Ali Suavi and Turkish Nationalist Historiography

By Aaron Scott Johnson
Submitted to Session P3615 (Empire and Belonging: Ottoman Empire to Modern Turkey, 2013 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire; Turkey;
19th-21st Centuries; Historiography; Nationalism; Ottoman Studies; Turkish Studies;
Ali Suavi was a journalist and a member of the Young Ottoman opposition group that was active in the late 1860s. He is best known for his failed attempt to rescue the deposed Sultan Murat V from captivity in 1878, presumably with the intention of restoring him to the throne. Suavi died in this attempt and was subsequently vilified in official circles and in the Ottoman press, though he was later anachronistically portrayed by the Young Turks as a sort of epic hero in the struggle against Hamidian tyranny. Beginning just before the founding of the Turkish Republic there was a shift in the type of attention that was paid to Suavi. The numerous articles and books that have been written about Ali Suavi since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 can, with very few exceptions, be neatly divided into two groups. On the one hand there are the works that claim Suavi as a Turkish nationalist and a secularist. This approach necessarily requires very selective use of passages from Suavi’s writings taken out of context in order to argue that Suavi was a Turkist and would have supported the secularizing reforms of the Turkish Republic. This view of Suavi was actively promoted by the Turkish Ministry of Education and the Turkish Historical Society beginning in the 1940s. On the other hand there are the works that portray Suavi as an erratic, incompetent zealot. Serif Mardin’s portrayal of Suavi in The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought falls into this category, which draws heavily on the earlier vilification from the Hamidian era. This uncertainty as to whether Suavi should be embraced or rejected by the historians of the Turkish Republic is symptomatic of the larger problem of constructing a Turkish national history that breaks with the Ottoman-Islamic past but at the same time keeps some of its heroes. A closer examination of Suavi’s own writings, many of which have been previously ignored by scholars, reveals a conservative Ottoman patriotism with pan-Islamic leanings. Suavi thus does not fit comfortably into a nationalist history that views Ottomanism and pan-Islam as obsolete and reactionary. Ali Suavi, then, should be studied not through an anachronistic Turkish nationalist lens but rather in the context of the Ottomanism and emergent pan-Islam of his era.