From Muslim to Turkish Nationalism.
Elite Socialization in the Turkish Foyers in Switzerland (1912-1922)

Hans-Lukas Kieser


Workshop "Cultural Conceptions of Middle Eastern Statesmen, Intellectuals and Technocrats (19th - 21st Centuries)", World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies, Mainz, 9.-13. September 2002



Elite diasporas represent an often underestimated factor in the modern remodeling of the East and Near East. During the decades before, in and just after World War One, elite diasporas in Switzerland formed a small but significant arena for what was to happen in the big empires of the Tsar and the Sultan, and the whole Muslim world. La petite Russie, the "little Russia", rue de Carouge in Geneva was well known as a center of the Russian diaspora, famed for its revolutionary stance. The same quarter around the rue de Carouge also housed several Young Turks and the room, rue de Carouge 7, where they weekly met. Interestingly enough, this was also the address of Kurdistan, the first Kurdish periodical. Those responsible of Kurdistan peacefully shared the same work room with later Turkists and members of the Ankara parliament, and an Armenian typesetter made their publications possible.

At the eve of WWI the situation had changed radically. The South Eastern and Ottoman diaspora was now strongly divided along ethno-national lines. Bulgarian, Armenian, Greek, Serbian and Zionist organisations had already existed at the turn of the century, an Egyptian club emerged soon after; new in 1911 was the Türk Yurdu, or Turkish Foyer, followed a few months later by the Kurdish Hêvi. Lausanne had the first Türk Yurdu in Europe that, until 1923, remained the most important one; after WWI it became a strong propaganda center of the Turkish national movement.

We know a lot about the Young Turks in opposition in Geneva, but much less about the Turkish Foyers and the role the Oriental diaspora played during and after WWI for the future of the Caliph's Empire. The Foyers of Lausanne and Geneva were founded in 1911; other European cities and, as Halide Edip put it, the Ottoman "capital soon followed the[ir] example", by establishing the Turkish Hearths (Türk Ocagi) in Istanbul and Asia Minor. Despite their concern for politics and society, medecine, science and law always remained the subjects of study prefered by the Ottoman Muslims including the Foyer members (they numbered about 60 of a total of about 350 Ottoman students then in Switzerland, about seventy percent of these were non-Muslims). Thus a community mainly educated in natural and technical sciences devoted itself mostly to social, political and cultural questions. As an important consequence, we see them often using scientific or medical metaphors for social issues.

Analysing the little Helvetic arena helps explaining the specific role Western-trained new elites played in the changes from the Fin de siècle to the aftermath of WWI. The Foyers in Geneva, Lausanne and Paris presented themselves as an apolitic cultural club; they formed an elite milieu in which young people were converted and mentally trained as nationalists. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey dozens of members of these Foyers came to important positions in the new state, putting into practice their former ideas. Among them many deputies, ambassadors and ministers, e. g. Þükrü Saraçoglu, president of the Turkish Foyer in Geneva, later minister of finance and prime minister, Yusuf Kemal Tengirsek, minister of foreign affairs, Cemal Hüsnü Taray, minister of education, and Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, president of the Turkish Foyer in Lausanne, later minister of Justice, who introduced the Swiss Civil Code in Turkey.

Mahmut Esat Bey is an impressive member of a generation born in the Fin de siècle whose desire of a new order got caught in the whirl of a violent nationalist and etatist thinking. His ambiguity was that of the whole Foyer movement. Desiring to catch up with the nations renowned as civilized and politically strong, its representatives in the Swiss diaspora selectively adopted elements of Western culture which they considered as "progressive", even though the spirit of these elements, e. g. of the Civil Code, stood in an unresolvable tension to an ethno-nationalist credo. Lacking credibility in their own society, the protagonists thus continuously had to resort to coercion and violence in their political practice.



In this workshop we are interested in cultural concepts, the construction of a self-image and national identity. My hypothesis is that the Turkish Foyer milieu in Europe, and especially in Switzerland, was a most formative place of cultural elite socialization; that ex-Foyer members contributed towards forming the civilian wing of the Kemalist Republic's otherwise predominantly military cadre; and that they adapted themselves to the pragmatical power politics of the generals, even though culturally they were highly "idealistic". A dozen years before the abolition of the Caliphate they began to believe, in the way of a secular religion, in a völkisch or ethno-nationalist ideal linked to high modernism and anti-conservative "social technology". We find a similar trend in many right-wing modernist movements of the time. Like the socialists they wanted a social revolution, içtimâî inkilâb, but strictly limited to the nation which they imagined in ethnical terms. Although similar in many respects to the Zionists - which in the same period founded their student clubs in Switzerland -, the Turkists had a much more conflicting relationship with religion. They could not convincingly square their being Muslims and their wish to be Western at the same time. Thus Islam remained a primordial, at the same time highly critical element of ethnicity as part of Turkishness, but was completely devoid of its character of religious revelation. Paradoxically at the same time the Young Turkish regime, to which the Foyer movement was linked, almost completely islamified Asia Minor through coercive demographic politics. The civil architects of the Republic did not face the challenge, which they however realized, of theologically modernizing Islam and adapting its contents to present society. Instead they filled the religious gap with Turkism, myths of national salvation, and a pantheon of heros. I use "Turkism", by the way, as synonym of Turkish ethno-nationalism of which Panturkism or Panturanism is the maximalist and irredentist version.

Let us follow some expressions of Turkey's Muslim diaspora in Switzerland and first return to the turn of the century. I want to show one of numerous caricatures showing the explosion of a bomb.

- We see Abdulhamid torn to pieces by a bomb. "Hükümet-i hamidiyenin sonu. Eden bulur!", in Beberuhi, Nr 3, Geneva, April 1898.

This and other similar caricatures reveal the desire not only to deprive Sultan Abdulhamid of power, but for a complete tabula rasa. Tabula rasa should violently be made of despotism, corruption, religious backwardness, cosmopolitan complexity, "Byzantine" confusion, a Babel of languages, and foreign interference - in short all that the Young Turks saw as weakening the Empire, hampering progress and reducing their chances as the future elite of the state. However they were not able to define common terms for what they wanted to create. They were young people on the search - some twelve years later, those activists now in the diaspora appear to have found what they were looking for in terms of cultural identity. In the protocols of the Foyer turc in Lausanne we read in June 1918: "Brothers, from day to day nationalism exercises a stronger influence upon the Turkish world. While yesterday we answered to the question ‘What is your nationality’ by saying ‘I am Muslim’, today we do not hesitate to respond by proudly saying ‘I am a Turk’." The Foyer explicitly saw its mission in converting desoriented Turkish students to Turkism.

Resorting to Turkishness and Turkdom was an escape to an imagined essence, to given prehistorical, "natural" origins. What was considered as given and solid, was in reality under construction and highly speculative. But for elites socialized in the European Fin de siècle, it appeared much easier to believe in such pseudo-natural essences instead of continuously negociating relations that defined subtly changing identities in a shifting polyethnic context. The new ethno-national self-image miraculously reduced the complexity of being Ottoman. It suppressed the difficulty of being Muslim in a world of declining Islamic power and of global elites believing in scientific progress. In Europe we had the same phenomenon of shattered mirrors - in the sense of broken self-images that had been linked to religious tradition -, but this occured in a much longer period and concerned the whole society, whereas in the late Ottoman world this happened in a concentrated manner in the few decades of the Young Turkish generation and was limited to the Western trained elites.

Thus we see a large majority of the Muslim Turks of the universitary diaspora in Switzerland quickly becoming more or less Turkist, declaring that they now knew who they were, and what they were heading for: a social revolution (içtimâî inkilab) in Turkist terms with Turan as last reference of the quasi religious ideal or mefkûre. The Turkist gospel appears more as an ersatz than a real answer to the probing theological and cultural questions raised by some restless Young Turkish intellectuals of the Fin de siècle, like Abdullah Cevdet.

The Foyers and their sympathizers incited boys and girls of well-to-do parents to study in Europe by dramatically saying, I quote: "Go to the Occident. There learn knowledge and sciences and bring it back with you. If you do not so, our motherland will die, we will die, Islam and Turkdom will die, all will die. It will be trodden under the feet of the Occident. It already is being trodden upon." These rhetorics aptly reveal the mentality, desires and fears of the new academic Turkish elite after the Balkan wars. Contrary to the weltschmerz or at least the grief on account of Islam's general despair in the Fin the siècle, the feeling of doom now had a primarily ethnic connotation.

Salvation was expected through education - this certainly was a constructive aspect of the Foyer movement. The Türk Yurdu in Geneva even published a detailed study guide in the Ottoman language. The enthusiasm for Western style knowledge was however closely linked to the question of maintaining and reenforcing their own nation's power. The desire for female education was revolutionary in the Muslim context, but its scope was not so much individual emancipation than to enable women and mothers to be efficient transmitters of "national" culture, and productive members of a modern nation. This new concept made professional careers of women possible for the first time.

A most significant example of a brilliant female career in close dependence of its masculine architects is Ayse Afetinan (1908-85), the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, herself a Foyer or Hearth member in Ankara shortly before the Türk Ocagi was taken up by the single party regime. With some interruptions she received her high school and academic education in Lausanne and Geneva between 1925 and 1939. Member of the Turkish Historical Society and secretary of her adoptive father, she was the mouthpiece of the highly ethnocentric Turkish History Thesis, that was imposed on the academic life and text books in the authoritarian Republic in the 1930s.



Despite the groundbreaking change to an ethno-nationalist stance, there were many mental images and discursive features common to the Fin de sièce-generation and the 1910s-generation in the Swiss diaspora. Both believed in their vocation as elitist saviours of a not yet awakened nation, be it the millet-i Osmaniye, de facto reduced to the Muslims, or the Türk milleti. Both believed that their nation was the greatest victim of contemporary history that not only suffered tremendous losses of power and territory but was threatened by annihilation in the near future. This view was however strongly elito-centric, "annihilation" firstly meant loss of one's own power, not the misery and death of the masses. Both generations shared a social-darwinist conception of a secular apocalypse presently taking place. For both nature - in the scientific, positivist sense of the 19th century - and its so-called iron laws represented an absolute reference for human society. Organicist metaphores thus had an important place in their political language.

On the whole the new Turkish Muslim elites since the Fin de siècle turned to a right-wing paradigm of modernization, by hypostasizing a community through the term of "nation" and by adopting so called " benefits of science and civilization", but not the spirit of the Enligthenment laying behind them. Politically and culturally (over-)sensitized elite diasporas were powerful catalysts for modernist changes. The dynamics in those closed circles, surrounded by equally over-politicised and over-Europeanized students from imperial Russia, anticipated processes which in the society on the ground would have taken much longer and which, probably, would have taken another direction. The Foyers developed a previously hardly existing ethnic solidarity among elites; verbal and violent attacks against others, e. g. Armenians, strengthened their boundaries. The masculine desire to be empire-saviours and nation-builders existed at a multiple distance: far from their own country, far from the lower classes and far from the reality of the provinces - but greatly desiring to act for them all.

What today we see as dangerous ingredients of a strong and exclusive nationalism was a widespread phenomenon in the first half of the 20th century. Anti-universalist, völkisch nationalism linked with right-wing progressism was a strong paradigm for disoriented societies between the Fin de siècle and World War II. WWI is the time when universal and internationalist references dramatically collapsed. The relevant question is, where and how far this negative development could be rectified in the following decades. In the post-Ottoman world, we must say, this was much less the case than in Europe where the War itself had begun. Just like the European elites of the time, the ruling Committee of Union and Progress, which extended the War into the East, believed in war as means of salvation for what it saw as national progress. Tragically, this destructive link of war and civilization, violence and culture could not decisively be broken; the collapse of universal references not be repared; the peaceful negociation and competition of identities not be renewed in the post-Ottoman area.

To resume the title of my paper: Fleeing from a religious to an ethnic nationalism appears like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Nevertheless it was a logic, even if unsatisfiying step for people who were in fear of loosing everything. With WWI, the world openly denied the credible modern universal references that were needed to settle the cohabitation of different religions and cultures that coexisted nowhere so densily than in the Middle East. Culturally the post-Ottoman world could not recover from WWI. Decomposing essentialist ersatz identities - be they Turkist, Islamist or right-wing Zionist - is one of the preconditions for building up pluralist relations based on agreements, confidence and demographic realities - instead of imagined communities. However the deconstruction of essentialist images and beliefs (which so easily can be instrumentalized for power politics) will only succeed if they are replaced in society by a convincing faith in what mankind can and should be.


For more informations see Osmanische Diaspora, thematic issue of Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte, Nr. 3, 2002.


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Sept. 2002