INTERVIEW: Ahmet Ağaoğlu, a paradoxical symbol of Turkish liberalism

INTERVIEW: Ahmet Ağaoğlu, a paradoxical symbol of Turkish liberalism

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Ahmet Ağaoğlu, a paradoxical symbol of Turkish liberalism Ahmet Ağaoğlu (1868-1938) is known in Turkey as one of the most prominent liberal figures of the early republican era. Born to a Shia Muslim family in the South Caucasus, he lived in St Petersburg, Paris and Baku before moving to Istanbul in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. In Turkey he moved in the inner circle of republican elites around Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, but he became increasingly critical through the late 1920s and 1930s as the Republican People’s Party (CHP) tightened its grip on the state.

Ağaoğlu is the subject of a new book (reviewed in the Hürriyet Daily News here) examining his life and work, penned by Ozan Özavcı of Utrecht University. Özavcı spoke to HDN about both Ağaoğlu’s life and the much-traduced reputation of liberalism in today’s Turkey. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did Ağaoğlu’s diverse heritage shape his later thinking?

His biographers probably see four or five different Ağaoğlus taking different roles in each of the countries he lived in: The Russian Empire, France, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, and the Republic of Turkey. He is nurtured by new ideas in each of the cities he goes to. 

He was born into a rich landowning Shiite family and received a very traditional religious education until he was 12 or 13. His mother then wanted him to enroll in modern Russian schools, where he was introduced to the ideas of Russian radicalism through his teachers. He read the works of Turgenev, Chernishevsky and Bakunin, and was introduced to the ideas of French enlightenment thinkers. Probably because of these early influences two things happened: First, he became alienated from his earlier religious education. He felt alienated from what he called the Eastern or the Islamic world and he started to become more interested in what he called the Western lifestyle. This is probably why he decided to go to St. Petersburg when he was 18.
And then when he was 19 he went to France, where he took lessons at the College de France. There he was introduced, through his teacher Ernest Renan, to the idea that the most pressing problem of the time was the predicament of the individual. 

INTERVIEW: Ahmet Ağaoğlu, a paradoxical symbol of Turkish liberalism When Ağaoğlu went to the Ottoman Empire he appeared as a nationalist. This is partially because in the 1900s, when he was involved in the Russian Muslim struggle against the autocracy of the Tsarist regime, he was introduced through Sunni journals to Turkish nationalist ideas. Previously he called himself a Persian but after 1900 he became a Turkish nationalist. And in the 1910s, together with Ziya Gökalp and Yusuf Akçura, he became one of the pioneers of Turkish nationalism. That is how he took part in the nationalist independence war. In the early 1920s he joined the entourage of Mustafa Kemal [later Atatürk] and he appeared in the early years of the republic in the inner circle of the Republican People’s Party [CHP], on the committee that wrote its first party program in 1923 and on the committee that drafted Turkey’s first constitution in 1924.

Then in the 1920s and 30s he appeared to be a liberal. This is where my interest in him grew. I asked myself: How could an intellectual be both a pioneer of nationalism and, as later commentators put it, a liberal individualist? That is the starting point of the book.

He came to Istanbul after the Young Turk revolution in 1909, at the same time as a lot of other prominent Muslims from the Caucasus. Why did he come to Istanbul and what was he doing?

He first came to the Ottoman Empire in 1894 after finishing his studies in Paris. He decided to return to Azerbaijan via Istanbul, where he stayed between January and May 1894. He had previously made connections with Ottoman statesmen and intellectuals - most prominently Ahmet Rıza, who was also in Paris in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Ahmet Rıza would become one of the leaders of the Young Turk movement and he was the number one man at the turn of the 1890s. Ahmet Ağaoğlu and Ahmet Rıza shared concerns about the situation in the “Eastern world,” and I think one reason why Ağaoğlu went to Istanbul in 1894 was to increase his contacts with the Young Turks.

Various Young Turk figures had been in contact with the leaders of the Russian Muslim liberation movement in Baku and the Caucasus. They had already been exchanging ideas about their causes, trying to find commonalities and seeing if they could act together. The reason Ağaoğlu had to leave the Caucasus was that in 1905,  after the revolution in Russia, he started a movement called the “Difai” [Defense] movement, which aimed to defend Muslim villages against what he took to be the Armenian threat. Ağaoğlu wanted to do two things in particular: He wanted to emancipate local Muslims morally, so he started a war against the bigotry and ultraconservative leanings of the Muslim clergy in the South Caucasus; he was also starting a war against the Russian government, so the group was targeting Russian officers, a number of whom it assassinated. For the Tsarist government, the Difai was a terrorist organization, which made it difficult for Ağaoğlu to remain in Russia. The Russian authorities were pursuing him so he escaped from the Caucasus in late 1908 or early 1909 and came to Istanbul.

He espoused quite orthodox Turkish nationalist opinions of the state elites both before and after the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. But in the late 1920s he began to take a more critical stance. What did that mean in practice?

You’re right that he was an orthodox nationalist in the 1910s in the sense that he believed a Turkish nationality had to be created by turning to the historical and cultural origins of the Turkish nation. As far as I could trace, his nationalism, unlike that of the policy-maker Young Turks of the time, was not exclusionary. In the 1920s, during the nascent years of the republic, he continued to embrace similar nationalist ideas. Ağaoğlu’s break with the inner circle of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) came after 1925. This is when the Islamist Kurdish rebellion took place in the southeast.  An assassination attempt against Mustafa Kemal also exacerbated things, and the CHP began to harden its positions. 

As a matter of fact, for Ağaoğlu and many republican elites, the period between 1923 and 1925 was a liberal period. Agaoglu believed that what had happened in France in the late 18th century was now happening in Turkey. The Turkish Revolution was the Eastern counterpart of the French Revolution. The leading members of the CHP identified themselves as liberals and so did the press and foreign diplomats. When the caliphate was abolished and the religious orders were closed, these would appear in the press as acts of “the liberals.”

Ağaoğlu was one of the leading intellectuals of the time, one of the doctrinaires who was trying to attribute a meaning to the change that was going on: The transfer of power from Istanbul to Ankara and its consolidation in the hands of a relatively small group in Ankara. 1926 was the turning point when this liberal discourse began to be dropped. It was not Ağaoğlu who specifically changed, but rather the direction of the revolution. In 1926 he wrote one particular article titled “The Direction of the Revolution” and he also wrote a private report to Mustafa Kemal; both criticized the actions of the CHP. The article was very important because he was saying that the CHP’s revolutionary direction was not carrying the same liberal enthusiasm that it was carrying in the early years of the republic. The report was important because he was openly criticizing the stagnation of the party, the loss of enthusiasm, and the corruption of officials. He was saying that the acts of the party were severely damaging the prestige of the revolution, which was losing the charisma and energy to rally people’s support. So Ağaoğlu’s alienation began when the CHP turned in a more authoritarian direction after 1926.

He later had a role in the Free Republican Party (SCF), which only lasted for three months. How did that party evolve and how did it differ from the CHP? 

The SCF was established in August 1930. There are three reasons behind its establishment. Firstly, in 1929 the Turkish economy went through a crisis due to the Great Depression, an agrarian crisis, and the starting of repayments of Ottoman debts. The CHP leadership wanted to divert attention from this economic crisis toward political issues. Secondly, figures like Ali Fethi Okyar and Ahmet Ağaoğlu were critical of the regime of Prime Minister İsmet İnönü. Thirdly - and this is probably speculation because there’s not enough evidence - there was tension between Mustafa Kemal and İsmet over who was actually ruling the country. Mustafa Kemal probably wanted to distance İsmet and for that reason he asked Ali Fethi to establish a party in the summer of 1930. 

One thing that we should consider about the SCF is that there were indeed two different decision-making mechanisms in the 1920s before it was founded: One was made up of the hardline republicans led by İsmet and Recep Peker; the other was the Çankaya group of Mustafa Kemal, including figures like Nuri Bey, Edib Bey, and Ahmet Ağaoğlu, who were regularly meeting at Mustafa Kemal’s presidential house in Çankaya.

When the SCF was established in 1930, some of the figures around Mustafa Kemal went to this party. The relatively more liberal economic program of the SCF, written by Ağaoğlu, its call for further rights for women and for Turkey to join the League of Nations, and perhaps most importantly its opposition to the CHP, inspired hopes in many at the time and was regarded as a threat by the CHP and to the republican revolutionary elites. This perception would lead the CHP to follow a harsh policy against the young party. Mustafa Kemal would also eventually publicly side with the CHP.

Since his death Ağaoğlu has typically been defined in Turkey as a champion of individualism. But you suggest it is actually more accurate to view him as a kind of moderate trying to balance individual and state duties and interests.

In the book I try to explain how Ağaoğlu was an individualist and communitarian at the same time. He was an individualist in terms of the state approach to the individual in political and economic matters. He wanted the basic rights of the individual to be guaranteed by law. He wanted individuals to be given a free platform on which to undertake economic activities. 

But there is a moral layer of his liberal thought, derived from Kropotkin and Durkheim, where he says that the most important moral value of humans is “mutual aid.” He argues that the biggest problem of Eastern societies is egoism, whereas in the West you find altruistic individuals. He says the biggest difference between Eastern and Western nations is that in the East the individual will easily sacrifice the long-term interests of a society for his or her own short-term interests, while in the West the reverse is the case. So we understand from the moral layer of his liberal work that he favored altruism over egoism and, where moral thought was concerned, he saw individualism as a synonym of egoism.

Ağaoğlu was a social or modern liberal. He envisaged a future projection of Turkish society as an aggregate of altruistic individuals with an enabling state. The state would provide individuals with a free atmosphere to develop their intellectual, spiritual, or economic faculties. Yet it would not refrain from interference, because, like welfare states today, it would be invested with economic and social responsibilities for its citizens. His liberal account obviously suffers from inherent tensions, between political and economic liberalisms. He did not really like the Anglo-Saxon version of economic liberalism and he was not a defender of individualism in the utilitarian sense. 

Ağaoğlu instead wanted a “communitarian nation” because he believed that there is no individual happiness separate from the happiness of society, and individual morality is socially constituted. I prefer to call his liberalism a communitarian rather than an individualist version of liberalism. He was talking about the political and economic freedom of the individual, but at the same time he claimed that the individual’s interest or happiness could easily be sacrificed if the interest of the state or society is under threat. The freedoms he endowed to individuals were mainly to serve the good of the collective. One example is his insistence on giving women further political and economic rights. He thought that if there was an imbalance in power relations between husband and wife then no children in that family could flourish freely. So he wanted women to be given equal economic and political rights with men. This was, however, not for their own happiness per se, but for them to become more conscientious mothers and wives - for their social role. So his suggestion for the emancipation of individuals would not be for their happiness, but for their social role. This was why there was no mention of individual autonomy in his work in political, economic or moral senses.

Today, after 13 years of AKP rule, it’s clear that illiberal state social engineering still remains the goal of many politicians in Turkey. 

The CHP’s modernization project and the AKP’s conservative transformation attempts are both “design theories” of some kind - attempts at state social engineering. They share the belief that an entire society can be transformed into a more modern, Western, or conservative one in a short period of time by setting guiding principles, secular or religious, and by making people succumb to these principles through laws and/or coercion. Ağaoğlu’s liberal thought likewise aimed at the moral regeneration of society, exploiting secular sources of morality.

We find the origins of this mentality in the French Revolution and its aftermath. This understanding was carried from France to Turkey at the turn of the 20th century through the Young Turks. Though he was not a Young Turk himself, Ağaoğlu was one of the transmitters of the French republican political culture into the Turkish context. As a secondary intellectual, he was very influential in the formation of new political symbols and institutions in early Republican Turkey. 

But what Ağaoglu, the Kemalists and the AKP have not taken into account is that such attempts, in the absence of political ascendancy of the masses, lead to social and political tensions, turmoil and instability. 19th century France saw a cycle of revolutions for this reason. Turkey similarly went through a cycle of military interventions in the 20th century, and saw returns to authoritarianism in the 1950s and 2010s. 

To end political tensions and polarization today, to finally end the revolution and cycles of authoritarian regimes, Turkey needs a clean break with this mentality. It needs a new republic, a “Fourth Republic” founded initially upon a democratic constitution, prepared by all political parties and interest groups, regardless of their gender, ethnicity and religion. It has to ensure that its democracy is not limited to suffrage alone but is married with liberal rights for all, and these rights are unconditionally guaranteed by the constitution and the rule of law. Turkey is yet to meet the most basic liberal expectations of Ağaoğlu, whose liberalism had important limits. As Ağaoğlu said, given the moral corruption and the endless desire of politicians and people to place their short-term interests before the long-term interests of society and before the law - see, for example, how people drive in Istanbul - this is not easy. But for moral and political emancipation, and for true democracy, Turkey has to learn to trust the educative function of liberties. 

* This and other interviews are available on the Turkey Book Talk podcast. Subscribe via iTunes here, Soundcloud here, or Podbean here.