Nationality and Religion:
           Three Observations from Omer Seyfettin

        [Published in: Central Asian Survey (Oxford)
            Volume 3, No. 3; 1984. Pp. 109-115.]

     Omer Seyfettin was born in what was then the Ottoman
Empire in 1884 and graduated from the Military Academy.  He
was posted to Izmir and later to Western border garrisons. 
In 1909, he was an officer of the Hareket Ordusu (Action
Army) which suppressed the Irtica (Recidivist) uprising, the
religious groups opposing the newly formed constitutional
monarchy in Istanbul.  Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was a ranking
staff officer of the Hareket Ordusu.
     In 1911, after resigning his commission, Omer Seyfettin
began publishing Genc Kalemler (Young Pens) with Ziya Gokalp
and Ali Janip.  He was recalled to the army under
mobilization orders at the beginning of the Balkan War and
spent approximately 12 month during 1912-1913 in Greece as a
prisoner of war.  In 1914, after leaving the army for the
second time, Omer Seyfettin became a literature teacher in
an Istanbul High school.  He died of diabetes in 1920.  He
was 36.
     To understand his frame of mind better, one must
observe that he died before witnessing the liberation of his
homeland, or the prospects thereof, from all occupying
forces.  The present-day Turkiye Cumhuriyeti took shape ten
years after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, in 1929,
with a quite different personality, more along the lines
envisioned by Omer Seyfettin.
     Seyfettin Joined the Union and Progress Party prior to
1907 and stayed in it until his untimely death.  He was a
member of the General Secretariat.  However, he was not
arrested, a fate that befell most of the members of the
party in 1919.[1]
     In 1914 he was Bashyazar (Chief Author) of Turk Yurdu
(Turkish Homeland) and during 1917 a contributor to Yeni
Mecmua ((New Magazine), both published in Istanbul.[2]
     The following excerpt is translated from Mehdi
(Savior).[3]  In this short story, Omer Seyfettin is trying
to put into words the distinction between Turk and Moslem,
all the while interpreting a particular Koranic
statement.[4]  Given the prevalent political demagogy
surrounding the term "Ottomanism" in his time, this effort
has specific implications.[5]
     The setting for "Savior" is a train compartment.  It
was written in 1913, while Omer Seyfettin was still a
prisoner of war.  (Salonica was given to Greece 10 August
1913 by treaty of Bucharest.  Allied troops disembarked
there on 5 October 1915).  All five passengers are Turks
travelling through Greece.  Among the group there is a hoja
wearing the sarik (turban), the religious headgear.  The
discussion is centered on whether and when the Turks will
again be free, in their own independent homeland.  Two of
the individuals are pessimistic about the prospects. 
Another wonders if the mehdi, the promised Savior of the
Moslems, will appear and overcome the captivity to which
Turks are currently subjected.  The hoja interrupts the
gloomy atmosphere:
     Do you know who this Savior is my sons?  It is the
     missing twelfth Imam![6]  All Moslems are awaiting
     his reappearance.  No doubt this is a dream.  I'll
     tell you how and under what influences this vision
     began:  Islam is an ideal.  It is such a high,
     firm and grand ideal that every aggressive Moslem
     would like to take every non-Moslem country and
     make them all Moslem.  Over time, due to
     connivance and treachery, one at a time, the Islam
     governments fell.  Moslems became slaves. 
     However, the Islamic ideal left in the
     subconscious minds, a hope, an aspiration in every
     Moslem.  The Moslems, who groaned under the heavy
     and blazing hot chains of slavery, did not despair
     of a day of deliverance and salvation.  What is
     more, these people, the mehdi attached the
     fulfillment of this hope to the twelfth Imam, who
     would one day reappear.  This Savior, the one
     awaited by the innate disposition of the Moslems
     with such subconscious confidence, is actually a
     Guide (a leader pointing to the correct path). 
     Will there ever be such a Messiah to save all
     Moslems from servitude and oppression and
     persecution?  In all Moslem lands, in Asia, India,
     Africa all Moslems are awaiting this Savior. 
     There are numerous tales and stories about such a
     redeemer.  This sorrowful mood also manifests
     itself in the hauntingly majestic poetry of the
     wounded spirits of the Moslem brethren.  Like Ak
     Minare, etc.  But will this Messiah ever come?  No
     and Yes.  The Spirit of Islam with purity of heart
     regards every hero a Savior.  If that hero is not
     successful, mehdi becomes mutemehdi (one who
     claims to be Savior).  Then, the real mehdi is
     once again awaited.  But, alas, no such Messiah
     will emerge to deliver the Moslems, overthrowing
     the occupiers, taking their revenge.  However,
     will this bondage and anguish last until the day
     of judgement?  Of course not.  Someday, Islam's
     revenge will come.  But how?  Sacred book Koran
     answers this:  "The Savior of every tribe shall
     come."   Yes, every nation shall have its own
     Guide, leading them to redemption.  For example,
     The Caliph cannot go and rescue the Moslems in
     Bosnia Herzegovia.  They themselves struggle. 
     From amongst them, one or more selfless martyrs
     will emerge.  They will take up arms.  They will
     emulate other nations who have thrown off the
     yoke, the Christian nations.  The same is true for
     the Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Sudanese and
     even Egyptians.  This is also valid for living
     elsewhere.  Liberators from within their tribes
     emerge.  These liberators will lead their nations. 
     Then, after this deliverance, the people who begin
     to understand knowledge and wisdom will form an
     international entity, much like their Christian
     counterparts.  This is the true ideal of the Union
     of Islam.  When this ideal is realized, Christian
     Internationalism, i.e. the Europeans[7] will not
     be able to exert pressure on the Moslems whom they
     find weak and unprepared.  Only then balance, law
     and order will be established on earth.  A
     nation's Guides are those who can awaken their
     people from their witless slumber of ignorance. 
     We Turks will march towards a national ideal that
     is illuminated by the sacred torches of our Guides
     and will break the chains of slavery under which
     we have been wailing.  Not only that, but we will
     even be able to go to the aid of our non-Turk
     Moslem brethren.  Like ourselves, every Moslem
     nation may rightfully expect their own Guide.  The
     exultant tiding is given in the Koran.  Yes, the
     Koran is in our hands.  There is not a Messiah. 
     However, there will be many Guides.  While the
     common man is awaiting that lone imaginary Savior,
     we Turk, Arab, Persian and other Moslem thinkers
     must be vigilant for our own Guides, real saviors. 
     We must never doubt that whether or not they will

     The following is translated from "Ilk Dusen Ak" (The
First White Hair).[8]  Omer Seyfettin is posing blunt
questions with respect to the issue of self awareness which
must have reached crisis proportions among the local
educated elite.
     The main figure of the story is a Turkish architectural
engineer trained in Paris.  After returning to what was then
the Ottoman empire, he is assigned to a very-well paid
position.  He has no monetary worries.  Now that he is
comfortably settled in Istanbul a professional and as an
adjunct professor at the school of Engineering, he is
suffering from an ailment which he himself cannot identify. 
He is losing weight, observes that he is neither happy nor
sad.  He seeks medical help.  The physician, after examining
him, diagnoses "sinecure" (in this context, loss of aim due
to accomplishment, excessive comfort).  The prescription: to
struggle for an ideal.  The engineer is still at a loss. 
The physician then poses a question to clarify his point: 
"Are you a patriot?"  Not receiving an answer, a second one:
"Are you an internationalist?"  The engineer, again cannot
respond.  He has never thought about such concepts.  The
architect/engineer then collects his thoughts:
     In life there are those insignificant events which
     leave on us deep impressions.  One "nothing" may
     change the path on which we have many a year
     walked.  The paradoxical statements of the
     physician, who suggested that I obtain an ideal,
     very much affected me.  Again, owing to my
     pathological sensitivity, I was left under his
     spell.  Yes, last year I was neither a nationalist
     nor an internationalist!  I needed an ideal. 
     However, an ideal could not be found and bought
     like ready-to-wear clothing.  I liked literature
     very much.  I thought of writing a novel, in fact
     started writing it...  Then thought of the scandal
     which would follow its printing.  Famous  --but
     for what?--  engineer so-and-so has published a
     novel!  This would have been akin to a famous
     Minister of Works  writing  a primer of religious
     education, while he was still occupying his post! 
     So as not to become a laughing stock, I gave up. 
     I set my ambition out to read the publications
     surrounding the nationalist movement.  Two months
     later, I summed up the thoughts I had gathered and
     came up with the following:

     1. People who share the same language and religion
     belong to the same nation.  The Turks are also a
     nation.  However, since they have been living as
     an umma (religious community) they have neglected
     their own nationality.  They have endeavored to
     resemble Persians and Arabs.

     2. Upon becoming a nationality, it is necessary to
     modernize.  Then they have attempted to imitate
     the "Franks" (the West).

     3. However, Turks, just like other nations, have a
     distinct and separate personality in every branch
     of culture.  They can progress when they discover
     this personality.

     Then, I looked around.  Authors were striving to
     write the spoken natural language; poets to
     produce the national literature, poetry, the
     national meters; jurists, to find the national
     jurisprudence; moralists the national morals;
     educators, the national upbringing.  I started to
     seek the national art.

     The following was offered by Omer Seyfettin as an
explanation of his motives in writing, rather than as an
introduction to "Ashab-i Kehfimiz"  (Our Seven Sleepers)[9]

     I wrote this little novel five years ago.  It was
     not my intention to produce a literary work.  I
     simply wanted to compare the strange ways of
     thought of our intellectuals with social reality. 
     After the Mesrutiyet (the second proclamation of
     the constitution in 1908), I had spoken with most
     of our "Great Leaders."  Their collective thoughts
     were approximately reflected in the following
     summation:  "Ottomanism is a composite
     nationality.  Ottomanism is neither Turkism nor
     being Moslem.  Every individual living under the
     Ottoman administration, without regard to national
     origin and religion, is a member of the Ottoman
     nation!"  However, this idea was nothing but an
     illusion, a fantasy, born of brains produced by
     the non-nationalist education system of the
     Tanzimat (reform) period.  It was not possible to
     constitute a "composite" nationality from the sum
     total of individuals who have separate religions,
     languages, moralities, histories, cultures and
     grounds for pride.  Was "Ottomanism" in actuality
     anything more than the name of our government?  It
     was not possible to call the Germans living in
     Austria "the Habsburg nation, the Austrian nation" 
     Wherever he might be, a German is a German.  Those
     of us who speak Turkish, were a nation with a
     history of five thousand years, and even older
     legends.  Within the domains of the Ottoman state,
     in Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Turkistan, Bukhara,
     Kashgar, in short, wherever we lived, we were
     genuine Turks...  However, the political thoughts
     and social goals of those intellectuals were so
     ridiculous as to bring tears in the eyes; those
     intellectuals who gave the word "Ottomanism"
     imaginary meanings.  These respected gentlemen
     were not able to see the truth even after the
     Balkan war.  It was then that I wrote this book. 
     The thoughts embodied in it were inspired only by
     the Tanzimat, therefore I did not attempt to
     attribute them to a specific person and sketch any
     personal types.  While the Turkish peasant could
     identify the bounds of nationality very well as
     "those who speak my language, who have my
     religion," educated gentlemen attached no
     importance to language or religion during the last
     revolution (1908).  Finally, time taught them a
     good lesson.  Within ten years we were afflicted
     by events each of which would not fit into a
     century.  Now, the value of nationality in general
     has been realized.  Importance has now begun to be
     attached  to the natural spoken language,[10] 
     national literature, national art and the ideal of
     nationality.  Today, perhaps, the political
     assertions and mindless actions of the heroes in
     this book will seem like excessive
     "exaggerations."  However, what are the true aims
     of those who still pass for opponents of
     nationalism, and Turkism; aims which they cannot
     confess openly in language, literature, art and
     politics?  If they have any, are they not all
     empty dreams?


1. T. Alangu, Omer Seyfettin (Istanbul, 1968).  Alangu,
during the early 1950s, interviewed a number of persons who
had known Seyfettin personally and intimately.

2.  Togan suggests that these magazines were read in Central
Asia at that time.  See Z. V. Togan, Turkistan (Istanbul,
1981).  Also see reference to Turk Yurdu by H. Komatsu,
"Fitrat'in Munazarasi uzerine notlar."  Dogu Dilleri: Ankara
Universitesi Dil ve Tarih Cografya Fakultesi.  Cilt II, Sayi
2; 1981.  Page 165.

3. O. Seyfettin, Bomba. (Istanbul, 1982).  The translated
portion of the short story "Mehdi" is found in Pp. 111-113.

4. Wa-likulli Qawmin Hadin (13:8).

5. See Ashab-i Kehfimiz in the body of the text below.  

6. See Komatsu, op. cit.  above, P. 161.  In his paper,
Komatsu cites the armed fighting which broke out between
Sunnis and the Shiites in Bukhara during 1910.  Perhaps,
with this event fresh in his mind, Seyfettin is attempting
to conciliate the two sects by casting the Shiite concept of
12th Imam into the role of the "Savior" for all Moslems.

7. At the time, In Istanbul, the Tsarist Russia was also
considered to be an European state with evangelistic
ambitions.  Russian missionaries were actively seeking
converts to Christianity in Central Asia.  Ilminskii was one
such missionary, who devised several subsets of the cyrillic
alphabet for the Central Asians.  In this manner, Ilminskii
and his supporters sought to separate the Central Asians
from the rest and isolate them from the other Turk elements. 
The tsarist Russia, and Great Britain considered the Central
Asian Turks a real danger to their own positions.

8.  O. Seyfettin, Ilk Dusen Ak (Istanbul, 1962), Pp. 67-68. 

9. O. Seyfettin, Butun Eserleri (Ankara, 1970). Pp. 7-56. 
Ashab-i Kehfimiz was first published in Istanbul during
1918.  The words constituting the title are from the Koran
(which is a borrowing from earlier traditions).

10. "Ottoman" language was a contrived blend of Turkish,
Persian and Arabic. 

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