Remembering the ‘treason’ of Mehmet Akif

Remembering the ‘treason’ of Mehmet Akif

Yesterday, Dec. 27, was the anniversary of the loss of a prominent figure in Turkish history: Mehmet Akif Ersoy, the poet who wrote the national anthem. Naturally, many remembered him, especially Islamists and religious conservatives who sympathize with Ersoy for his Islamic credentials. Little did they know, however, the historical irony this put them in. 

To tell you the irony, I should first tell you more about Mehmet Akif. He was born in Istanbul in 1873 as an Ottoman of Albanian origin. He studied medicine, and in fact became a veterinarian. What made him nationally famous, however, was his work as an Islamic public intellectual and a moving poet. 

Akif’s Islamic views were formed within the current that we call “Islamic modernism” today. He was, in other words, loyal to the foundations of Islam but quite critical of the superstition, dogmatism and authoritarianism he saw in the Muslim tradition. He was a champion of the cause of Constitutional Monarchy, which was the late Ottoman political current aimed at limiting the sultan’s power and introducing more “freedom.” 

When Turkey was occupied by the allied powers at the end of the Great War, Akif became an ardent defender of the War of Liberation. The latter’s military leader, Mustafa Kemal, had invited him to Ankara in 1920 to publish his Islamic journal, Sebil-ur Reşad, which Akif accepted. The next year, he wrote the “Independence March,” which now every Turks knows by heart, and which begins with the powerful word: “Korkma,” or “Do not fear!”

So, Akif was a national hero by all measures. However, he soon found himself in a different category. After the war, Mustafa Kemal gradually became the single-handed ruler of Turkey and all those who stood in his way found themselves branded as “traitors.” Akif would have his share, too.

In early 1925, there was a Kurdo-Islamic rebellion against the newfound Turkish Republic led by a tribal chief named Sheik Said. The attempt was serious, and the regime had to defend itself. But the regime did something more than that: It used the rebellion, which it crushed heavy-handedly, as a pretext to establish a dictatorship. Thanks to a March 1925 emergency law called “The Law to Establish Peace,” all opposition parties and opposition newspapers were closed down. Akif’s Sebil-ur Reşad, too, was silenced with the argument that Sheik Said read the newspaper occasionally and may have acquired his treacherous ideas from there.

In the following months, Akif was put under surveillance. “They placed a police commissar behind me,” he wrote in his memoirs, “as if I were a man who sold his homeland and betrayed his nation.” Soon, in 1926, he decided to move to Egypt, to teach there and complete his translation of the Qur’an. 

After a decade in exile, and in poverty, Akif returned to Istanbul in 1936 on a passenger ship. When he saw the minarets of Istanbul from afar, he burst into tears. His poor health allowed him only six more months. Many joined his funeral, but others feared doing so. For he was still a “traitor” and merely appearing at his funeral could put one in trouble.

In short, Mehmet Akif was a true patriot who loved his country, and a noble man who did not sell his political allegiance to an authoritarian regime. May he rest in peace.

And where is the irony in the history? Well, it must be obvious. We are living in another era of “The Law to Establish Peace” now, and the dissidents of a certain leader may easily find themselves branded as “traitors.” The masters of this new era really have no moral authority to honor Akif, as they were doing yesterday. They should rather honor the persecutors of Akif, on whose path they are joyfully walking.