Ahmed Rıza and the Young Turk Movement


A review of Ahmed Rıza (1858-1930) Histoire d’un vieux Jeune Turc, by Erdal Kaynar.

This dissertation is a biographical work of one of the major leaders of the Young Turk movement, Ahmed Rıza. The main theoretical reference is constituted by the Italian and French philosophers and historians of the late twentieth century, including Louis Althusser and Giovanni Levi. Inspired by works in the field of microhistory Kaynar criticises what Pierre Bourdieu has called the “biographical illusion” (“l’illusion biographique”) meaning that it is only a posteriori, in the reconstruction of one’s personal or of other peoples’ biography, that coherence and continuity emerge in what is otherwise a lived life torn apart by contrasting influences and incoherent response. It is precisely this conception that permits Kaynar to build a full blown portrait of Ahmed Rıza that includes the narration of political events, analysis of Rıza’s writings and a very expanded context that all contribute to explain the overturns and changes in Rıza’s life. The dissertation presents itself with an almost dialectic text structure as it describes within the chapters and subchapters, the Ottoman social and political context of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French cultural and intellectual context of the same period, with a special focus on the ideology of positivism, and as a synthesis between the two, the political and intellectual work of Ahmed Rıza.

The core text begins by giving a history of the Rıza family within the context of the Tanzimat era. The genealogic and biographic introduction seems to provide context to some of the most important decisions and intellectual fascinations of Ahmed Rıza’s adult life. The family history describes in fact a transition between social ascension based on skills – in this case, archery – to social status obtained by acquired knowledge, as in the case of Ahmed Rıza’s father, Ali Rıza “İngiliz” Bey who managed to rise to very important diplomatic posts thanks to his knowledge of English and other European languages (pp. 41-70). Yet, though practical skills and lay knowledge seem to have been a valuable asset in late Ottoman social mobility, the direct intervention of the Sultan was crucial to both the rise and fall of the Rıza’s.

The economic basis of the Rıza family fortunes were not given by direct payments of state salaries but by exploitation of landed property. Yet, due to various factors detailed in the text, by the late 1870s even the real-estate revenue of the Rıza’s began to decline. Thus, the decision of the young Ahmed Rıza to enrol in agronomy studies can be interpreted as an attempt to revive the family fortunes.

The author also shows that young Rıza was interested not only in practical knowledge, but also in literature, history and the development of natural sciences (pp. 98-110). Thus it is this wider curiosity that pushed Ahmed Rıza to pursue his education in Paris. These studies were, however interrupted by the death of the father, Ali Rıza, and Ahmed returned to Istanbul in search for a job, initially in the Bureau of Translation and later the lyceum in Bursa. Yet, both the education and the experience in Paris as well as his social status made Ahmed Rıza a tenacious reformer pushing for change both in his workplace and in general within the Ottoman Empire. The author undertakes a detailed analysis of these proposals, starting with the 1889 proposal to the Ministry of Education (pp. 157-164) considering various aspects of school reform, from boosting patriotism to financial details. These ideas, however, were ignored by the higher authorities and were met with hostility in his immediate surroundings.

By 1889 therefore, Rıza returned to Paris and, though he initially applied for an Ottoman state scholarship, he also deemed necessary to refuse it once it was approved. In fact the sum was so large that young Rıza would have become implicitly bribed by the Sultan into becoming his servant. Kaynar successfully argues that politically, this was one of the most important decisions of young Ahmed, upon which his moral authority rested and was reconfirmed in the following years. Kaynar reconstructs the positivist ideals in France in the years of the first Exposition Universelle to explain how, within the general context of the ideology of progress, seen as assimilation to the European model, that Ahmed Rıza elaborated his own variety of nationalism, ranging between Ottomanism and Turkism. In addition, the author examines the first expressions of Ahmed Rıza’s philosophy, the six layihas written for Sultan Abdülhamid between 1892 and 1896. In these writings, Rıza still addresses the Sultan (and not the people) to carry on necessary reforms. The Koranic principles are used to justify liberal reforms and the need for secular education. Rıza’s concept of progress was thus both a movement towards a brighter future, and an intrinsically violent process of Darwinist struggle between the states. In such a “natural selection” in international politics it is necessary to adapt to the spirit of the times and adopt reforms especially in the field of education and constitutionalism. In both of these areas, the popular sovereignty is affirmed as the education would, gradually, improve the well-being of the people, and the constitutional government is needed to bridge the gap between society and the state. Ahmed Rıza, in fact, held an organicist view of society as a balanced whole, bound to live in harmony, if only the external constraints were to be removed. For Rıza, these constraints were the ignorance of the people, the despotism of the Sultan and the intervention of the Great Powers. In fact, Rıza viewed even foreign intervention in Ottoman policy as a consequence of despotism. The government, being far removed from the people, was bound to ask for foreign help being unable to mobilize internal resources. Thus, it is in the content, more than in the form, that the novelties of Rıza’s conceptions within the Ottoman context fully emerge. The author uses the term millet to identify the people at large and not the traditional Ottoman religious-juridical groups. The figure of the Sultan is no longer legitimated by divine right, but by the well-being of the people. Finally, vatan, a word initially used to describe one’s village or city of origin, became a term that designated the whole Empire.

Few other factors are discussed in the dissertation that permit the rise of Ahmed Rıza as the leader of the Ottoman opposition in exile: the dispersal of the 1889 student opposition, and several events from 1895 that included the Armenian massacre, the severance of the remaining ties with the Porte and the start of the publication of two journals by Rıza in Paris. Rıza’s attitude, in the late 1890s, remained firmly anchored to an idealist worldview that found its centre in education, but also in journalism as means of political action. In fact, he believed that telling the truth would immediately provoke the transformation of the Ottoman mentality which would, in turn, automatically bring political change. The biennial 1896-1897 was one of the most intense in the life of Ahmed Rıza, underlining the capacity of the Young Turk leader to endure hardship and to use negative events to his own benefit. By February 1896 Rıza was convicted in absentia by the Ottoman court and on these grounds the diplomacy of the Porte asked the French Foreign Ministry to ban his newspapers and to extradite the editor to the Ottoman Empire. The French government refused extradition, but did ban Rıza’s publications. Though the ban remained in effect in the following period, Rıza managed to rally support of many French politicians and intellectuals and, especially, journalists who, from the far left to the far right, came to support the Young Turk cause. In the meantime, Rıza was ousted from his position as president of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and came into a very harsh conflict with the, now leading, Cairo branch of the movement as he refused to give support to Abdülhamid during the Greek-Turkish war over Crete, in 1897. By that time CUP was already severely damaged as the failed coup in Istanbul brought a new wave of arrests and fleeing. The Turkish victory in the 1897 war meant a reinforcement of the authority of the Sultan and the renewal of the bribery policy towards the opposition in exile. Unlike his internal Young Turk opponents of the Cairo branch, Rıza refused to enter the agreement with sultan’s representatives, thus reinforcing his image of an unyielding opposition leader and an incorruptible man.

Yet, by the turn of the century, a significant change occurred in the international sympathies of Ahmed Rıza. The Boxer rebellion in China and the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War both convinced Rıza that the West was gradually betraying its own political premises and sinking into sheer imperialism, driven, or at least accompanied, by a sentiment of Christian religious intolerance. The Japanese victory against Russia meant, for Rıza, not only the falsification of views on European racial or religious superiority, but also the validation of the universality of parliamentary principles being able to guarantee Nipponic victory. This shift in the view on world politics also implied a shift in the view of the internal organization of the Empire where the Ottoman Christians came to get viewed by Ahmed Rıza mostly as an instrument of the Great Powers in their struggle against the Ottoman territorial integrity. The sympathy towards the Armenians thus came to an end.

The first decade of the twentieth century also coincided with the diffusion of the Young Turk movement among the military. In these years Ahmed Rıza remained an ideologue but he was also a declining leader of the movement. Of utmost importance to the new wave of mobilization for the CUP was Rıza’s pamphlet, Asker (Soldier) analyzed in great detail by Kaynar. Published in Cairo in 1907 this highly influential book was key to mobilizing the military support to the Young Turk cause. Kaynar successfully argues that, for Rıza, the role of the military in international politics gained importance after the Boxer rebellion as the only possible deterrent from the direct invasion of the Great Powers. Within the pamphlet, Rıza developed this idea further in seeing the military as the main pillar of the Empire. Yet, Rıza argued, corruption and lack of discipline gradually spread in the Ottoman army destroying a once efficient and meritocratic organization. In the following period, Rıza would go even further in justifying political violence as he came to support the formation of Muslim paramilitary formations in Macedonia to fight against the Serbian, the Greek and the Bulgarian comitadji. In Rıza’s work, however, the political role of the army ended with the possibility of the coup and the deposition of the Sultan, the main objective remained the establishment of a constitutional and parliamentary state, and the military were considered useful as they were able to provoke the political change but also to control the social transformation guaranteeing the positivist ideal of “order and progress.” Though highly influential within the Ottoman opposition, the political role of Ahmed Rıza was in steady decline. The very revolution of the Young Turks in 1908 came as a complete surprise to him, while he was on a visit to London.

Rıza’s work on the military was the first in a cycle of works on a proposed transformation of the Ottoman society entitled Vazife ve Mesuliyet (Duty and Responsibility) and analyzed in great detail by Kaynar. The author, in fact, finds that Rıza’s worldview was based on harsh anthropological pessimism.

In fact, for the Young Turk author, men are intrinsically brute and inclined to alcohol and gambling, without any moral force. Thus the female element in society conferred moral sentiment without which progress would be impossible. Yet men, and even more so, women are depicted by Rıza as being naturally inclined to evil. Whereas in men this evil lay in brutal violence and alcohol, in women it is the intrigue, corruption and sexual licentiousness that pose the greatest danger for a scientific elevation of minds. Again, education and, above all, patriotism seems to be the cure to this anthropological pessimism. Becoming a mother is a means for women to put their sexuality under control and in the service of a greater good, i.e. giving birth and raising new patriotic citizens. In Kadın (Woman), the Western European society is still seen as a reference to Ottoman reform, but not as an absolute model to which to comply. Indeed, both the frivolity and the emancipation of women through paid work are explicitly condemned. According to Rıza, it is through education and through compliance to one’s duty that true emancipation is possible, and for women, the main duty is in giving birth and raising children. Thus the woman is relegated to the private sphere of home and her participation in politics and the labour market is reduced to the minimum. In this sense, even the harem (as closed as it came to be in the nineteenth century) becomes a positive model for Rıza, as it secludes the women and marginalizes them from public influence. Yet, the public role of women is not condemned in toto by the Young Turk author. He explicitly advocates the birth of female philanthropic organizations and permits, at least in theory, direct female participation in politics. This participation, however, can only be an exception as the women’s primary duty is to take care of her offspring. The best female participation in the public sphere would thus be to encourage men in the struggle for freedom.

The political implications of this world view were pointing towards the creation of a nation-state. In order to promote effectively public and lay education, a common language had to be imposed to all the subjects, and this language had to be Turkish, as the Anatolian Turks constituted the backbone of the Ottoman army. Dr. Kaynar observes that though Rıza rarely used the term “Turkey” to describe the country and his use of the term “Turk” was less extensive than “Ottoman,” Rıza always described the common language of the Ottomans as Turkish and, due to insistence on secular education, envisaged to impose the Turkish language to non-Turks as well. Thus, Kaynar defines Ahmed Rıza’s Turk identity as a “non-identity” simply functional to the maintenance of the Ottoman state. Through the analysis of Ahmed Rıza’s writings, but also through the careful examination of his political actions, the author concludes that, whereas the Ottoman frame of reference was ever present in Ahmed Rıza, his insistence on the Turks as a pillar of the Empire, brought him, and the other Young Turks, to ethnic and national positions that were easily perceived as chauvinistic by most other Ottoman subjects, both Christian and Muslim.

Having reconstructed in great detail the foundations of Ahmed Rıza’s thought and his political activity up to the Young Turk revolution, in the last four chapters Kaynar describes Rıza’s biography after 1908. In the weeks immediately after the revolution Rıza started working as an informal minister of foreign affairs for the new regime. Kaynar rightfully observes that Rıza was the only Young Turk of the first generation to be co-opted in the new constitutional regime, but also that the first tasks that Rıza undertook as a diplomatic representative of the new state power were a failure. Rıza’s first official duty, as President of Parliament, was also quite unsuccessful as his authoritarian stance towards opposition and his general worldview, irritated the traditionalists and might have been one of the causes of the March (April) revolts of 1909.

The beginning of the First Balkan War coincided with a major political change as Kâmil Paşa was appointed the new Grand Vizier and started using martial law, introduced by the Young Turks to persecute members of the CUP. Kaynar deduces that this was the main reason for Rıza’s return to Paris in 1912-1913, a permanence hitherto undiscovered in the historiography of the late Ottoman Empire. As the events of the Balkan Wars unfolded tragically for the Ottomans, Rıza plunged into depression and reclusion in his new Parisian home. The detachment from the CUP did not seem to imbue a higher degree of self-criticism, or the questioning of the Young Turk project or its ideals. For Rıza, the CUP simply proved incapable of guiding the historical evolution of the country. He made a subtle distinction between the pre-1908 opposition in exile and the post-revolutionary Young Turks and accused the latter for using ideals to their own personal benefit. Furthermore, his pessimism towards the masses, and especially towards the Ottoman population, grew. Thus, for example, in recollecting the memories from the 1909 uprising, he regretted not the CUPs breakdown of Islamist opposition but accused the Young Turks from not being zealous enough in its persecution. Rıza returned to Istanbul in September 1913, but only for a few months, as he remained shocked by the social costs of the war. But neither did going back to Paris prove to be definite. In June 1914, only a few days after the Sarajevo assassination, he returned to the Empire, driven, at least partially, by his senatorial duties. The outbreak of the Great War seemed to confirm Rıza’s disillusionment in progress as he saw the egoism of the “civilized countries,” previously demonstrated in the war with Italy and in the Balkans, degenerating into the end of civilisation. Yet the disillusionment was even more bitter as the Ottoman Empire entered the war against the Entente. Kaynar methodically reconstructs Rıza’s political activity in the Senate as the only de facto voice of opposition against the war, but also against the Armenian Massacre in 1915. Rıza, of course, celebrated the few Ottoman victories during the war, but always contested the very decision of going to war and especially the siding with the Central Powers. The Ottoman demise in 1918 opened a new chapter in Rıza’s life and in Kaynar’s dissertation.

Dr. Kaynar examines the complex history of the Ottoman defeat, the political emergence of the young officer Mustafa Kemal Paşa, the future Atatürk, and the proposal of a joint cabinet with Rıza, and the latter’s continuous insistence in the Senate for pursuing the people in charge for the Armenian Massacre. By the end of the war, the idea of a foreign mandate was beginning to be viewed as welcome in Ottoman political circles, including Ahmed Rıza and even Mustafa Kemal. Yet, whereas the Ottomans understood the allied protectorate as a helping hand to restore the order in the country, the Western powers implied a colonial type of administration that was eventually put in practice with the partition of the Turkish territory. Kaynar describes in detail the common points and the divergences between Rıza and the young nationalists, but underlines that the old positivist maintained an equal distance between the Sultan and Atatürk. Nonetheless, this equilibrium permitted him to function as a mediator between the two factions and he tried to present his views to European public opinion and to the governments in his new trip westwards in September 1919. Kaynar righteously cautions not to overestimate the influence of this journey since, by then the Kemalists had their own diplomats and did not have to rely on the services of the old positivist. Furthermore, the French started to develop the doctrine of the “barrier in the Caucasus” to stop the communist expansion from the newly founded Soviet Union. Yet Rıza did manage to organize a conference in Rome, in 1921, between the French government and the Turkish nationalists. In September 1922, after having concluded his last book, La Faillite Morale, Rıza returned to Istanbul, in a completely new and different context. Faced with a successful nationalist revolution the old positivist retired from public life.

While discussing the legacy of the Young Turk leader, Kaynar notices three main elements of continuity between Ahmed Rıza’s thought and the Kemalist revolution. Above all, the laicism and a sincere devotion to the Enlightenment project notwithstanding the common animosity towards Western imperialist politics. Neither Rıza nor the Kemalists envisaged a true anti-imperialist movement as their faith in a common civilisation surpassed their mistrust in the West. Interestingly Kaynar states that it is thanks to Ahmed Rıza, and the very late, but very strong commitment to the ideas of the Enlightenment of the Ottoman modernists, that the Kemalist movement never transformed itself into a totalitarian and fascist regime. Yet in the aftermath of the Turkish nationalist revolution, Ahmed Rıza was both shocked and disgusted by the zeal and the aggressiveness of the Kemalists, addressing them, in private correspondence as “Bolsheviks” and the bringers of a new “Age of Terror.” Above all, Kaynar observes that Rıza always remained more of an Ottoman than of a Turkish nationalist, and that his bourgeois universalist values set him a world apart from the upheavals of the Age of Extremes. Thus, the author concludes, Ahmed Rıza was a man of the nineteenth century.

In all, the publication of this work will significantly contribute not only to the comprehension of an important historical figure, but also to the better understanding of the Ottoman, and even French, political and intellectual context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Bojan Mitrović
Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici
Università degli Studi di Trieste

Primary sources
Archives de la Maison d’Auguste Comte, Paris (MAC)
Archives du Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, Paris (MAE)
Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi, Istanbul (BOA)
Mechveret, [Supplément français], Paris
Meşveret, Paris/Genève/Bruxelles

Disseration information
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales – Formation doctorale Histoire et Civilisations, Paris. 2012. 897 pp. Primary adviser: François Georgeon.

Image: The tomb of Ahmed Rıza. Photograph by Erdal Kaynar.

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