SERVICE IN THE BALKANS, AND IN THE ‘SPECIAL ORGANIZATION’ (PART1)
· Return to Istanbul
Soon after giving his Sermon, Bediuzzaman left Damascus for Beirut, and from there took the boat for Izmir and Istanbul. His intention in returning to Istanbul was to renew his efforts to found the Medresetu’z-Zehra or Eastern University. The last part of Munazarat is devoted to this ideal of Bediuzzaman’s, and he many years later described it as “the spirit and foundation” of the work. Thus, after his long travels through the region he resolved to get official support and backing for the construction of the university, reaffirmed in his conviction that it was the most comprehensive and far-reaching solution for the region’s problems. And this time he was to have success, though the tide of events finally prevented the realization of his project.
· The Rumelia (Balkans) Journey
On 5 June, 1911, Sultan Mehmed Resad set out with a large retinue on his famous Rumelia (Balkans) Journey. It was to be the last time an Ottoman sultan visited the European provinces, for soon they were all to be lost to the Empire. The previous year had seen the first Albanian uprising. The purpose of the Sultan’s journey was to reawaken feelings of patriotism and solidarity among the various peoples of Macedonia and Albania in the face of the upsurge of nationalism, and to secure social calm. On the request of the Palace, Bediuzzaman joined those accompanying the Sultan as the representative of the Eastern Provinces.
Traveling by sea to Salonica, the Sultan and his party stayed there two days, and then continued their Journey by train, arriving at Skopje on 11 June. In the same compartment as Bediuzzaman on the train were two school teachers who had studied modem science. A discussion of great relevance started between the three on their asking Bediuzzaman: “Which is more necessary and should be stronger, religious zeal or national zeal?” The gist of Bediuzzaman’s answer was that “With us Muslims religion and nationality are united, although there is a theoretical, apparent, and incidental difference between them… Religious zeal and Islamic nationhood have completely fused in Turk and Arab and may not now be separated…” And by means of a comparison in which Muslims were represented by a six-yearold child and Europeans or unbelievers by the heroes Hercules and Rustam, he demonstrated the unassailable strength of belief in Divine Unity. Related from some elderly inhabitants of Skopje who recalled the visit was the following description of Bediuzzaman:
“Bediuzzaman was wearing boots. His moustaches were short and his eyes brilliant. He was a handsome, imposing young man with a darkish complexion. He carried a Circassian, gold tula-work whip and at his waist was an ivory-handled dagger. Within a short time he was known in Skopje as `Bediuzzaman Molla Said Efendi.’ The Skopje ulema came group by group to visit him and put their questions to him.
“Bediuzzaman was immediately next to Sultan Resad while the Sultan was greeting the people from the balcony of the High School in Skopje, which was later destroyed by an earthquake. Thousands of Skopjans gave them the most enthusiastic reception.”
On 16 June, the Sultan and his retinue arrived in Kosova from Pristina, and in the large open space where the tomb of Sultan Murad Hudavendigar is situated, they performed the Friday Prayers, a congregation of two hundred thousand. It was an unforgettable and nostalgic occasion.
While in Kosova, there was much talk of a large university they were attempting to found there, doubtless for reasons similar to Bediuzzaman’s Medresetu’z-Zehra. It provided Bediuzzaman with just the opportunity he had been waiting for. He suggested to Sultan Resad and the CUP leaders who were accompanying him that the East was in greater need of a university such as that, for it was like the centre of the Islamic world. They accepted his arguments and promised that a university would be opened in the Eastern Provinces. At the end of the following year, the Balkan War broke out and Kosova was lost to the Empire, whereupon Bediuzzaman applied for the nineteen thousand gold liras allotted to its proposed university. His application was accepted. He then returned to Van and on a site on the shores of Lake Van at Edremit, finally laid the foundations of the Medresetu’z-Zehra. But it was not to be. With the outbreak of the First World War shortly afterwards, the construction was halted and never resumed.
Sultan Resad and his accompanying party completed their visit to Rumelia on returning to Salonica. There they once again boarded the warship Barbaros and attendant vessels, and, being greeted by a cannon-salute at Canakkale, retraced their path to Istanbul. There, on 26 June, they were met by large welcoming crowds. The trip had lasted three weeks.
The tide that was flowing against the Ottomans was running too strongly by this time, however, to be stemmed by such gestures, despite the Sultan’s enthusiastic reception on the trip and the large demonstrations of loyalty. The nationalists and separatists continued to receive support from the foreign powers, but more than anything it was CUP misrule that exacerbated the already volatile situation and led finally to the end of Turkey in Europe with the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Also in late 1911 there had been the Tripolitanian War: Italy had attacked Tripoli and Benghazi, modem-day Libya, and they too were lost to the Empire. The Italians went on to occupy the Dodacanese Islands and bombard the entrance to the Dardanelles. And with the outbreak of the Balkan War in November 1912, Greece seized the Aegean Islands, and Salonica was also lost. The deposed Sultan Abdulhamid was hurriedly removed from his place of exile and taken to Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. The unexpected occupation of Tripoli added to the other events caused a political crisis in Istanbul and the CUP were ousted from power for a period of some six months, from July 1912 until the famous `Raid on the Sublime Porte’ in January 1913 led by Enver Pasa. After the liberation of Edirne in July 1913, Enver was made Minister of War, and it was he who set up the alliance with Germany the following year which brought Turkey into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers.
· The Special Organization
Nevertheless, these stark facts of the Ottoman demise mask truly heroic efforts on the part of numbers of largely unsung heroes to maintain its wholeness and regain the independence it had bartered away to the European powers over a period of some hundred years. One of the main organizations to undertake this at this time was the Teskilat-i Mahsusa, or Special Organization. The Special Organization has remained little known in Turkey even, and it is thanks to the publishing enterprises of the historian Cemal Kutay to whom its founder and chief, Esref Sener Kuscubasi (1873-1964), Ieft all his memoirs and papers that we learn of the prominent role Bediuzzaman played in the Organization.
It will be recalled that when Bediuzzaman first visited Istanbul in 1896 it was in the residence of Esref Kuscubasi’s father, Mustafa Bey, that he stayed. His close friendship with Esref Bey began at this time. According to one source, Esref Bey founded the Special Organization together with Baytar Miralay Rasim Bey the following year in Mecca. Its purpose was to gather intelligence for the cause of Islamic Unity, and it was opposed to Abdulhamid’s despotism. Another source states that he founded the Organization in 1903 as a clandestine revolutionary society working for the restoration of the Constitution.s After the dethronement of Abdulhamid, the new Sultan, Mehmet Resad, made it an official intelligence service by imperial rescript working for national security and unity. It became the Empire’s main security organization, and played an important role in all the main actions of the Tripolitanian, Balkan, and First World Wars. When he became Minister of War, Sultan Resad made Enver Pasa its Commander-in-Chief; however, it remained independent of the State in its operations. Within its ranks were leading intellectual and religious figures, as well as figures from the military establishment and from all fields and walks of life. Mehmed Akif was a member, as was Abdurresid Ibrahim, both old and close associates of Bediuzzaman’s. The realization of Islamic Unity continued to be one of the major areas of its activities. Cemal Kutay describes Bediuzzaman as one of its chief theorists and planners in this area, as well as being one its most active members. As one of its propaganda exercises for Islamic Unity, the Special Organization undertook the preparation and distribution of the Cihad Fetva, or religious ruling calling on all Muslims to unite in Holy War against the Entente Powers at the beginning of the First World War. Bediuzzaman played an active role in both its preparation and the distribution.
Cemal Kutay mentions that the person closest to Bediuzzaman in his ideas on Islamic Unity was the poet Mehmed Akif. When in Istanbul, they used frequently to forgather in the offices of the Sirat-i Mustakim, later renamed Sebilurresad. Mehmed Akif was the chief writer for the magazine, which was published by Esref Edip Fergan. Like the poet, Bediuzzaman made a fine brew of tea, and it was he who used to boil up the samovar whenever he visited the Sebilürresad. On one occasion, he translated the following lines of Akif’s into Persian, Arabic, and Kurdish:
Your nation was Islam; this nationalism, what is it?
Ah, your nation, if only you had clung to it.
What’s being Albanian? Has it a place in the Sharia?
Unbelief it is, advancing your people, not the rest!
What superiority has Arab over Turk,
Persian over Chinese, or Laz over Circassian or Kurd?
What is this? Has Islam now undergone division?
But the Prophet cursed the idea of racialism.
The greatest enemy of division is His spirit,
May the … .’s name who introduced it into Islam be forgotten!
· The Balkan War
But nationalism was now a fire that could not easily be quenched. Towards the end of 1912, the Balkan War broke out when, seeking their independence; four states united and attacked the Ottomans. Again from Cemal Kutay we learn that as a member of the Special Organization, Bediuzzaman participated in some of the most valiant actions of this disastrous war as an Honorary Colonel commanding a militia force brought from Eastern Anatolia. According to Esref Kuscubasi’s younger brother, Selim Sami, on whose right flank he fought in the Kalikratya [Kumburgaz] division, “With his athletic physique and dress peculiar to himself, Bediuzzaman fought in the front line like a true hero.”
In his memoirs, Esref Bey mentions the retaking of Edirne and the setting-up of the short-lived republic in Western Thrace, and Bediuzzaman’s appreciation of Abdulhamid’s successful policy of preventing the Balkan states uniting against the Ottomans. It was the CUP’s failure to continue the policy that had allowed the present situation to arise:
“We were in the darkest days of the Balkan War. The Bulgarians were drawn up before Catalca. Differences had arisen among the enemy; they were attacking one another. In the Peace Conference in London, the Bulgarians were determined not to return Edirne and it was vital to put [additional] pressure on the Bulgarian Front, which was being shaken by bold action over and above the consent of the Government. And this, the Special Organization undertook to do.
“In truth, the heroic deeds which soothed our hearts at that bitter time did not stop at delivering only Edirne, we set up an independent state in Western Thrace, too. It was the first republic of that sort successfully set up, and ten years before the Republic established in Ankara in 1923.
“Because, through our own negligence and lack of foresight and with our own hands, we had put an end to the deep differences between the Greek and Bulgarian Churches which Sultan Hamid had so masterfully perpetuated for thirty years, Athens and Sofya were reconciled. Then the Serbs and Montenegrans joined them, and they set up themselves up against us as a quadripartite alliance. Bediuzzaman and I were together in the fight to save Edirne and Western Thrace. One time we were having a discussion weighing up events; after addressing me in the gracious way he always did as “my respected commander”, he said:
“`I complained to Sultan Hamid himself in his own palace because he did not prefer the learned institution [the ulema] to Yildiz Palace, which I considered to be among the duties of Sultan and Caliph. However right I was to criticize him in that matter, it is necessary to praise and publicize his efforts in administering the Balkans for thirty or so years without raising any trouble. If I do not carry out my duty now, my conscience will be uneasy.’
“And he wrote a letter making known these feelings to the former Sultan , who was virtually a prisoner in Beylerbeyi Palace, and presented it by means of Major Rasim Celaleddin Bey, who was at that time the officer responsible for protecting the former monarch.”‘
Cemal Kutay also recorded the following description of Bediuzzaman at that time given to him by Esref Bey in person when they together visited Bediuzzaman in Emirdag in 1953:
“As you know, I already knew him in 1896 when he came on the recommendation of Yahya Nuzhet Pasa to Istanbul to our house in Serencebey Yokusu in Besiktas. He had a power to influence that no one who met him could easily forget. In later years, his meeting with Sultan Abdulhamid, his being sent to Toptasi Asylum and the way he got out of it, and his refusing the Sultan’s offers of position and wealth all attracted attention to himself. He was straightforward, natural, and unobliged. In those days he had his own way of dressing. He was of athletic build and very handsome. He rode a fine horse and was an excellent shot. He read continually, whenever he had the opportunity. When he had mentioned an event, a name, a text, just once, his memory could henceforth recall it totally and without error from his unconscious at the required moment. He used to listen to the person he was talking to carefully and in silence. And when he started to speak, the person felt himself compelled to listen to him with respect and in silence also.
“I shall tell you of an incident I have not told anyone of before that illustrates this gift of his: when we set up the Western Thrace Government, we fell out with Istanbul. The Grand Vizier, Said Halim Pasa was hesitant and timid, and frightened of some new problem arising. A delegation under the leadership of Cemal Pasa came from Istanbul in order to make us consent to leaving Western Thrace to Greece in return for our taking Edirne. Ali Fetih was one of the delegation; he was later Prime Minister. Fethi and I were together in the ranks of the Special Organization in Tripolitania.
“We were in complete control of the situation, and Great Britain, France, Italy, and Rumania had recognized the legitimacy of the Western Thrace Government. Cemal Pasa said that this recognition was temporary, and that in a short while we would be on our own, and also that Istanbul was not in a position to help us. Our foreign affairs were in the hands of Tevfik Rustu, later Foreign Minister for the Republic. As he was preparing to reply to Cemal Pasa, Bediuzzaman spoke and recalled – using exactly his words – that Cemal Pasa had said when the Bulgarians were drawn up before Catalca that he would kiss the feet of those who would save Edirne:
“`Do not kiss our feet,’ he said, ` but do not prevent us either. Conditions were no better for those who conquered this country centuries ago than they are for us now. This nation’s history is full of the marvels of its brave, believing sons. The politics of the day are making you deceive yourself.’ Only Bediuzzaman could have said that in those circumstances, and to Cemal Pasa…”
On 10 August 1913, the Second Balkan War came to an end with the Treaty of Bucharest. Turkey had retaken Edirne, as we have seen, and all of Eastern Thrace. However, the Republic of Western Thrace was to be short-lived: on the peace agreement between the Ottomans and Bulgaria being signed in Istanbul on 29 September, it was returned to Bulgaria.