yusuf Akchurin) [1876, Simbirsk (Russia) – 1935, Ankara]: historian, political theorist and activist. He was born to an upper-bourgeois family of Volga Tatars in Simbirsk, the home town of Lenin. Upon the death of his father, he was taken to Istanbul at the age of seven. Following his elementary education, Akçura was enrolled in the Military Academy, the seedbed of rising Turkish nationalism in the Ottoman Empire. In 1896, under the oppressive rule of Abdulhamid II, he was exiled to Trablusgarb (Tripoli) in Ottoman Libya for being involved in the clandestine Young Turk movement. He managed to flee to Paris in 1899, where he studied political science and history close to figures such as Albert Sorel and Emile Boutmy. He also linked up with the Young Turk exiles in Paris and published nationalist and pan-Turkist articles in the group,s newspapers. In 1903 he returned to Russia, and was thereafter involved simultaneously in two different political movements in two separate countries. He played a leading role in the shaping of the nationalist agenda pursued by the Turkic peoples of Russia, who strove to secure political rights and achieve cultural autonomy within a nascent representative system in Russia. At the same time, he remained a prolific figure among the Young Turk circles, publishing profusely on the political and cultural significance of national identity in the Ottoman context. Akçura came back to Istanbul in 1908, in the wake of the Young Turk revolution, and was the driving force behind the ‘Turkish Hearth’ movement that served as the fulcrum of Turkish nationalism in the 1910s and 1920s. He founded and directed the most important Turkist journal of the time, Türk yurdu (Turkish homeland), in which, along with other Turkic exiles from Russia, he attempted to instill a consciousness about the cultural unity of all Turkic peoples of the world. He was also a founder, along with Ziya Gökalp and Halide Edib, of the Halka Doğru (Towards the people) movement (1912), which pursued a populist agenda, striving to inculcate the national idea among the Anatolian masses. .Akçura never became a member of the Committee of Union and Progress due to the Young Turk regime,s continuing adherence (till the end of the Balkan Wars) to the ‘Ottomanist’ cause, which prescribed the incorporation of different ethno-religious communities under the idea of a common Ottoman nationhood. Following the Ottoman defeat in the First World War, Akçura was immediately embraced by the national resistance movement in Anatolia, due to the careful distance he had maintained from the Unionists. Upon the founding of the Republic, he became a member of the Turkish Parliament, and in the 1930s, worked as a professor of Turkish history at Istanbul University. In 1932, he was appointed as the first president of the Turkish Historical Society, hence playing a paradigmatic role in the shaping of the official narrative of ‘national history’ in Republican Turkey. Although a major fountainhead of Turkish nationalism at its moment of emergence, Akçura does not occupy as prominent a position in the Turkish national pantheon as, for instance, Ziya Gökalp. This was largely due to his abiding reputation as the architect of ‘pan-Turkism’, a political movement that was marginalized by the Republican regime and appropriated by the extreme right.

5Main works: Üç tarz-i siyaset [Three types of policy] (1904); Türk, Cermen ve Islavlarin munasebat-i tarihiyeleri [Historical relationships between the Turks, Germans and Slavs] (1914); Şark meselesine ait tarih notion [Historical notes on the Eastern Question] (1920); Muasir Avrupa,da siyasi ve igtimai fikirler ve fikri cerey-anlar [Political and social thought and intellectual currents in contemporary Europe] (1923); Osmanh Imparatorluğu ‘nun dağilma devri [The Ottoman Empire’s period of disintegration] (1934).


6Yusuf Akçura composed ‘Three types of policy’ as a long article upon his return to his homeland in Russia, following a highly formative period of study in Paris. At this point, as a political exile who was not permitted to return to Istanbul, he was actively involved in promoting the cultural and political rights of the Turkic peoples of Russia, while maintaining contact with Young Turk groups in Istanbul, Paris and Cairo who strove to overthrow the regime of Abdulhamid II and reinstate the 1876 constitution. The article was sent to the newspaper Türk (Turk), published in Cairo by liberal Ottoman exiles. Türk, the first publication to use this ethnic designation as a title, was not an overt advocate of nationalist or Young Turk agendas, but, professedly, adopted the aim of correcting the negative European stereotypes about the Ottoman Turks. Akçura, choice of Türk as the venue for the publication of his article was a strategic and critical gesture, as he was quite affronted by the absence of the greater, non-Ottoman Turkish world in the intellectual agenda of the publishers. Published anonymously in 1904, the article was conceived as a response to the Ottomanist and cosmopolitan propensities of the Young Turks, and must be considered the earliest manifesto of Turkish nationalism.

7‘Three types of policy’ was the first systematic attempt to articulate and historicize the competing late Ottoman political strategies of reform and survival. Akçura identifies three distinct and alternative agendas devised by the Ottomans in their struggle to maintain the unity of the imperial conglomerate: the supra-national idea of the ‘Ottoman nation’; the idea of a pan-Islamic union based on the dynastic Ottoman claim to the title of the caliph, the spiritual leader of all Muslims; and the nascent idea of a Turkish nation based on ethnic identity. With unemotional ease and remarkable pragmatic efficiency, Akçura lays down the strategic advantages and shortcomings of each policy. The first option, ‘Ottomanism’, rooted in the Tanzimat reforms and adopted by the Young Turk opposition, is ruled out straight away for being profoundly unrealistic in an age of burgeoning ethnic nationalisms. Akçura claims that the French liberal model of nationality, appropriated by the reforming Ottoman elite and predicated upon principles of ‘conscious individual will’, freedom and equality, had long been outdated and was already revised by the German model of nationality based on ‘race’ (irk). For Akçura, the real debate concerns the latter two alternatives which present comparable challenges and advantages. The policy of pan-Islamism, he argues, with its rooted cultural foundations and global ambitions, has nevertheless to contend with the fact that the majority of the Muslim populations of the world are controlled by forceful colonial powers. The idea of a ‘Turkish political nation’ based on ethnicity, Akçura confirms, is radically new and unprecedented, “never before conceived in any Turkish state in history.” Although he celebrates the rise of the ethnically homogenous nation state as the apogee of historical evolution in the Western world, he still acknowledges that nationalism does not exist as an innate or historically rooted phenomenon, but needs to be actively undertaken as a broad political and cultural enterprise. This, he submits, is a particular challenge in the Ottoman domain, where, with the exception of a small and incipient scholarly community, the Turkish inhabitants lack the most basic notions of national history and identity.

8Although Akçura makes an effort to maintain a neutral distance vis-a-vis the two policy alternatives, his preferences are, nevertheless, distinctly revealed throughout the article. Discussing the strategy of “Turkish unity,” for instance, he alludes to the gradual confinement of religion within the personal sphere in an increasingly secular world. The survival and regeneration of religion in the modern world, he contends, is entirely dependent upon its subordination to the national cause. While severely lacking in a shared sense of identity and national unity, most Turks, Akçura affirms, are Muslims; hence the possibility of using Islam as a cohesive tool, and of transforming it with respect to the broader and progressive outlook of the national cause.

9Akçura approaches the question of Turkish nationalism with the sharp insights and impassive outlook of an outsider. Equipped with the experiences and predispositions of a non-Ottoman Turk from Russia, he was the first intellectual to propose a radical and challenging alternative to the existing paradigms of identity in the Ottoman domain. Motivated by the political and cultural struggle of the Turkic peoples against Russian hegemony, and informed by their incipient search for national identity, Akçura made a revolutionary leap in the context of Ottoman political thought and called attention to the significance of Turkish nationalism as a viable political strategy. What he proposed to his Ottoman readers in ‘Three types of policy’ was a novel and daring geopolitical agenda that would entirely transfigure the rehearsed regional roles and perspectives of the Ottoman state. Anticipating the further contraction of imperial territories in Southeast Europe, Akçura maintained that a shift in the center of gravity of the Empire towards the north-east would become inevitable. What this entailed, of course, was the cultivation of an expansionist policy in Asia, demanding the unification of all Turkic groups under Ottoman leadership, and thereby constituting a new ‘axis of power’ in the world.

10That this conjecture would imply a significant loss of territory for the Empire (especially in the Balkans, its heart and soul) and would require the assimilation or annihilation of ethnic groups coexisting with the Turks in Anatolia, made it anathema to the standard Ottoman reader at the turn of the twentieth century. For most Ottomans, a national identity based on Turkish ethnicity seemed as distant a prospect as the utopian ideal of Turan. Upon its initial publication, Akçura,s article had a limited but quite negative impact among the Young Turk community in Cairo. The editor of Türk called it an “irrational literary exercise,” attempting to separate and amplify the ethnic component of a unified Ottoman and Islamic identity. The second publication, again from Cairo, reached a broader audience, especially among the Turkic groups in Russia. The real impact, however, came with the third edition, which was printed in Istanbul in 1911, upon the loss of the last African territories of the Empire in a war with Italy, and on the eve of the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. The loss of the remaining Balkan territories as a result of these wars constituted a watershed for the upsurge of Turkish nationalism, as the dominant rhetoric of “preserving the Empire,” upheld by generations of Ottoman reformers, ceased to make much sense any more. At this Juneture, Akçura,s article enjoyed great popular appeal and became a central point of reference for a growing number of young nationalist activists in the Ottoman world. With a truncated empire resting entirely on Asian soil, and with waves of Balkan refugees fleeing into Anatolia, political Turkism, and even the pan-Turkist utopia, offered to many young and disillusioned Ottomans a sense of hope for the future and compensation for lost lands. It was also after 1913, following the acute trauma of the Balkan Wars, that the official position of the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (patently ‘Ottomanist’ up to that point) verged on embracing the nationalist agenda of the Turkists. It is no coincidence, for instance, that following the final collapse of the Empire at the end of the First World War, Enver Pas, a, a member of the Unionist ‘Triumvirate’ leadership, was killed on the Afghan border while futilely leading his local Turkic ‘resistance, fighters against the Soviet Red Army.

11Never a ground-breaking theorist, Yusuf Akçura was, nevertheless, a far-sighted strategist whose ideas played a definitive role in the shaping of Turkish nationalism during and after the demise of the Empire. Although the pan-Turkic vision was categorically and officially rejected during the Republican era, still, a strong consciousness about ‘racial’ and cultural links with the Central Asian ‘motherland’ was maintained and cultivated, especially by right wing governments. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this national ‘affection’ turned into an appetite, albeit with limited impact, for growing cultural influence.


Three types of policy

13Three distinct political prospects were conceived and pursued in the Ottoman lands since the rise of a Western-inspired yearning for progress and empowerment: the first was to assemble an Ottoman nation by uniting and representing the various nations subordinate to the Ottoman government. The second was to unite all Muslims politically under the administration of the government in question by taking advantage of the Caliphal right inherited by the Ottoman dynasty (this is what the Europeans call “Pan-lsamism”). The third is to form a political Turkish nation based on ethnicity.

14So far, the first two options have had a profound impact on the general policies of the Ottoman state. The latter, on the other hand, can only be encountered in the works of certain writers. [...]

15The official policy of forging an Ottoman nation was initiated at the time of Sultan Mahmud II (1808–1839). The sultan,s well-known dictum [is quite illustrative of the new agenda]: “I would like to observe the religious differences of my subjects only when they enter their mosques, their synagogues or their churches.” It was only natural that this policy gained acclaim and was deemed an applicable alternative in the Ottoman lands in the context of the early and mid-nineteenth century. At that time, with the lasting impact of the French Revolution, conceptions of nationality were informed by the French doctrine advocating conscientious choice as the basis of national [identity], rather than lineage and race. Sultan Mahmud and his followers were deluded by this doctrine, about which they had only superficial knowledge. Thus, they believed in the possibility of blending and consolidating the ethnically and religiously diverse subjects of the state by means of freedom, equality, security and mutual respect. [...] When the criterion of nationality was reinterpreted by the Germans in a more realistic manner on the basis of ethnicity, the empire of Napoleon [III] crumbled with the war of 1870–1871, and from that moment onward, the political vision that was the Ottoman nation lost its only source of support. [...]

16With the failure of the policy of Ottoman nationality, the policy of Islam arrived on the scene. This idea, identified as Pan-Islamism by the Europeans, was instigated by the Young Ottoman party, which, to some extent, participated in the policy of forging an Ottoman nation. Many Young Ottoman poets and officials who started out by championing the “motherland” and “Ot-tomanism” [...] later came to adopt a standpoint founded on Islam [...]. Hence, taking advantage of the existing religious unanimity, they made every effort to unite all Islamic constituents, first those in the Ottoman domains and later in the entire globe, regardless of their ethnic differences. They recognized the need to unite all Muslims as one nation, following the dictum memorized by all Muslim children: “nation and religion are one.” [...]

17The contemporary sultan [Abdülhamid II] attempted to employ the title Caliph, instead of traditional titles such as Sultan and Padishah. Religion and Islam acquired a greater role in his overall policy [...]. Envoys were sent to inner Africa and the land of China, which are home to large Muslim communities. The Hijaz Hamidiye Railway [linking Damascus to Medina] was built as a most potent instrument of the [Islamist] policy. Yet, with this political doctrine, the Ottoman establishment was reverting to the form of the theocratic state that the Tanzimat strove to abandon. [...]

18The idea of creating a Turkish political nationality based on ethnicity is very recent. I do not believe that such an idea ever existed in the Ottoman state or in any of the Turkish states in history [...]. [But] it is certain that recently there has emerged a circle in Istanbul, a scientific rather than a political one, which advocates the idea of a Turkish nationality. Increasing contacts between Ottomans and Germans, and the Turkish yout,s increasing familiarity with German studies on history and language must have played a crucial role in the emergence of this circle. Because, instead of the insubstantial and declamatory political rhetoric espoused by the French-devotees, this young circle adheres to solid knowledge, discreetly, patiently and rigorously achieved. [...]

19I do not know whether there are supporters of the idea [of Turkism] outside of Istanbul, in other parts of the Ottoman realm. Yet the policy of Turkism, similar to that of Islamism, is universal; it is not circumscribed by the Ottoman borders. Thus, one also needs to consider other parts of the world inhabited by Turks. I presume that the idea of unifying the Turks exists ambiguously in Russia, inhabited by a large number of Turks [...]. In any case, the idea of creating a political nation based on ethnicity is too recent and not quite pervasive. [...]

20Now, let us consider which one of the three policies is beneficial and applicable [...]. Constituting an Ottoman nation is the only solution for preserving the Ottoman state within its current boundaries. But, does the actual potency of the Ottoman state rest upon the preservation of its present geographical form? [...] The crucial question [in this regard] is whether any prospect of amalgamation is feasible for religiously and ethnically diverse communities that have never ceased fighting. As discussed above, this experiment ended in failure. [...]

21Now, let us consider the value and feasibility of the policy of an Islamic Union for the Ottoman state. With the implementation of this policy, religious hatred and enmity will intensify among Ottoman subjects, which will entail the loss of territories largely inhabited by non-Muslims, and hence, the eventual weakening of the Ottoman state. Besides, the Turks will be divided by religious disparity, and ethnic fraternity will be ravaged by religious strife.

22Yet, in spite of all these shortcomings, all Muslims living under Ottoman sovereignty, and therefore the Turks, will be joined together [...] as a strong community, the community of Islam, more tightly knit than a [diverse] Ottoman nation. More important is [the long term prospect] of a powerful alliance among all Muslims [around the world], and the inauguration of a formidable union based on religion, which could survive among the great entities to be formed by the union of Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Slavic, Latin or even the Yellow races. [...]

23Although the new laws ordained by some Muslim states deviate from the sharia, their fundamentals are still linked to Islamic precepts. Arabic is still the only language of religion. Moreover, it is the scientific and literary language for the Muslims of various regions [...]. In sum, one could argue that Islamic civilization continues to exist in its former unity. [...]

24One could confidently assert that Islam is still quite powerful. The internal obstacles to be encountered in applying the policy of Islamic unity upon this basis will be tolerable. Yet the external obstacles are going to be overwhelming. On the one hand, all Islamic states are under the influence of Christian states. On the other hand, with a few exceptions, all Christian states possess Muslim subjects [in their colonies].

25As it is against their interests, [the Christian states] will do everything to prevent their Muslim subjects, allegiance to external political centers and to a universal ideal that might yield significant results in the future. Moreover, they could very well enforce this strategy with the power and influence they hold over the Islamic states. Therefore, they will be able to resist, perhaps even successfully, the attempts of the foremost Islamic power, the Ottoman state, to implement the policy of Islamic union.

26Let us now consider the benefits of the policy of Turkish unity. The Turks of the Ottoman realm will bond firmly with religious as well as ethnic ties. Some Muslim elements [of Ottoman society] who are not Turks originally, but have been Turkified to a certain extent, will further identify with Turk-ishness. And it will also be possible to Turkify those who have never considered themselves Turks.

27But the real benefit [of this policy] is that it will facilitate the union of all Turks dispersed in eastern Europe and in a large part of Asia, who share a single race, language, similar customs and for a majority, a single religion. Thus, it will enable the formation of a great political nation on a par with other large nationalities. The Ottoman state, as the strongest and most modernized among the Turkish communities, will play the most significant role within this alliance. In a distant future, a vision evoked by recent events, a Turkish universe will emerge between the universes of the white and the yellow races. Within this middle-world, the Ottoman state will assume the task the Japanese envisioned for themselves in the realm of the yellow race. [...]

28The internal complications involving the implementation of the policy of Turkish unification are greater than those linked to the Islamic policy. Although there is an increasing awareness among the Turks about the nationality question, this, as mentioned before, is a fairly recent development. Conceptions of Turkishness, Turkish literature, and visions of Turkish unification must be perceived as newborn children. The Turkish cause lacks the organizational capacity and the ardent and vivacious mentality of Islam; in short, it lacks the materials and the groundwork needed to constitute a solid union. Today, most Turks suffer from a state of historical amnesia.

29One should not forget, though, that the majority of the Turks who will conceivably unite in our time belong to the Islamic faith. For this reason, Islam could be considered an important factor in shaping a broad Turkish nationality. There are those who portray religion as an agent in their attempt to define nationality. If Islam were to have a [real] function in the unification of the Turks, it is necessary for it to undergo change [from inside] in such a manner as to accommodate the birth of nations, as Christianity has done recently. This change is all but imperative. In our age, the prevalent [nationalistic] currents are based on ethnicity. Religions, in and of themselves, are gradually losing their political significance and power. They are becoming more personal than social. Freedom of [religious] choice is replacing religious solidarity in societies [...]. Thus religion is able to maintain its social and political influence only by supporting and serving ethnicity. [...]

30The following conclusions can be derived from the foregoing deliberations: although it carries certain benefits for the Ottoman state, [the idea of] constructing an Ottoman nation is entirely impracticable. The policies of Islamic or Turkish unification involve an equal amount of benefits and drawbacks for the Ottoman state. In terms of their implementation, again, the shortcomings and merits of the two options are comparable.


Ahmet Ersoy (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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