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Turks Across Empires. Marketing Muslim Identity in the Russian–Ottoman Borderlands, 1856-1914

3 Comments 🕔21.Jan 2016

Recent years have yielded abundant literature on the Muslim communities of the Russian Empire. Based on Muslim and Russian sources, Eileen Kane’s Russian Hajj: Empire and Pilgrimage to Mecca, Mustafa Tuna’s Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Islam, Empire and European Modernity 1788-1914, and Elena Campbell’s The Muslim Question and Russian Imperial Governance all provide new insights into both the Russian state policies regarding the Muslim population and the lives of the Muslim communities of Russia. Based on an impressive array of sources from Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, James Meyer’s monograph not only expands the knowledge about the Muslims of Russia but also provides a widely applicable argument about instrumentalization of identity in different political contexts.

Meyer tells the story of Pan-Turkists anew from a different angle. Traditionally, the Pan-Turkist intellectuals are known for ideas they expressed in several journals, books, and newspapers, but not as individuals who have a common history with the communities they lived in. Rather than focusing on the ideas of the Pan-Turkists, Meyer opts to elucidate the crucial historical events that shaped the Muslim communities of Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Doing so, Meyer aims to deconstruct the infatuation with a proto-nationalist ideology, trace the activities of “pan-Turkists before they become pan-Turkists” through the transformations taking place in Russia and in the Ottoman Empire, and examine different political opportunities these activists pursued. Meyer formulates the book around three major themes: mobility, revolutions, and the politicization of identity, through his exploration of the lives of three prominent Pan-Turkists: Yusuf Akçura, Ahmet Ağaoğlu and Ismail Gasprinskii. Meyer convincingly argues that the protagonists of his monograph, along with many other similar activists, moved to Istanbul and pursued pan-Turkism only after the window of opportunity closed in Russia in the aftermath of 1907 “counter-revolution of Stolypin” and when the Unionist take-over in the Ottoman Empire promised a new “market” for Russian-born “trans-imperial” political activists. Therefore, Pan-Turkism appears to be a career move rather than a life-long ideological infatuation for these activists.

The career moves for the Russian Muslim political activists from Central Russia or from the Caucasus to Istanbul was a relatively seamless process, which cannot even be conceived of in the today’s world, considering the political, cultural, and linguistic barriers. Meyer explains the probability of such a transfer by describing the trans-imperial mobility of the Muslim populations from Russia. Millions of Russian Muslims immigrated to the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century from the Caucasus, the Crimea, and through the Balkans; however, many of them did not cut their ties with Russia immediately. Meyer argues that the immigration of the Russian Muslims was not a one-way voyage. There were many immigrants who traveled back and forth between these two states before settling in one, who kept their Russian passports and benefited from Russian subject-hood while in the Ottoman Empire, and who had networks of family in both Russia and the Ottoman states. Sharing the experience of their fellow Muslims, the pan-Turkist activists, Akçura, Ağaoğlu and Gasprinskii, had several times benefited from this trans-imperial setting and “developed skills, experiences, and strategies for going between states and seeking out opportunities that helped them to find success in both empires” (47).

The following chapter focuses on the political activities of Muslim population to defend their autonomy in religious and educational affairs in the nineteenth century. This chapter sets the stage for the politicization of the Muslim community within Russia, before the 1905 revolution, which expanded the political opportunities for all nationalities of the Russian Empire. Muslim merchants, ulama, and Russian state officials developed an Islamic discourse of communication through the incorporation of Islamic law, setting up Muslim spiritual assemblies, educational autonomy, etc: “When Muslims employed these discourses in non-confrontational situations, tsarist officials did not appear alarmed. When however, Muslims began using these same discourses in articulating grievances against the state, police and civil attitudes towards Muslim and Islam hardened” (80). Russian state officials considered the politicization of this Muslim discourse and community dangerous. The accusations of Islamic fanaticism and later pan-Turkism were grounded in this perception of danger.

Muslim merchants and the Muslim religious elite had been the traditional representatives of the Muslim community; however, this situation changed after the 1905 revolution. In the fourth chapter, Meyer skillfully presents how the “people of revolution” benefited from the empire-wide political freedoms and the way in which they assumed an important role in the political representation of the Muslim people within this context.  Akçura, Ağaoğlu and Gasprinskii were prominent members of the reformist Muslim intellectuals who dominated the Muslim media environment and the political organization Al-Ittifak after 1905. Meyer focuses on the interaction between the aspiring leaders of the Muslims and the traditional religious leadership which was consolidated around Muslim spiritual assemblies in Central Russia, Crimea, and the Caucasus.

Meyer, however, ascribes more agency to the spiritual assemblies than they actually had. He describes the imams, the local religious leaders, as spiritual personnel and juxtaposes them with non-spiritual personnel, the Muslim activists (98). Since the assemblies did not appoint or fund the imams, and since there were many members of the ulama who did not have any connection to the assemblies, labeling them as “spiritual personnel” is not appropriate. Additionally, using the term “non-spiritual personnel” for the Muslim activists is confusing. Still, the main argument of the author holds true. There was a conflict over “cultural capital,” as Adeeb Khalid described in Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia, and this conflict was mainly related to the representation of the interests of Russian Muslims within the Russian Empire. Meyer emphasizes that the rising Muslim activists were vying over jobs and funds with the established religious elite as well as promoting their ideological agenda.

The educational, journalistic, and political activities of Muslim activists disturbed the Russian authorities as well as traditional representatives of the society. Meyer’s interpretation of the Russian officials’ reaction is insightful and sheds light on today’s problems in the assessment of Muslim societies in the West. Meyer points out that the Russian officials and “scholars of Oriental Studies working in the employ of the state looked at the activities of Muslims in terms of civilizational identity” (144). Activities of Muslim activists to promote Muslim solidarity, material progress, and the expansion and systematization of education in Russia led to accusations of pan-Islamism or pan-Turkism. The denunciations of some members of ulama, and the revolutionary events in Iran and the Ottoman Empire were of no help. Therefore, the political opportunities that became available in the wake of 1905 revolution in Russia quickly disappeared. Muslim activists like Akçura and Ağaoğlu witnessed investigations, imprisonment, closure of new-method schools and had no option but to leave Russia for another environment where they could “market” their ideas.

The last chapter of Meyer’s monograph describes how the political developments taking place in the Ottoman capital and the larger Muslim world continued to reshape the ideas and activities of Russian-born Muslim activists. After 1908, they found a receptive audience in Istanbul, but it was not so easy for them to settle. With funds from Russian Muslims, Akçura established Türk Yurdu, which has come to be considered the main venue for pan-Turkism. However, “the goal had never been to unify all of the world’s Turks under a common political system—a prospect that would only take options away from people. Rather, the objective was to create a market and address readers on both sides of the Russian-Ottoman frontier, and perhaps beyond” (161). The First World War, 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, short independence of Azerbaijan in 1918-1920, Turkish War of Liberation, and the establishment of the Turkish Republic forced the Russian-born activists to act in the name of different identities. Following the activities of Akçura and Ağaoğlu (Gasprinskii had passed away in 1914), these tumultuous events further strengthen Meyer’s argument about the connections between civilizational identities and the imminent cultural, political, and economical interests of the proponents of these identities. As Meyer concludes, he astutely reminds “contemporary geopolitical analysts” to “separate the political content from civilizational discourses” (179).

Overall, Meyer’s argument that national or civilizational identities were not, and are not, immutable concepts and change according to political and institutional context is persuasive. As such, the book is a valuable contribution not only to the fields of Ottoman, Turkish and Russian histories but also to the broader literature on nationalism, borderland studies, and imperial governance.

Reviewed by Halit Dündar Akarca, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

Turks Across Empires: Marketing Muslim Identity in the Russian–Ottoman Borderlands, 1856-1914
by James H. Meyer
Oxford University Press
Hardback / 256 pages / 2014
ISBN: 9780198725145


  1. 🕔 23:38, 29.Jan 2016


    Thanks for the review. It might be a good idea to double-check the book’s title.

    reply comment
    • 🕔 9:21, 01.Feb 2016

      CES Admin Author

      Thanks for pointing this out. We have updated the title accordingly, apologies.

      reply comment
  2. 🕔 18:34, 19.Feb 2016


    No problem, thank you!

    reply comment

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