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New Texts Out Now: Hakan Ozoglu, From Caliphate to Secular State

[Cover of Hakan Ozoglu, [Cover of Hakan Ozoglu, "From Caliphate to Secular State: Power Struggle in the Early Turkish Republic"]

Hakan Özoğlu, From Caliphate to Secular State: Power Struggle in the Early Turkish Republic. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011.

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Hakan Özoğlu: Critical works on the early years of the Turkish Republic are quite rare, especially in Western scholarship. In the field of history, scholarly works on the Ottoman Empire overshadow the republican period. In Turkey, the transition period from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey has long been considered “sacred” for intellectual inquiry, and the majority of books rarely step away from the line of the official history. Yet the significance of this period, not only for Turkey but for the entire Middle East, cannot be denied. It is during this period that the new regime declared itself to be a “republic,” that many Westernizing reforms were implemented, that secularism became a pillar of the new regime, and that members of the political and intellectual opposition were silenced.

My training in the Turkish Republican educational system about these pivotal years has long been on a collision course with the primary documents I found on the subject. In the past decade, more and more memoirs and archival documents have become available to researchers, which provided an “alternate history” to the grand narrative that I was exposed to in Turkey. I wanted to share my findings, not only with the scholarly community, but also with an informed public. That is the reason why I wrote this book.

I should make several other statements about my work. Your readers should know that the publication of this book in Turkish coincides with a highly politicized period in which the so-called secularists are locked in a power struggle with the so-called Islamists. Secularists in Turkey are convinced that the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi [Justice and Development Party], the political party currently in power) has a hidden agenda to replace the regime with an Islamist one. Therefore, they see any attempt (intellectual or otherwise) to question the reliability of the creation myth of the Turkish Republic as a direct challenge to the Kemalist secular system, and hence a part of a grand process whereby the foundation of the regime is being attacked. Therefore, scholarly inquiries about this period have always been seen as political moves guised under a cloak of scholarship.

Coming from a secularist background, I was aware of their sensitivities. However, I knew that I had no political agenda or association. My sole goal is to help lift the fog on a period that is highly speculative. The choice was a hard one. It was a choice between either sharing what I found in the archives and raising questions about the nature of the early republic, to the dismay of many friends, or ignoring what I found against my own intellectual honesty and responsibility. I chose the former, knowing that some opponents of the Kemalist establishment may very well use and abuse my findings for their own political agenda. I have come to the conclusion that the scholar must share his/her finding without adding any political twist. Clearly, the contexts in which my findings can be used is beyond my control or consideration.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HÖ: In this work, I examine the nature of the power struggle between the old (Ottoman) establishment and the emerging Kemalist regime. It has long been postulated that the radical shift from an “Islamic” empire to a “secular” republic was relatively smooth and loved by all citizens, except for the wicked-minded traitors. I look into the composition of the opposition and the process in which this opposition was silenced.

The book has three main sections: the first section examines the “opposition to Ankara.” This section deals with how the remnants of the Ottoman ruling elite challenged the emerging regime in Ankara. The second main section is about the “opposition in Ankara.” This section examines how the political opposition within the parliament in Ankara was silenced. The “opposition at large” is the third section, where I discuss how the Kemalist regime consolidated itself by completely removing any political threat from the once-powerful Committee of Union of Progress.

At a theoretical level, I invite readers to rethink early republican history in the context of a power struggle that helped shape Turkish political identity.

[Hakan Özoğlu. Image via the author.]

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

HÖ: My pervious book was on Kurdish nationalism in the Ottoman Empire (Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State, State University of New York Press, 2004). While researching for this book in the archives, I came across many documents that did not fit into the time-frame of this work. I utilized those sources—particularly from the United States archives—to write my last book on the republican period. For example, in my first book I brought the issue of Kurdish nationalism up until 1925, when the Sheikh Said (Kurdish) rebellion commenced. In a chapter in my latest book, I examine this revolt in more detail and point out how it was manipulated to silence all political opposition in Turkey. In that sense, several connections can be made between my two books. Both were translated into Turkish, and I have been informed that my previous book is being translated into Kurdish.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

HÖ: I wanted reach out to more than the limited scholarly community with this book. Therefore, I used a rather direct language without jargon. I hope my work will tickle readers’ intellectual curiosity and raise questions about our current conclusions regarding the power struggle in early republican history and its ramifications for the future of the Turkish state.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HÖ: Currently I am working a project about US Rear Admiral Mark Lambert Bristol’s tenure in Turkey between 1919-1927. Bristol was the US High Commissioner in Turkey and was a witness to many significant events in the post World War I period. There is no book length study of this figure and this period, despite the fact that plenty of primary documents are readily available to researchers and the public.

Excerpts from From Caliphate to Secular State: Power Struggle in the Early Turkish Republic

Working on a critical study on the early Turkish Republic poses a particular challenge for someone like me, who grew up and was oriented in the same political discourse as the subject of this study. The challenge is more visible when one realizes that my subject—the formative years of the Republic of Turkey—has always been regarded as “sacred” for an academic work. Being a product of such an intellectual and political environment had long prevented me from questioning the validity of information about the emergence of my own country, information that I was exposed to during my elementary, middle school, high school, and college education. I remember being upset with those who tried to do what I did in this book: simply read Turkish republican history under a more critical light. I regarded those individuals as people who harbored hatred toward my country. The irony is that there may be some people today who would regard this study as such and accuse me of having some ulterior motives. Let me begin by firmly stating that my only aim is to produce an academic study that would stand firm under the highest degree of scholarly scrutiny. Although I am aware that this study can be exploited by different and even diametrically contradictory political discourses, I know that I did not write it with any political purpose in mind. I am not naive to assert that my study is free of biases. However, I can safely state that they are unintentional, and I hope that the reader will judge it fairly. 

In addition to overcoming mental blocks, in the process of working on this study, I had to cope with other, less painful obstacles, namely, finding and reaching reliable information. The reader should be informed up front that much information is still not fully available to researchers, and my research is not immune from these limitations. However, there is sufficient direct and indirect information to support my conclusions in this book. Another challenge was to maintain a critical eye on every piece of information obtained from all my sources, both primary and secondary. I hope this study will add another layer of scholarly brick on top of previous reputable works in the reconstruction of the early Turkish republican history. 


As a secular nation, Turkey has often been cited as an example of a successful modern state in the Islamic world, which made serious commitments to the Western mode of government. However, circumstances that allowed such a drastic transition were not satisfactorily documented, examined, and explained. How did Turkey make such a radical transformation? Was there any internal opposition to the leadership and vision of the new regime? What were the methods employed to circumvent the opposition? These significant questions fall in the subject of the current study. This book aims primarily at explaining the process in which the opposition in the new republic was silenced. However, it also invites readers to rethink the early republican history in the context of a power struggle that helped shape the Turkish political identity. I hope that this line of thinking lends itself to the larger issue of the Kemalist vision in general. I propose that the nature of the new Turkish state was not a result of a predetermined vision but a pragmatic synthesis of political realities and opportunities to silence the opposition.

[Excerpted from Hakan Özoğlu, From Caliphate to Secular State: Power Struggle in the Early Turkish Republic. © 2010 by Hakan Özoğlu. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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