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Making nation from history. A challenge (1)

Monday 2 June 2008, by Hans-Peter Geissen

Turkish nationalism is a puzzling enigma, which may be manifest on the level of its main protagonists.

Sometimes stylized as a “Godfather” of Turkish nationalism, the late-Ottoman intellectual Ziya Gökalp may serve as an appropriate entry.

Gökalp, in analogy to and probably descendence from German romanticism, distinguished between culture and civilization. Here, civilization means rather technical and profane aspects of society, while culture means (expressions of) its spirit(uality). Gökalp advocated a determined Westernization (“Europeanization”) of Ottoman civilization, and on the other hand the preservation of distinctly Ottoman-Turkish culture. In this culture Gökalp emphasized its religious (Islamic) content in the sense of a popular “glue” of the nation - however, cleaned of popular superstition and separated from the state. Hence, he advocated secularism in politics and (technical) civilization while emphasizing Islamic spirituality in culture. Ethnicity was apparently not placed high on Gökalp’s Turkish-national agenda, which seems understandable: Ethnically, Gökalp was a Kurd.

Abdullah Cevdet may appear as the most influential, and also as one of the most radical, of late-Ottoman secularists and an advocate of strict materialism, though he accepted Islam as a cultural phenomenon and national “glue”. Politically he was an Ottomanist in the sense of advocating a multi-ethnic Ottoman nation unified by a constitutional monarchy. In the end, he became a person on which current Islamists, (hardcore-) Kemalists and nationalists, and all the more the various national-Islamic syntheses, can agree as an “enemy of the state”. Because, when Ottomanism had become impossible due to the end of the empire, Cevdet turned to his ethnic roots as the basis of his prospective secular nationality. And Abdullah Cevdet was also an ethnic Kurd.

But of course, Turkish nationalism has also a strong ethnic and sometimes even a pan-Turkic component, with national ambitions stretching all across the lebensraum of speakers of Turkic languages, meaning from the Black-Sea- and Balkan region to Sinkiang in today’s western China. Two early and influential protagonists of this tradition shall be specifically mentioned here: Ahmet Agaoglu and Yusuf Akcura. And it may be interesting that all the aforementioned men shared a certain amount of time of exile in Paris


To various degrees at different phases of their lives, the latter two shared various positions of Gökalp and/or Cevdet, but were putting strong emphasis on ethnic Turkishness and (Agaoglu in particular) on Panturkism. Both were exilants from the Russian Empire, which by the time had occupied most of the Turkic world from the Black Sea region to Central Asia, and which was the most pertinent threat for the Ottoman Empire, aspiring to control the Bosphorus, the Balkans and even Anatolia.

Both refugees were also inspired by a Tatar version of East-Slavic romantic populism, the Narodniki, which contained national-liberal and romantic-socialist connotations and was a founding impulse for Ukrainian self-consciousness in particular. And as we may see, also for a Turkish version.

Maybe the first, however, to emphasize the culture-founding qualities of Turkishness seems to have been Mustafa Celaleddin Pascha, who was born with the name Konstantin Borzénski as a Polish nobleman. Taking part in the Polish national uprising of 1848 against the Tsar, he had to flee the country after the defeat of the revolution and, after a year in Paris, resettled in Istanbul, converted to Islam and entered the military service of the Ottoman empire. Sometimes he’s also mentioned as a founder of Turkology with his work about “Les Turcs anciens et modernes” (1869).

A famous descendant of Celaleddin Pasha died with a Polish passport again: Nazim Hikmet Borzénski, great-grandson of the former and certainly the most famous of modern Turkish poets, who spent about a third of his life either in Turkish prisons or Soviet exile, and received a Polish passport after having been stripped of his Turkish nationality in 1951 by Turkey’s regime of the time.

- To be continued...

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