The Ottoman Parliament’s interpretation of the 1909 events: a manifestation of irtica?

Paper presented at: Adana 1909: History, Memory and Identity from a Hundred Year Perspective, Conference organized by Boğaziçi, Sabancı and Bilgi Universities, the Hrant Dink Foundation and the Gomidas Institute, Istanbul, November 2009

One of the things that distinguish the Adana massacres from other, similar episodes in Ottoman history, is the fact that they were the first such episode to occur after the restoration of the Constitution and while the Parliament was in session. In fact, episodes of inter-communal violence – which took an extreme form in Adana in April 1909 – were supposed to have ceased, after the proclamation of the Constitution. When the Sultan Abdülhamit II was forced to restore the 1876 Constitution, in July 1908, the new regime was saluted with slogans such as “unity” (ittihat) and “brotherhood” (uhuvvet); all ethno-religious communities were supposed to work together for the sake of the Empire1. As for the Parliament, it was seen as the proof that real unity among all Ottomans was possible. If we take a look at the parliamentary debates during the first few months of the constitutional regime, we see that deputies, too, see themselves (or proclaim to be seeing themselves) as the representatives of all Ottomans, regardless of differences of origin or creed, and that they consider the Parliament to be the guardian both of the regime and of Ottoman unity2.

If this is their rhetoric, then it is reasonable to assume that the events of March/April 1909 constitute a severe blow against the Parliament’s own raison d’être3. The “counter-revolution” or “31st March incident”, with its Islamist slogans, was an open defiance of the constitutional regime. As for the Adana massacres, they posed a threat against unity, and unity – as had time and again been underlined in Parliament – was a prerequisite for the existence of the Empire, and, at the same time, the basis of the Parliament’s own legitimization. All this would lead us to believe that it would be hard for deputies to cope with the 1909 events.

What I will be trying to show here is that, in reality, the Parliament finds a way out which is actually quite simple. Deputies simply refuse to think of the 1909 events as episodes that can be in any way connected to the constitutional regime. The 31st March incident, because of its Islamist slogans, is easy to be imputed on reactionaries, that is, relics of the old regime. Deputies are quick to interpret the Adana massacres, too, in a similar fashion; they only see them as a continuation, within the new regime, of practices of the old regime, with the responsibility, in this case too, of reactionaries.

It is in this way that irtica (reaction or retrogression) becomes the key concept for the interpretation of the 1909 events and also takes its place in Ottoman political vocabulary for the time to come. The concept of irtica, as I hope to show, takes up several characteristics and each one of them becomes part and parcel of the Parliament’s claim to be safeguarding both the Empire and the regime: if the Empire is to pass once and for all to a new era of unity and constitutional administration, it is only thanks to the Parliament that this can be achieved. The Parliament is actually seen as guaranteeing not only the existence of the Empire and the constitutional regime, not only Ottoman unity, but the compliance of the Ottoman people with all that the constitutional regime presupposes: it is the Parliament’s role to keep the people away from the reactionaries and to prevent any new outbursts of anti-constitutional or anti-Ottoman behavior. In this way, the Parliament is able to interpret the 1909 events in a way that does not endanger its legitimization, but actually reinforces it.

Indeed, the Parliament had been faced with a very difficult situation during the 31st March incident. Some of its members had actually supported the protest meetings, others had been clearly hostile (and had even had to flee Istanbul), while most of them seem to have met the events with perplexity and confusion4. Confusion is in fact a good term to describe what happened in Istanbul starting on March 31, 1325 (April 13, 1909, according to the Western calendar). Protest meetings were centered on Islamist slogans, but as Sina Akşin’s excellent book (despite its misleading title) 5 has shown, not all those who took part in or in any way supported the insurrection came from Islamist milieus, a significant part of them being members of the liberal opposition and by no means supporters of the Holy Law or of a return to the absolutist rule of Abdülhamit II. We could say that, despite the Islamist coloring it finally took, the 31st March incident was the culmination of the grievances of a lot of people, coming from different milieus; what they all had in common was their discomfort not with the Constitution itself, but with the way it was being applied and with the increasing role of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) in state affairs6.

However, the Parliament chooses to interpret the 31st March incident purely and simply as a “reactionary movement”. This is actually quite convenient for the deputies, for it allows them to proceed to the dethronement of Abdülhamit II – on the basis that he instigated the revolt – while it also helps them maintain unity within their own ranks7: as I already noted, some of them had actually supported the insurrection – some of them consciously, others probably not; now, as long as they imputed the whole event to reactionaries and at the same time pleaded loyalty to the constitutional regime, all deputies could go on working together.

Nevertheless, this interpretation of facts was not just rhetoric on the part of the deputies, for all of them – even those who at first sympathized with the protesters – had been terrified by the Islamist turn that the events had taken. From the very beginning of the Ottoman Parliament’s first period deputies seem to fear a possible reactionary movement: they all perceive as a potential threat against the regime the fact that a large part of the Empire’s population lack education and are therefore reticent to accepting the constitutional regime and prone to be manipulated by those who would claim to speak in the name of the Holy Law8. The 31st March incident in a way proved this fear to be justified. It proved, as Riza Tevfik, deputy of Edirne, puts it, that:

[…] in Istanbul, as well as in many of our cities, there are plenty of people with no work or occupation, who do not even have ten paras and no food for tomorrow. What an extraordinary army this is against our liberty, if people like that are bought off by a rich party […]”9

According to this reading, there are two kinds of people that took part in the 31st March incident: on the one hand there are the instigators, the reactionaries (mürteciler or irticaiyyun)10, and on the other hand there are the ignorant people who were manipulated by reactionaries. This provides us with a first characteristic of irtica: manipulation of the people.

This is, then, a rather quick and simple interpretation of the 31st March incident. As for the Adana massacres, one is surprised to see that they are not even very thoroughly discussed in Parliament. A first discussion of the Adana events takes place on the 1st of May, 1909 (18 Nisan 1325)11; a parliamentary committee is set up and takes off to Adana in order to examine the situation and prepare a report12. However, this report is never discussed in Parliament and the Adana massacres are only brought up and very briefly discussed in relation to practical matters, pertaining mainly to the relief of victims. A plausible reason for this silence on the Adana massacres in Parliament is that deputies were far more preoccupied by the events that had taken place in Istanbul. At the same time, as has already been pointed out in bibliography13, the parliamentary committee’s report on Adana might have been deliberately left out of the agenda, in order to avoid possible conflicts.

There is, however, a deeper reason why the Parliament does not seem to be preoccupied by the Adana massacres: in the deputies’ eyes, the Adana events are simply part of the reactionary movement of the 31st March and do not in any way have to preoccupy them, now that the reactionary movement has been contained. “The events of Istanbul and those of Adana are the same. This is a reactionary incident”, says Bulgarian deputy Hristo Daltchef – and many of his colleagues make similar statements14.

In this line of reasoning, the first people to be imputed with responsibility for the massacres are the local governor and the secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, who handled the affair in Istanbul; they are both seen as relics of the old regime. What the vali of Adana stated in the telegrams that he sent to Istanbul during the massacres is strongly criticized by the deputies; the fact that he had had relations with the Palace is seen as incriminating evidence15. His attitude, as well as that of the secretary of the Ministry, is seen as characteristic of the old regime’s officials; they are both accused of “playing with words”16 and of using the “language of the absolutist administration” 17, in the words of the deputies.

These accusations, uttered by the deputies, are very characteristic of the way in which deputies see the Adana massacres. In their perspective, events like these, events that can spread doubts as to the ability and willingness of the various ethno-religious groups of the Ottoman Empire to live in harmony, cannot in any way be explained within the framework of the constitutional regime. They bear the mark of the old regime’s attitudes and methods; they can be nothing else but subsistence of certain elements (methods, practices, officials) of the old regime within the new regime. It is in this respect that the Adana massacres are a manifestation of irtica in its very first – and main – meaning: retrogression towards the old regime.

Immediately, the Adana events are compared with similar events that had taken place under the old regime, they are placed in that line of continuity, and not in the framework of the new era that had began in July 1908. What happens in March/April 1909 is seen as a parenthesis, as being irrelevant to the process began by the 1908 revolution. Aristidi Pasha, Greek-orthodox deputy for Izmir, and Varteks Effendi, Armenian deputy for Erzurum, both make an analogy between the Adana massacres of 1909 and the events of 1895-9618, that is, of the Hamidian era.19

But deputies go even further than that; they actually reinterpret past Ottoman history. Let us see a statement by Hristo Daltchef, deputy for Siroz:

If we look at historical events, we see that whatever bad happened in this country has always been done by absolutist governments. The Ottoman people have always lived – and have wanted to live – in harmony. It is the absolutist government that has always been an obstacle to this.”20

According to this reinterpretation of Ottoman history, not only does discord between the different ethno-religious groups belong to the past, but even when talking about the past, responsibility for this discord cannot be imputed on the people. It has always been absolutist governments – in 1909 terms, reactionaries – who have been responsible for inter-communal violence. At most, the people can be held partially responsible, because they have been ignorant and have allowed reactionaries to manipulate their differences of origin and creed – this having been a “great tool in the hands of absolutists”, as Riza Tevfik puts it.21

However, the deputies’ reinterpretation of Ottoman history usually makes that they can absolve the people of all responsibility, diachronically. Aristidi Pasha makes the following declaration:

[…] I am categorically certain that Muslims did not do this; because in 1311 [1895] Muslims did not do this. If, in 1311 [1895], a thought appeared, that the Muslims massacred the Christians, this is very wrong. There is no such thing in Ottoman history. Muslims and Christians have lived together for 700 years. There were the Celali uprisings, the Janissaries revolted, there were invasions, but at no time did they attempt to massacre the Christians. This was not even permitted [to happen]. There is definitely no such thing. This is an act only perpetrated by a traitor. It cannot be generalized to a nation. Its [the nation’s] history cannot be tarnished. Ottoman History is safe from such filth. (Applause)”22

And he adds:

[…] please, let us think serenely. There is no race, no ethnicity. Armenians are not to blame, and neither are Muslims. I am categorically certain. This will be proved to be so. It is provocateurs who are to blame.” 23

These declarations by Aristidi pasha make it even clearer that the deputies seek to reinterpret Ottoman history and that they do so in full awareness of what they are doing.

In reality, Ottoman deputies feel the need to reinterpret Ottoman history, they feel the need to prove that Ottomans have been living and will continue to live in harmony – and this need is also felt by Christian deputies, as we see in the declarations of Aristidi Pacha, Hristo Daltchef and Varteks Effendi. As long as the deputies do not want to doubt the constitutional regime, as long as they want to maintain the ideology that they have started to construct, an ideology of Ottoman unity under the auspices of the constitutional regime, they have to maintain Ottoman unity, at least in form. Whoever does not do so is candidate to be labeled traitor (hain), just like the reactionaries who are behind the Adana massacres. And this is one more characteristic of irtica, as irtica is being defined by the Parliament in relation to the 31st March incident and the Adana massacres: irtica also means treason, treason not only of the constitutional regime, but of Ottoman unity too, and Ottoman unity is a sine qua non condition for the existence of the Ottoman state.

I have mentioned, up to this point, three characteristics of irtica. The first and literal meaning of this concept is reaction, retrogression towards the old regime. It also takes up the meaning of treason against the nation [millet], because it stirs up conflicts and endangers Ottoman unity. These two things, reaction and treason, only become possible thanks to a third characteristic of irtica: manipulation of the people. The people have indeed no will of themselves; they are manipulated by reactionaries in order to take part in their plans of bringing back the absolutist regime and of provoking inter-communal violence.

This means, on the one hand, that the basis for the Parliament’s legitimization remains intact: it is not the Ottoman nation, those represented by the deputies, who are reactionaries. On the other hand, it means that the Parliament’s most important role – if the constitutional regime is to be consolidated and Ottoman unity to be safeguarded – is to guide the people. As Ilyas Sami Effendi, deputy for Mus, puts it:

After having obtained the constitutional regime claims of ethnicity and race should cease. […] Deputies that have come here [express] the ideas of 50 thousand people. [It is necessary] to raise their [the people’s] cultural level […]” 24

Indeed, the Parliament takes a number of initiatives after the events of March/April 1909. Deputies make a point out of underlining that it is the Parliament that should lead all efforts in Adana, pertaining to the relief of victims, as well as to the examination of the situation and the punishment of all those who are responsible for the massacres25. Then, deputies start, in a way, a campaign for the reconciliation between Muslim and non-Muslim Ottomans. To this effect, they prepare a declaration to be sent out in the provinces, and especially the Adana region.26

At the same time, it is right at this time that a number of measures are taken. These measures, which include the proclamation of martial law as well as the preparation of restrictive laws on Press, public meetings and vagabondage, are endorsed by the Army (the “Action Army” who put an end to the 31st March incident) and by deputies27. Measures like these are very clear evidence as to the belief that the people should be held under tutelage. The idea that the people are easily manipulated by reactionaries does not lead to an effort at a kind of modernization and democratization that would allow the people to have a say in political decisions without them having to have recourse to various groups – such as religious groups – that, in one way or another, promise to give them voice in public affairs. It leads to an effort at a guided, authoritarian modernization.

It surpasses the scope of this presentation to try and prove this, but I am inclined to think that the most important characteristic of the concept of irtica is its being synonymous with manipulation of the people. I think that, because of this meaning attributed to irtica, anyone who should at any point in time and for whichever reason try to approach the people, risks being accused of reaction. This of course means that any effort at a real participation of the people in the modernization process, any effort at democratization should be very complicated and should probably be met with distrust, if not outright hostility.

1 For the circumstances under which the Constitution is restored see, indicatively: Hanioğlu, Şükrü, Preparation for Revolution. The Young Turks, 1902-1908, Oxford University Press, New York 2001; Tunaya, Tarık Zafer, Hürriyetin İlânı. İkinci Meşrutiyet’in Siyasi Hayatına Bakışlar, İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, Istanbul 2004

2 Almost any parliamentary session can serve to illustrate these beliefs of the deputies. It is very characteristic that, when referring to the Parliament, they usually use, instead of the official term of “Meclis-i Mebusan” (literally “Assembly of the Deputies”), the term “Millet Meclisi” (“National Assembly”). References to Ottoman unity and the need to preserve it are equally abundant. At any rate, deputies, are thought of as “representing the great Ottoman nation”, as the deputy Kozmidi Efendi puts it; see: Meclis-i Mebusan Zabıt Ceridesi [Minutes of the House of Deputies – from now on: MMZC], Cilt [C.] 1, Devre [D.] 1, İçtima Senesi [İç.] 1, 18 Kanunuevvel 1324, p. 92. As for their belief that the Parliament is the guardian of the regime, this is the main argument used to topple the Kiamil pasha government, on February 13th, 1909; see: MMZC, C. 1, D. 1. Iç. 1, 31 Kanunusani 1324, pp. 590-612

3 On April 13, 1909 (March 31st according to the old calendar) a military mutiny broke out in Istanbul, followed by demonstrations. The government was forced to resign and a number of Committee of Union and Progress [CUP] members had to flee the capital. This incident, usually termed “counter-revolution”, ended 12 days later, with the arrival in Istanbul of military units – named the “Action Army” (Hareket Ordusu) – from Macedonia. For an overview of the facts, see: Akşin, Sina, Şeriatçı bir Ayaklanma: 31 Mart Olayı [An Islamist Insurrection: the 31st March Incident], İmge Kitabevi, Istanbul 1994

4 For the deputies’ reactions during these events, see: Ibid, passim. Parliament minutes of the sessions held during the events are included in the third volume of the Ottoman Parliaments’ Minutes: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1. Of importance to understanding the facts are also the minutes of joint sessions of the Parliament and the Senate, held after the arrival of the “Action Army”; these are included in: Meclis-i Umumî Zabıt Cerideleri, Cilt 1

5 Akşin, op.cit.

6 For the CUP’s interference in state affairs from July 1908 onwards, see: Hanioglu, op.cit., pp. 279-288

7 For an overview of the Parliament’s interpretation and for some reasons that could explain this attitude, see: Akşin, op.cit., pp. 229-296

8 Again, evidence as to this belief of the deputies is to be found en passant in almost every session of the Parliament. See, indicatively, two interesting discussions: MMZC, C. 1, D. 1, Iç. 1, 17 Kanunusani 1324, pp. 368-398; MMZC, C. 2, D. 1, Iç. 1, 14 Mart 1325, pp. 479-487

9 MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 115

10 The terms “reaction” (irtica) and “reactionary” (mürteci, irticaiyyun) are widely used in Parliament starting in April 1909. For just one example, see the government program read in Parliament on May 24, 1909, where the 31st March incident is referred to as a “reactionary incident” (hâdisei irticaiye): MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 11 Mayıs 1325, pp. 636)

11 MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, pp. 108-136

12 For an overview of parliamentary discussions concerning the Adana events, see: Özçelik, Ayfer, Sahibini Arayan Meşrutiyet [A Constitutional Regime looking for its Master], Tez Yayınları, Istanbul 2001, pp. 295-364

13 Ibid, pp. 357-358

14 For Hristo Daltchef’s statement, see: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 135. For a similar statement by Varteks Efendi, deputy of, see: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 110. And one more similar statement, by Emrullah Efendi, is to be found in: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 133.

15 For the discussion where these accusations come up, see: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, pp. 108-136

16This and the rest of the valis, who, during the absolutist regime were used to playing with words, have time and again deceived us, and have tried to absolve themselves from any responsibility, by repeatedly and in an obvious manner lying to this nation.” Arif Ismet, in: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 109

17I saw that telegram, Sir. What is the whole essence of that telegram? The whole essence of that telegram is that it comprises the language of the absolutist administration.” Zehrab Efendi, in MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 115-116

18 In 1895 and 1896, anti-Armenian pogroms take place, first in the Empire’s Eastern provinces, then in Istanbul. Estimations of victims vary, but are all stated in tenths of thousands. A summary of these events is provided in: Georgeon, François, Abdülhamid II: le Sultan Calife (1876-1909), Fayard, Paris 2003, pp. 285-309

19 For Varteks Efendi’s and Aristidi pasha’s declarations, see: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, pp. 132-133

20 MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 135

21 There exists one grave danger. We are composed of various elements. And these elements are, for the most part, almost all ignorant races in Anatolia. There is difference of creed, difference of race; the greatest evil is that we have been living, since so many years, like cats and dogs – pardon the expression. In a mischievous occasion, that is an occasion that will cause our freedom, human rights and our consciousness to be trampled upon, [this] can be a great tool in the hands of absolutists. This discord of ours [has] always [existed], for centuries, and unfortunately it was also confirmed by the previous days’ deplorable incident.

[…] We have to take this under consideration and, to my consciousness, I am sure that, in order to be able to inspire such mischievous acts in the place where these two races – who have always been presented like enemies to each other – have been living together, reactionaries have, no doubt, been involved.

There was a well-prepared, extraordinary plan; we should consider measures against it.” Riza Tevfik, in: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 115

22 MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 133

23 MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 134

24 It seems that the deputy was not speaking very clearly, because there are a number of gaps in his speech and the clerk who was writing down the Minutes has noted more than once “could not hear” (işitilemedi) and “could not make out” (anlaşılmadı). What he says about the inexistence of differences of race or creed and the people’s cultural level is however clear. See the Ottoman text of this passage: “İdarei meşrutaya nail olduktan sonra milliyet ve kavmiyet iddiasını kaldırmalıdır. […] Buraya gelen mebuslar, 50 bin kişinin efkârı… bunların seviyei irfanı daha ziyade yükselmek, efendi tekemmül etmesi icap eder.” MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 18 Nisan 1325, p. 134

25 See, for instance, the motion presented by some deputies on May 12, 1909: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 29 Nisan 1325, pp. 380-381. Many discussions relevant to measures for the relief of Adana victims can be found in Parliament Minutes; see, for example: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 21 Nisan 1325, p. 210; MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 22 Nisan 1325, p. 264; MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 11 Mayıs 1325, pp. 615-616. For an overview of all relevant discussions, see: Özçelik, op. cit., pp. 329-351

26 A proposition to prepare such a declaration first comes up in Parliament on May 12, 1909: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 29 Nisan 1325, pp. 380-381. Its final draft is read in Parliament on May 16, 1909: MMZC, C. 3, D. 1, Iç. 1, 3 Mayıs 1325, p. 411. Here is a French translation of the declaration, published in the French-language daily of Istanbul The Levant Herald on May 16, 1909:

« Comme conséquence d’erreurs et d’instigations, l’union et la fraternité entre les éléments ottomans, musulmans et chrétiens, de l’Anatolie, dont le maintien est nécessaire, ont été altérées. La Chambre des députés en a eu connaissance avec un grand regret et une pénible impression. Comme tout le monde le sait, le moyen d’assurer le salut et le bonheur de la patrie sacrée ne peut être obtenu que par la fraternité et l’union entre les éléments musulmans et chrétiens de la nation ottomane et par l’éloignement des faits qui peuvent semer, entre eux, la discorde. D’ailleurs, le Chéri et les lois, ordonnent expressément l’amour de la patrie. Aller à l’encontre de cette prescription, peut amener des maux sociaux et politiques incurables. Aussi la Chambre est-elle fermement convaincue qu’à la réception de cette proclamation tous les éléments ottomans, plus que jamais, montreront, tous, les uns envers les autres, de la fraternité et de la solidarité ; c’est ce que la Chambre conseille et elle est persuadée que ces conseils seront appréciés, et qu’ils provoqueront la démonstration de la philanthropie ottomane. »

27 Martial law is proclaimed, following a demand by the commander of the “Action Army”, Mahmut Shevket Pasha, by the joint session of the Parliament and the Senate, on April 25, 1909: Meclis-i Umumî Zabıt Cerideleri [Minutes of the General Assembly], Cilt 1, 12 Nisan 1325, pp. 27-33. Of course, there are some objections coming from a number of deputies; complaints about the continuation of the martial law (which was almost uninterruptedly applied up to the end of World War I) kept on coming up in Parliament; the reasons why these objections and complaints never bore fruit are very complicated and surpass the scope of this presentation. As for laws on the Press, public meetings etc., these are discussed in Parliament starting right after the end of the 31st March incident and until the end of the Parliament’s first year of, on August 21, 1909. On the fact that the commander of the “Action Army”, Mahmut Shevket Pasha had asked for such measures to be taken, see Akşin, op. cit., p. 288


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