Ahmet Ağaoğlu and the genealogy of liberalism in Turkey

Ahmet Ağaoğlu and the genealogy of liberalism in Turkey

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
Ahmet Ağaoğlu and the genealogy of liberalism in Turkey Ahmet Ağaoğlu and the Genealogy of Liberalism in Turkey’ by H. Ozan Özavcı (Brill, 269 pages, $141)

“Liberal” is often used as a term of abuse in Turkey. As the leader of the tiny Liberal Democrat Party, Cem Toker, recently tweeted, their work is very difficult in a country where Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı and Nagehan Alçı describe themselves as “liberal.” The term has also been dragged through the mud in recent years by prominent self-described liberals happy to justify the authoritarianism of the Turkish government - “useful idiots” out of naivety or cynicism. Overall, liberalism is tragically little understood in Turkey, both by its self-declared proponents and opponents.

Ahmet Ağaoğlu and the genealogy of liberalism in Turkey In this biography of politician and intellectual Ahmet Ağaoğlu, Utrecht University assistant professor Ozan Özavcı describes his subject as “the most prominent liberal in early Republican Turkey.” As becomes clear throughout the book, Ağaoğlu’s description as a “liberal” was sometimes more appropriate than at other times. Either way, this book is a stimulating intellectual history of his life, ideas and times. It isn’t exactly a must for the general reader (thankfully, given its eye-watering cover price), but it is certainly full of interest for anyone curious. 

Born to a wealthy Shia Muslim family in 1868 in the South Caucasus, at the time part of the Russian Empire, Ağaoğlu lived a peripatetic life. Until his death in 1939, he worked in the Russian Empire (1869-1888/1894-1908), France (1888-1894), the Ottoman Empire (1908-1918), the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1919) and the Republic of Turkey (1923-1939), writing in French, Azerbaijani, Turkish, Russian and Persian. He witnessed the outbreak of five revolutions in Russia, Iran and Turkey, the fall of the Tsarist Russian and Ottoman empires, and the persistent threat of Western encroachments in the Near East, all of which shaped his free-ranging intellectual interests. Ağaoğlu’s studies in St Petersburg and Paris left lasting marks, exposing him to radical debates about despotism and constitutional rule.

He returned to the Caucasus in 1894 having undergone an intellectual transformation. In the words of Özavcı, “he had felt in a sense alien to the Islamic world from which he originated, but at the same time … he was antagonized by the Western misperceptions of the very same world.” Writing and publishing journals in Baku, which at the time was roiled by ethnic tension and would be in more political ferment after the Revolution of 1905 in Russia, Ağaoğlu actively partook in the struggles of Caucasian Muslims. He was an exemplar of liberal Muslim attempts in the region to both defend the rights of Russian Muslims and also help Muslim society “catch up” with advances elsewhere. According to Özavcı, he “defended the collective rights of Muslims against the Tsarist government, criticized clericalism … and the traditional obstructive mentality of Islamic scholars,” placing “special emphasis on reform of the alphabet and the situation of women.” 

After the Young Turk revolution in the Ottoman Empire in 1909, Ağaoğlu was one of the many Caucasian and Crimean thinkers who headed to Istanbul hoping to find a freer intellectual atmosphere. His thought throughout the 1910s went with the prevailing winds of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) elites. At first the Young Turks appeared to hold more optimistic ideas and a romantic belief in upholding “Ottomanness” as an umbrella identity for all the empire’s subjects, but sentiments hardened as the Ottoman state suffered a series of territorial losses in wars. Ağaoğlu co-edited the journal Tercüman-ı Hakikat (The Interpreter of Truth) from 1909 to 1911 and later became its sole editor-in-chief. In its pages, he “zealously support[ed] virtually all policies of the [CUP], the leaders of which procured him a new life in Istanbul.” In line with the times, his writings carried a Turkish nationalist bent, “pointing out the underprivileged position of the Turks in the Ottoman Empire and the importance of the Turkish component of the empire from a historical perspective.” 

Ağaoğlu’s emphasis on the Islamic character of the Turks combined with an urgent desire to reform and modernize “backward” Islamic societies. He was involved in the establishment of the Turkish Hearths, founded in 1912 after a series of meetings at his Istanbul house. One of the most important nationalist organizations in 20th century Turkey, the Hearths aimed to elevate the educational, intellectual, social and economic situation of the Turks. He worked vigorously for them until 1918 and was elected to the Ottoman Parliament in 1915. As a prominent nationalist he was included on an Armenian blacklist for his purported role in measures against Ottoman Armenians during the war. The sources may be thin, but one oversight in Özavcı’s book is the failure to explore this in any detail.

Ağaoğlu spent years in British captivity after the Ottoman Empire lost the First World War. Upon his release in 1921, he immediately joined Mustafa Kemal’s national liberation movement in Ankara and found himself in the inner circle of the top echelon of Kemalist leaders, propagandizing for the Ankara government around the country throughout the independence struggle. He helped to write the first program of the new Republican People’s Party (CHP) in 1923 and was a member of the special committee that drafted the 1924 constitution. Over the course of the 1920s, however, there was a gradual shift from his position as an enthusiastic advocate of the Kemalist Revolution to a critical revolutionary. As the CHP became increasingly authoritarian, Ağaoğlu’s liberal republican convictions came to the fore. After 1926 he was no longer a party man, and he emphasized freedom of thought and movement, the natural rights of the individual, equality of genders, and meritocracy over inherited privileges. His criticism of the Kemalist authorities was strident, slamming the lack of transparency, parliamentary opacity, nepotism, and economic failures.

Encouraged by Atatürk, in August 1930 Ağaoğlu became one of the heads of the new Free Republican Party (SCF), which emerged as a regime-backed experiment in opposition after intra-CHP wrangling. While the SCF was unquestionably loyal to the republican modernization program, its main distinction from the CHP was its more liberal economic line. The party disbanded itself (against Atatürk’s wishes) after a contentious three months during which it was repressed by the CHP state. Afterward, Ağaoğlu continued to criticize the Kemalists - particularly for their increasing etatism in economic affairs. 

It was here that he had perhaps his most authentically “liberal” moment - positioning himself against totalitarian regimes of right and left in Europe and denying that either should be a model for Turkey. Globally, opposing both communism and fascism was not a popular stance in the polarized 1930s, but that was where Ağaoğlu found himself. While he had blown with the winds of political orthodoxy in Turkey through the 1910s and 1920s, in the final decade of his life he advocated something approaching the liberal welfarism of the Roosevelt government’s New Deal in the U.S. Ağaoğlu’s ideal state would provide pensions, social benefits and publicly-funded health and education services. As depicted in his utopian 1931 novella “In the Land of Free Men,” the individual and the state both had obligations to meet in order to realize the full potential of citizens. 

Certainly, Ağaoğlu was not a hugely original thinker. His interest instead lies in the interaction of his thoughts with the times he lived in. Today, when governments in Turkey continue to be seduced by the temptation to attempt state social engineering, Özavcı’s book is a useful introduction to an important but relatively little-known figure.