FREEDOM AND CONSTITUTIONALISM (PART 3)
Bediuzzaman Combats Disunity and Secularism
There followed after the proclamation of the Constitution a period of open and vigorous debate made possible by the new freedom of thought and expression. Bediuzzaman took every advantage of this, endeavoring to further the cause of Islam and unity through every means possible. He gave speeches, addressed gatherings, and published articles in many of the news- papers and journals that appeared with the advent of Freedom, together with publishing a number of independent works.
Although the debate centred on the old questions of how progress could be secured and the Empire saved, the tension created by external and internal pressures caused a polarization and hardening of ideas. There were broadly seen to be three main answers: westernization, Islam, and increasingly, in reaction to the separatist activities of the minorities, Turkish nationalism. These did not necessarily run parallel to the political parties which developed, and adherents to all three currents were to be found within the Committee of Union and Progress, though the image it acquired was predominantly secular and Western. Following the Revolution the CUP remained in the background with its headquarters in Salonica, largely making its presence felt through established figures.
The proclamation of the Constitution had been met with widespread rejoicing and optimism; it was seen to be the cure for all the many and serious ills afflicting the Empire. But those high and fervent hopes were soon to be dashed. Almost immediately there were substantial losses of territory, and rather than serving unity, the first parliament opened five months later, intensified division. In pursuing its aim of holding the Empire together through its strong centralist policies, the CUP increasingly resorted to force. The 31st of March Incident provided it with the opportunity to disband the opposition parties and restrict political freedom. Though the opposition reformed, within five years the CUP had set up the military dictatorship that was to lead the Empire to its final collapse in 1918.
In the first months of Freedom, opposition to the CUP was centered in the Liberals, or Ahrar, who, with hasty preparations, were the only party to challenge the new regime in the first elections at the end of 1908. Their leader was Prince Sabahaddin Bey, a nephew of Sultan Abdulhamid and rival in their days of exile in Paris to Ahmed Riza, who became one of the main ideologues of the CUP. While the CUP were committed to a policy of strong central government, following a different school of French philosophers, Sabahaddin Bey had developed what he believed would be the solution for the Empire based on the totally opposite principles of `Personal Initiative and Decentralization’. These ideas, which involved a devolvement of power from the Government to the various millets and religious and ethnic minorities, aroused extreme opposition.
Included in Bediuzzaman’s first work, Nutuk, (Speech) published in 19I0, is an open letter to Sabahaddin Bey entitled, Reply to Prince Sabahaddin Bey’s Good but Misunderstood Idea
In it Bediuzzaman points out that a federal system for the Ottoman Empire was theoretically acceptable but because the level of development of the different millets and groups varied greatly, it was not practicable at that time. “Life lies in unity”, he wrote. It is interesting to note that at that time of mudslinging, intimidation, and political violence, Sabahaddin Bey himself commented on Bediuzzaman’s “intellectual excellence”, describing his manner of address as “the very model of polite discourse.”
Bediuzzaman likened “love of the nation” to the attraction between particles; just as the latter caused the formation of a mass, so did “love of the nation” result in the formation of a cohesive whole. It was through strengthening these bonds of unity and awareness and love of the nation that a harmony of progress could be achieved. Bediuzzaman did not believe that national differences should be erased, on the contrary as we have seen, it was his view that the Government should be working to raise all the elements of the Empire to the same level through programs geared to “the intellectual capacity and national customs of each.” This would result in healthy competition.
Quite correctly as it turned out, Bediuzzaman warned Sabahaddin Bey that the idea of decentralization and “its nephews” the political clubs and organizations of the various minorities, would lead to autonomy, and “rending the veil of Ottomanism and constitutionalism”, to independence and an army of small states. Bediuzzaman could not equate the breaking-up of the Empire, stirring up of discord, and destruction of the future with the patriotism and nobility of such a gifted and highly-educated person. As believers in God’s Unity, they were charged with establishing unity and cultivating love of the nation. Islam was sufficient. Solutions should be sought within the framework of Islam.
Reflecting the attitude of many of the CUP and their followers in this period, there was a general air of laxity, excess, and carelessness in matters of religion. In the face of the circulation of many new ideas from Europe, this was coupled with uncertainty and confusion as to religion and its role. It is in this light that Bediuzzaman’s enormous concern to address the intellectuals and to educate as many people as he could reach from all levels of society about the true meaning of Freedom, constitutionalism, and the vital role of Islam in progress should be seen.
Another open letter Bediuzzaman wrote was in December 1908 to Huseyin Cahid, the editor of the Tanin, the chief press organ of the CUP. He was at the same time one of their leading ideologues. An influential r proponent of cultural as well as material Westernization, Huseyin Cahid campaigned for the cause of secularization, that is, the separation of religion from all state affairs. It was in answer to his broaching this vexed question in a leading article in the Tanin on medrese reform that Bediuzzaman wrote his open letter.
The gist of the letter was that, having failed to grasp the true nature of Islam, Huseyin Cahid had made the mistake of attempting to compare it with Christianity. Bediuzzaman quoted the maxim `There is no clergy in Islam’ and explained that it was a basic tenet and not open to dispute. It was not possible to compare Christian sects and orders with Sufism, because Islam is a total order and system of living. The duties of worship which Islam imposes cannot be separated from the Serial, because the Seriat does not leave them as theoretical, but makes them the very order of life. Islam is the only religion the ordinances of which provide “eternal criteria” for its members in both the life of this world and the Hereafter. Bediuzzaman understands too that change is necessary and points out that the reinterpretation of the Serial is a duty that should not be restricted to non-particular matters, but also applied to particular ordinances based on custom and usage. He urges Huseyin Cahid to realize and appreciate the dynamic nature of the Serial, “which accepts the principle of change in judgments in the face of changing times.”
Bediuzzaman concluded his open letter by advising Hüseyin Cahid to save himself the pointless trouble of examining imported goods such as secularism when there is “the magnificent entity and power” of the Seriat, “which provides for every aspect of the community’s life, and came into existence only through the Qur’an, the perpetual miracle of the religion of Islam.”
· “Europe is pregnant with Islam”
In the autumn of 1908, one of the leading members of the famous el-Ezher University in Cairo, and at one time Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Muhammed Bahid visited Istanbul. The Istanbul ulema, who themselves had been unable to better Bediuzzaman in argument and debate, asked Sheikh Bahid if he would be prepared to meet him. The Sheikh accepted, and an opportunity was found one day after the prayers in Aya Sophia. Bediuzzaman was seated in a tea-house. Other ulema also being present, Sheikh Bahid approached Bediuzzaman, and put the following question to him:
“What is your opinion concerning Freedom and the Ottoman State, and European civilization?”
Bediuzzaman’s unhesitating reply revealed his realism and insight.
“The Ottoman State is pregnant with Europe, and it will give birth to an
European state one day. And Europe is pregnant with Islam; one day it will give birth to an Islamic state.”
Sheikh Bahid applauded this answer.
“One cannot argue with this young man”, he said. “I am of the same opinion myself. But only Bediuzzaman could express it so succinctly and eloquently.”
· Bediuzzaman Maintains Public Order
As the great effusion of optimism at the coming of Freedom was transformed into disillusion and views and parties became more polarized, the situation generally became increasingly volatile and unstable. Thus, in order that constitutionalism could become established and its benefits be obtained, Bediuzzaman did whatever he could to maintain public order and harmony. There are many examples, such as the following.
The first major blows to the Empire under the new regime occurred soon after the Constitution was proclaimed. On 5 October , 1908, Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Bulgaria proclaimed independence, while on the 6th, Greece annexed Crete. In response to this, on the l 0 th October, the people of Istanbul declared a boycott on all Austrian goods and the places where they were sold. The twenty thousand or so Kurdish porters on whom the commercial life of Istanbul depended defied their foremen and were preparing to go on strike. The whole business started to get out of hand. To avert this threat to Istanbul’s trade and business life, Bediuzzaman went immediately to the tea-houses and places the porters frequented and persuaded them to avoid any extreme action.
In one place, the Asiret Han, immediately gaining command of the situation with his line voice, Bediuzzaman said the following to the porters:
“You are all from the East like me, and you have all crossed the Tigris and the Euphrates on rafts. You know too that on one occasion a group crossing the Tigris on a raft tried to get rid of some of the ropes and crossbeams of which the raft was composed in order to lighten the load and move more swiftly. Of course, on doing this the main planks of the raft came apart and both themselves and their belongings ended up in the water.
“In the same way, your foremen arc like the ropes and cross-beams; they do not appear to serve any purpose but in fact they are vital. If they were to go, your harmony would be spoilt and your work confused. just like the raft that sank, you would be compelled to split up and disperse.”
with this the insurrection came to nothing. The porters understood their ,r: mistake, and obeying their foremen, returned to work immediately. The Istanbul Chief of Police later came in person to offer his thanks to Bediuzzaman for preventing a harmful situation developing.54
Another occasion Bediuzzaman played a similar role was at a lecture given by The well-known figure and owner of the Mizan newspaper, Messianic Murad Bey, in the Ferah Theater in Sehzadebasi in Istanbul. The subject of the lecture was The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and as the lecture progressed it became clear that Murad Bey, who had previously represented the `Islamist’ group of the Young Turks, was comparing the Committee of Union and Progress and the Government to the Roman stale. His comparisons became more explicit, and the CUP supporters among the audience started muttering and grumbling. Murad Bey continued with this criticisms unperturbed, not wavering even when threatened by a man with a revolver. But when the muttering developed into shouting and stamping, his opponents had their way and he was unable to continue. He withdraw into the wings, and the curtain was lowered. But the hubbub did not abate. On the contrary, the audience, now divided into two camps, started pushing and shoving and flinging insults and abuse at each other. No one attempted to leave, and no one attempted to intervene.
Suddenly, someone sprang nimbly onto his seat and shouted above the din: “O you Muslims one and all!” It was Bediuzzaman. Having commanded the attention of the whole audience, he pointed out that freedom of speech had to be respected, it was shameful for members of a nation that had just proclaimed Freedom and constitutionalism to exceed the bounds of good behavior and prevent a speaker from lecturing in this way. The religion of Islam also commanded that ideas be respected. He supported what he said with verses from the Qur’an and Hadiths, gave examples from Islamic history, and told them of how the Prophet Muhammed used to consult the ideas of others and related his teachings and words, then advised them all to disperse quietly and go on their way.
Bediuzzaman spoke so well and convincingly that no one objected. Even the roughs and rowdies who a few minutes earlier had been hurling invective and abuse said nothing. Everyone left the theater thoroughly subdued and contrite.
The writer of the work from which the description of The above event is taken, Münir Suleyman Capanoglu, had further memories from that time, which he told Necmeddin ,sahiner in an interview in 1972. He said:
“… Certainly, he [Bediuzzaman] was someone who knew his theories well and could defend them well. He began way back at that time, he began in the Constitutional Period. He went at the same tempo, at the same speed, in the same direction, and defended the same idcas.., They were frightened of him at that time the same as in this period, because whenever he came out onto the street, he was immediately surrounded by a crowd.”
On being asked if these were his own students who flocked round him, Münir Capanoglu continued:
“Both his students and the ordinary people. But mostly the people; they wanted to see him, they wanted to hear him speak. I myself witnessed this many times. He spoke beautifully. He spoke persuasively…”
We learn from one of his works that on the Constitution being proclaimed, Bediuzzaman sent fifty To sixty telegrams to the Eastern Provinces through the Grand Vizier’s Office urging all the tribes to accept it, saying:
“Constitutionalism and the constitution about which you have heard consists of true justice and the consultation enjoined by the Seriat. Consider it favorably and work to preserve it, for our worldly happiness lies in constitutionalism. And we have suffered more than anyone from despotism.”
The Constitution was not without opponents, particularly in the East where those whose interests were threatened were seeking to turn all the tribes against it with negative propaganda. While Bediuzzaman spent several months in the summer of 1910 traveling among them explaining its vital importance both for the Kurds and the Empire and Islamic world, as we shall see, at this point his efforts were confined to the written word.
In Istanbul, too, profiting from their ignorance and naivity, opponents of constitutionalism were trying to provoke the Kurdish porters against the Constitution. In response, Bediuzzaman took every opportunity to combat this negative propaganda and illuminate them concerning it. The text of one of his addresses to them is included in Nutuk. In this speech it is unity that Bediuzzaman is most insistent on. He told them that they had three enemies that were destroying them “poverty, ignorance, and Internal conflict”, but that they now had to secure “three diamond swords” with which to rout the three enemies and preserve themselves. These were “national unity, human endeavor, and love of the nation”.
That is to say, first the Kurds had to achieve unity among themselves, then making over the resulting “mighty force” to the Government and expending it outwardly, they would make themselves worthy of justice, and in return for it would demand justice and their rights from the Government. “…The Turks are our intelligence, and we are their strength, together we make a whole person. We shall not resist them, nor rebel against them. With this resolution of ours; we shall be a good example. to the other minority peoples [elements] of the Empire… If we obeyed [the Government) `to the degree of one batman’ during the time of despotism, now ten batman s worth’ of obedience and unity are necessary. For we shall see only benefits, because the Constitutional Government is in truth government based on the Seriat… In unity lies strength; in union, life; in brotherhood, happiness; in obedience to the Government, well-being. It is vital to hold fast to the strong rope of unity and bond of love.”
A further occasion Bediuzzaman calmed a tense situation was at a mass protest organized by the medrese students in Beyazid in Istanbul in February 1909. Traditionally, students of the religious schools were exempt from military service of any kind, but following the proclamation of the Constitution, the Government had decided to introduce an examination on the pretext that the privilege was being abused. Students who passed the examination were to be exempt from military service, while for those who failed it military service would be compulsory. The student had organized the meeting ostensibly to protest at the very short time they had been given to prepare for the examination.
The meeting was becoming fairly turbulent by the time Bediuzzaman reached it. Well-known to the students, he addressed them explaining the authentic relationship between the Seriat and constitutionalism and pointing out that despotism could in no way be associated with the Seriat. In a short time he calmed the situation and prevented any serious disturbance occurring.