Central Asian Survey (Oxford) Volume 3, No. 3; 1984. Pp. 109-115.)
NATIONALITY AND RELIGION: THREE OBSERVATIONS FROM OMER SEYFETTIN
H. B. Paksoy
Omer Seyfettin was born in what was then the Ottoman Empire in 1884 and graduated from the Military Academy. He was posted to Izmir and later to Western border garrisons. In 1909, he was an officer of the Hareket Ordusu (Action Army) which suppressed the Irtica (Recidivist) uprising, the religious groups opposing the newly formed constitutional monarchy in Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was a ranking staff officer of the Hareket Ordusu.
In 1911, after resigning his commission, Omer Seyfettin began publishing Genc Kalemler (Young Pens) with Ziya Gokalp and Ali Janip. He was recalled to the army under mobilization orders at the beginning of the Balkan War and spent approximately 12 month during 1912-1913 in Greece as a prisoner of war. In 1914, after leaving the army for the second time, Omer Seyfettin became a literature teacher in an Istanbul High school. He died of diabetes in 1920. He was 36.
To understand his frame of mind better, one must observe that he died before witnessing the liberation of his homeland, or the prospects thereof, from all occupying forces. The present-day Turkiye Cumhuriyeti took shape ten years after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, in 1929, with a quite different personality, more along the lines envisioned by Omer Seyfettin.
Seyfettin Joined the Union and Progress Party prior to 1907 and stayed in it until his untimely death. He was a member of the General Secretariat. However, he was not arrested, a fate that befell most of the members of the party in 1919.
In 1914 he was Bashyazar (Chief Author) of Turk Yurdu (Turkish Homeland) and during 1917 a contributor to Yeni Mecmua ((New Magazine), both published in Istanbul.
The following excerpt is translated from Mehdi (Savior). In this short story, Omer Seyfettin is trying to put into words the distinction between Turk and Moslem, all the while interpreting a particular Koranic statement. Given the prevalent political demagogy surrounding the term "Ottomanism" in his time, this effort has specific implications.
The setting for "Savior" is a train compartment. It was written in 1913, while Omer Seyfettin was still a prisoner of war. (Salonica was given to Greece 10 August 1913 by treaty of Bucharest. Allied troops disembarked there on 5 October 1915). All five passengers are Turks travelling through Greece. Among the group there is a hoja wearing the sarik (turban), the religious headgear. The discussion is centered on whether and when the Turks will again be free, in their own independent homeland. Two of the individuals are pessimistic about the prospects. Another wonders if the mehdi, the promised Savior of the Moslems, will appear and overcome the captivity to which Turks are currently subjected. The hoja interrupts the gloomy atmosphere:
Do you know who this Savior is my sons? It is the missing twelfth Imam! All Moslems are awaiting his reappearance. No doubt this is a dream. I'll tell you how and under what influences this vision began: Islam is an ideal. It is such a high, firm and grand ideal that every aggressive Moslem would like to take every non-Moslem country and make them all Moslem. Over time, due to connivance and treachery, one at a time, the Islam governments fell. Moslems became slaves. However, the Islamic ideal left in the subconscious minds, a hope, an aspiration in every Moslem. The Moslems, who groaned under the heavy and blazing hot chains of slavery, did not despair of a day of deliverance and salvation. What is more, these people, the mehdi attached the fulfillment of this hope to the twelfth Imam, who would one day reappear. This Savior, the one awaited by the innate disposition of the Moslems with such subconscious confidence, is actually a Guide (a leader pointing to the correct path).The following is translated from "Ilk Dusen Ak" (The First White Hair). Omer Seyfettin is posing blunt questions with respect to the issue of self awareness which must have reached crisis proportions among the local educated elite.
Will there ever be such a Messiah to save all Moslems from servitude and oppression and persecution? In all Moslem lands, in Asia, India, Africa all Moslems are awaiting this Savior. There are numerous tales and stories about such a redeemer. This sorrowful mood also manifests itself in the hauntingly majestic poetry of the wounded spirits of the Moslem brethren. Like Ak Minare, etc. But will this Messiah ever come? No and Yes. The Spirit of Islam with purity of heart regards every hero a Savior. If that hero is not successful, mehdi becomes mutemehdi (one who claims to be Savior). Then, the real mehdi is once again awaited. But, alas, no such Messiah will emerge to deliver the Moslems, overthrowing the occupiers, taking their revenge. However, will this bondage and anguish last until the day of judgement? Of course not. Someday, Islam's revenge will come. But how? Sacred book Koran answers this: "The Savior of every tribe shall come." Yes, every nation shall have its own Guide, leading them to redemption. For example, The Caliph cannot go and rescue the Moslems in Bosnia Herzegovia. They themselves struggle.
From amongst them, one or more selfless martyrs will emerge. They will take up arms. They will emulate other nations who have thrown off the yoke, the Christian nations. The same is true for the Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Sudanese and even Egyptians. This is also valid for living elsewhere. Liberators from within their tribes emerge. These liberators will lead their nations. Then, after this deliverance, the people who begin to understand knowledge and wisdom will form an international entity, much like their Christian counterparts. This is the true ideal of the Union of Islam. When this ideal is realized, Christian Internationalism, i.e. the Europeans will not be able to exert pressure on the Moslems whom they find weak and unprepared. Only then balance, law and order will be established on earth. A nation's Guides are those who can awaken their people from their witless slumber of ignorance. We Turks will march towards a national ideal that is illuminated by the sacred torches of our Guides and will break the chains of slavery under which we have been wailing. Not only that, but we will even be able to go to the aid of our non-Turk Moslem brethren. Like ourselves, every Moslem nation may rightfully expect their own Guide. The exultant tiding is given in the Koran. Yes, the Koran is in our hands. There is not a Messiah. However, there will be many Guides. While the common man is awaiting that lone imaginary Savior, we Turk, Arab, Persian and other Moslem thinkers must be vigilant for our own Guides, real saviors. We must never doubt that whether or not they will appear.
The main figure of the story is a Turkish architectural engineer trained in Paris. After returning to what was then the Ottoman empire, he is assigned to a very-well paid position. He has no monetary worries. Now that he is comfortably settled in Istanbul a professional and as an adjunct professor at the school of Engineering, he is suffering from an ailment which he himself cannot identify. He is losing weight, observes that he is neither happy nor sad. He seeks medical help. The physician, after examining him, diagnoses "sinecure" (in this context, loss of aim due to accomplishment, excessive comfort). The prescription: to struggle for an ideal. The engineer is still at a loss. The physician then poses a question to clarify his point: "Are you a patriot?" Not receiving an answer, a second one: "Are you an internationalist?" The engineer, again cannot respond. He has never thought about such concepts. The architect/engineer then collects his thoughts:
In life there are those insignificant events which leave on us deep impressions. One "nothing" may change the path on which we have many a year walked. The paradoxical statements of the physician, who suggested that I obtain an ideal, very much affected me. Again, owing to my pathological sensitivity, I was left under his spell. Yes, last year I was neither a nationalist nor an internationalist! I needed an ideal. However, an ideal could not be found and bought like ready-to-wear clothing. I liked literature very much. I thought of writing a novel, in fact started writing it... Then thought of the scandal which would follow its printing. Famous --but for what?-- engineer so-and-so has published a novel! This would have been akin to a famous Minister of Works writing a primer of religious education, while he was still occupying his post! So as not to become a laughing stock, I gave up. I set my ambition out to read the publications surrounding the nationalist movement. Two months later, I summed up the thoughts I had gathered and came up with the following:The following was offered by Omer Seyfettin as an explanation of his motives in writing, rather than as an introduction to "Ashab-i Kehfimiz" (Our Seven Sleepers)
1. People who share the same language and religion belong to the same nation. The Turks are also a nation. However, since they have been living as an umma (religious community) they have neglected their own nationality. They have endeavored to resemble Persians and Arabs.
2. Upon becoming a nationality, it is necessary to modernize. Then they have attempted to imitate the "Franks" (the West).
3. However, Turks, just like other nations, have a distinct and separate personality in every branch of culture. They can progress when they discover this personality.
Then, I looked around. Authors were striving to write the spoken natural language; poets to produce the national literature, poetry, the national meters; jurists, to find the national jurisprudence; moralists the national morals; educators, the national upbringing. I started to seek the national art.
I wrote this little novel five years ago. It was not my intention to produce a literary work. I simply wanted to compare the strange ways of thought of our intellectuals with social reality.NOTES:
After the Mesrutiyet (the second proclamation of the constitution in 1908), I had spoken with most of our "Great Leaders." Their collective thoughts were approximately reflected in the following summation: "Ottomanism is a composite nationality. Ottomanism is neither Turkism nor being Moslem. Every individual living under the Ottoman administration, without regard to national origin and religion, is a member of the Ottoman nation!" However, this idea was nothing but an illusion, a fantasy, born of brains produced by the non-nationalist education system of the Tanzimat (reform) period. It was not possible to constitute a "composite" nationality from the sum total of individuals who have separate religions, languages, moralities, histories, cultures and grounds for pride. Was "Ottomanism" in actuality anything more than the name of our government? It was not possible to call the Germans living in Austria "the Habsburg nation, the Austrian nation" Wherever he might be, a German is a German. Those of us who speak Turkish, were a nation with a history of five thousand years, and even older legends. Within the domains of the Ottoman state, in Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Turkistan, Bukhara, Kashgar, in short, wherever we lived, we were genuine Turks... However, the political thoughts and social goals of those intellectuals were so ridiculous as to bring tears in the eyes; those intellectuals who gave the word "Ottomanism" imaginary meanings. These respected gentlemen were not able to see the truth even after the Balkan war. It was then that I wrote this book. The thoughts embodied in it were inspired only by the Tanzimat, therefore I did not attempt to attribute them to a specific person and sketch any personal types. While the Turkish peasant could identify the bounds of nationality very well as "those who speak my language, who have my religion," educated gentlemen attached no importance to language or religion during the last revolution (1908). Finally, time taught them a good lesson. Within ten years we were afflicted by events each of which would not fit into a century. Now, the value of nationality in general has been realized. Importance has now begun to be attached to the natural spoken language, national literature, national art and the ideal of nationality. Today, perhaps, the political assertions and mindless actions of the heroes in this book will seem like excessive "exaggerations." However, what are the true aims of those who still pass for opponents of nationalism, and Turkism; aims which they cannot confess openly in language, literature, art and politics? If they have any, are they not all empty dreams?
1. T. Alangu, Omer Seyfettin (Istanbul, 1968). Alangu, during the early 1950s, interviewed a number of persons who had known Seyfettin personally and intimately.
2. Togan suggests that these magazines were read in Central Asia at that time. See Z. V. Togan, Turkistan (Istanbul, 1981). Also see reference to Turk Yurdu by H. Komatsu, "Fitrat'in Munazarasi uzerine notlar." Dogu Dilleri: Ankara Universitesi Dil ve Tarih Cografya Fakultesi. Cilt II, Sayi 2; 1981. Page 165.
3. O. Seyfettin, Bomba. (Istanbul, 1982). The translated portion of the short story "Mehdi" is found in Pp. 111-113.
4. Wa-likulli Qawmin Hadin (13:8).
5. See Ashab-i Kehfimiz in the body of the text below.
6. See Komatsu, op. cit. above, P. 161. In his paper, Komatsu cites the armed fighting which broke out between Sunnis and the Shiites in Bukhara during 1910. Perhaps, with this event fresh in his mind, Seyfettin is attempting to conciliate the two sects by casting the Shiite concept of 12th Imam into the role of the "Savior" for all Moslems.
7. At the time, In Istanbul, the Tsarist Russia was also considered to be an European state with evangelistic ambitions. Russian missionaries were actively seeking converts to Christianity in Central Asia. Ilminskii was one such missionary, who devised several subsets of the cyrillic alphabet for the Central Asians. In this manner, Ilminskii and his supporters sought to separate the Central Asians from the rest and isolate them from the other Turk elements. The tsarist Russia, and Great Britain considered the Central Asian Turks a real danger to their own positions.
8. O. Seyfettin, Ilk Dusen Ak (Istanbul, 1962), Pp. 67-68.
9. O. Seyfettin, Butun Eserleri (Ankara, 1970). Pp. 7-56. Ashab-i Kehfimiz was first published in Istanbul during 1918. The words constituting the title are from the Koran (which is a borrowing from earlier traditions).
10. "Ottoman" language was a contrived blend of Turkish, Persian and Arabic.