BEDIUZZAMAN AND THE THIRTY-FIRST OF MARCH INCIDENT (PART 2)
Background to the Revolt
The CUP considered the 3l st of March Incident to be a `reactionary’ movement and held Sultan Abdulhamid responsible for it. But on the contrary, all the evidence points to the reverse being true, that the CUP at least had a finger in it. It is beyond the scope of this book to examine the Incident in detail, but since both it and Bediuzzaman’s role in it, have been consistently misrepresented, we shall attempt to give a clearer perspective by including the following brief outline of its main causes and the course of events.
As has already been noted, when the high hopes and expectations engendered by the proclamation of the Constitution were not realized, there was widespread disappointment and dissatisfaction, particularly among Muslims who themselves received few benefits but saw the minorities using the new freedom to pursue their own interests at the expense of the Empire. Disenchantment with the CUP increased daily as their true colours became more and more evident.
Remaining in the background, the CUP were not an official political party, nor were they responsible to anyone. They were in power, but indirectly. Furthermore, in contrast with Abdulhamid, they were inexperienced, and their refusal to admit to this contributed directly to the immediate loss of territory and the speedy demise of the Empire. Censorship was abolished. The CUP began a relentless attack on the Sultan in the press. Claiming constitutionalism as their own, they tried to force their views on the people. But the more they showed their true colours, the more mistrusted and unpopular they became. And the fiercer became the battle between the parties and societies. The press became the field of battle. In response, the CUP resorted to covert and illegal methods in order to establish themselves more firmly, increasingly using force to eliminate opponents.
This intimidation and political violence created an atmosphere of terror, and all the while those prompting it remained in the background. On 15 December 1908, one of the Sultan’s men, Ismail Mahir Pasa, was murdered. He was followed by others, including prominent journalists, one of which was Hasan Fehmi Bey. He was the editor of the Serbesti, one of the loudest voices of opposition to the CUP. His assassination on 6 April 1909 resulted in widespread, unanswered, calls for justice. It was a return to despotism in a form worse than previously.
At the same time, the CUP started a drive to weed out government officials and replace them with their own supporters, whether experienced or not. There were substantial numbers involved. The same policy was followed in the Army. The officers were of two kinds, those risen from the ranks on their merit and experience, and those trained in the new military academies. The CUP started to replace the former with the latter, who were mostly CUP supporters. The numbers expelled from all sections of the Army reached close on eight thousand. Many of the new officers were inexperienced, and the CUP supporters from among them mocked the religion of Islam and tried to prevent the ordinary soldiers carrying out their religious duties. Thus, dissatisfaction within the Army grew to serious proportions, while the expelled officials and officers formed a significant body ready to rebel against the Government.
Also, there was a general feeling of affront and distrust among the people due to the CUP’s lax attitude towards religion. Freedom had speeded up the import of Western culture, manners, and morality, and had led to a decline in moral standards.
And finally was the extreme partisanship of the different parties and societies. The excessive and bitter `war’ between the newspapers representing the CUP and their opponents continually exacerbated the situation. Dervis ‘ Vahdeti cannot be altogether exonerated from this.
· The Revolt
The revolt broke out among one of the Light Infantry battalions which only a few weeks previously had been brought to Istanbul from Salonica as the `Defenders of Freedom’. It started in the middle of the night of 12-13 April. Locking their officers in their rooms, the soldiers took control of the barracks, then poured out into the streets. There, as they made their way to Aya Sophia and the Parliament Building, the throng increased in magnitude as they were joined by other soldiers, medrese students, and members of the public. The shout was for the Seriat. It was daytime by the time they reached Aya Sophia. They surrounded the Parliament and presented their demands. These included the dismissal of the Grand Vizier, the War Minister, and Commander of the Imperial Guards, the removal of Ahmed Riza who had acted as Speaker of the Parliament since the Proclamation of the Constitution, the application in full of the Seriat, the reinstatement of their expelled officers, and a guarantee that the soldiers who had taken part in the rebellion would not be punished.
In the meantime, the rebels had murdered one of the Deputies on the mistaken supposition it was the leading CUP journalist Huseyin Cahid, together with the Justice Minister supposing him to be the Grand Vizier.
The Government resigned, and the Sultan appointed a new Grand Vizier and Minister of War. The rebellion continued; there was looting and some bloodshed. The offices of the CUP and their main press organs were sacked. Rather than attempting to quell the disturbance – it was not supported by anyone of authority either military or civil – the CUP chose to send for forces from Salonica.
News of the uprising provoked a strong reaction in Salonica, which was still the centre of the CUP. Spreading the news that Freedom itself was threatened, the CUP had no difficulty in forming a force of volunteers consisting largely of bands of Serbs, Bulgars, Greeks, Macedonians, and Albanians. Regular units were in a small minority in this `Operation Army’. They were armed, and entrained for Istanbul. The force gathered at Yesilköy several kilometers outside the city, where Mahmud Sevket Pasa took command of it. On 24 April, they took possession of the city, and the following day proclaimed martial law. On the 27th, Sultan Abdulhamid was deposed. It was Tal’at Bey who with great insistence managed to obtain the fetva authorizing the dethronement from two religious notables – having failed to extract it from the Seyhu’l-Islam, just as it was due to Tal’at Bey’s influence that having moved to Yesilköy in order to declare their support for the ‘ Operation Army, members of the Parliament and Upper House had taken the secret decision to depose the Sultan, though they published a declaration saying their purpose was to save him.
It is worth mentioning briefly that the 31st of March Incident should also be seen in the broader perspective of the Great Powers and their rivalry and ambitions concerning the Ottoman Empire. Particularly as far as the British were concerned, Abdulhamid and his Caliphate policy and successful diplomatic maneuvering formed one of the greatest barriers to their designs on the area, including the establishment of a Jewish state. Also, among the CUP were Masons and those representing interests opposed to the Empire, although the great majority of their supporters in the Parliament were patriotic and well disposed towards Islam; if uncertain as to what its role should be. When answering questions on this subject put to him by the tribes in eastern Anatolia the following year, Bediuzzaman said:
“…I observed a situation similar to this in the 31st of March Incident. For Islam’s constitutionalism-cherishing and patriotic devotees were suggesting ways of applying certain details in order to adapt to the Seriat the divine bounty of constitutionalism, which they knew to be the very essence of life, and direct those involved in government towards the kible in the prayer of justice, to uphold the sacred Seriat with the strength of constitutionalism, and perpetuate constitutionalism with the strength of the Seriat, and to impute all the former evils to opposition to the Seriat. Then supposing, God forbid, the Seriat to be conducive to despotism, those who could not distinguish right from left started saying: `We want the Seriat!’ like parrots and in that situation the real purpose could not be understood. In any case, the plans had been laid. So then a number of villains who had donned masks of false patriotism attacked the sacred name [the Seriat]…”
That is to say, Bediuzzaman is saying that plans had been laid to incite just such a revolt. And when the 31 st of March Incident broke out, it was exploited to the full in order to attack the Seriat, and reduce the power of Islam within the State. Indeed, the historian Cemal Kutay described the military courts set up afterwards as “a cleansing operation”, and their purpose, not to carry out justice, but “to eliminate a mentality and a system.”
· Bediuzzaman Calls For Order
We learn of Bediuzzaman’s own movements during the revolt and how he did all he could to reestablish order within the Army from his defense speech to the court martial. He told the court:
“I watched the fearful activity on the day of the 3l st of March for two or three minutes from the distance. I heard numerous demands… I understood the matter was bad; obedience was spoilt, advice would have been ineffective. Otherwise like always I would have attempted to quench the fire. But the people were many, my fellow-countrymen heedless and naive, and I would have been conspicuous because of my undeserved fame. I left after three minutes, and went to Bakirkoy so that those who knew me would not join it. And I advised those who just happened to be there not to take part. If I had been involved to even the tiniest degree, my clothes would have shown me up, my unwanted fame would have pointed me out to everyone. I would have appeared very significant in the matter. Indeed, even if alone as far as Ayastefanos [Yesilkoy], I would have put in an appearance confronting the Operation Army. I would have died manfully. Then my involvement would have been plain; it would not have been necessary to prove it.
“On the second day I asked about obedience in the Army, which is the source of our life. They said: `The officers have put on soldiers’ uniforms and discipline is not spoilt too much.’ Again I asked how many officers had been shot. They deceived me and said: `Only four. And they were tyrants. Also, procedure and punishment will be according to the Seriat.’
“Also, I looked at the newspapers. They too described the uprising as though it was lawful. And in one way I was pleased, because my most sacred aim is for the Seriat rulings to be applied and enacted in full. But I felt infinitely hopeless and saddened because harm had come to discipline in the Army. So I addressed the soldiers through all the newspapers saying:
“`O Soldiers! If your officers are wronging themselves through some transgressions, you are in one respect wronging thirty million Ottomans and three hundred million Muslims and infringing their rights through this insubordination. For the honour, happiness, and banner of Divine Unity of all Islam and all Ottomans is at this time in some respect dependent on your obedience.
“`And you want the Seriat, but through your disobedience you are opposing the Seriat.’
“I Flattered their action and courage, because. the newspapers – those lying interpreters of public opinion – showed us their action as lawful. To a degree I made my advice effective by showing appreciation. And to a degree I quelled the rebellion. Otherwise it would not have been put down so easily.”
“On the Friday, together with other ulema I went in among the soldiers who were around the War Ministry. I induced eight battalions to submit and obey orders. My exhortations showed their effect later.”
Bediuzzaman then quoted his speech to them, which began similarly to the few sentences from his newspaper address to the rebelling soldiers quoted above, and pointed out that they were threatening Islamic unity and brotherhood through their insubordination. He continued:
“`You should know that the Army corps resembles a huge and wellordered factory. If one machine rebels, it throws the whole factory into turmoil. Private soldiers should not meddle in politics. The Janisseries testify to that. You say you want the Seriat, but you are opposing the Seriat, and besmirching it. It is established by the Seriat, and the Qur’an, and Hadith, and wisdom and experience that it is obligatory to obey trustworthy, religious, and just rulers. Your rulers are your instructors and officers. “‘ Bediuzzaman then went on to say that they should obey the officers who had come from the new military academies even if their conduct was in part unlawful. Just as if a doctor or engineer committed wrongdoing it did not necessarily harm their professional activities, the same was true for these officers. The banner of Divine Unity was in the hand of the soldiers’ courage, and the strength of that hand lay in obedience and order. A thousand regular, obedient soldiers were equal to a hundred thousand irregular troops. He concluded the speech:
“I proclaim to you the Glory of the World’s decree that obedience is obligatory. Do not rebel against your officers! Long live the Army! Long live The Islamic Constitution!”