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A Horn-eye View of Ottoman History:
Yusuf Aqçura's Turko-Tatar Perspective of Infinitude

By Anthony K. Shin

[This essay aims at applying Horneyan theory to the analysis of Ottoman history, specifically to the examination of the activities and writings of the Tatar-Ottoman nationalist Aqçuraoğlu Yusuf (1876–1935). It considers especially the content and circumstances of a selection of his essays and lectures from 1910–1911, and interprets them as revealing what he was moving toward, against, and away from in a quest for national glory that could accommodate him and his Tatar kin. It finds scientific support for the use of Horneyan theory in the works of J. Allan Hobson and his collaborators. - AKS]


On April 5, 1911, the Tatar-Ottoman publicist and newspaper editor Aqçuraoğlu Yusuf (hereafter, Aqçura) began delivering a lecture on the unity of Turks and Tatars, at the Fevziye Reading-Room in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district. This lecture was given in response to pejorative comments, imputing “bloodthirstiness” to the Tatar ethnicity, which were printed several days earlier in the newspaper of a rival editor. In his speech, Aqçura depicted the Turkic-speaking Muslims of the Ottoman and Russian Empires as sharing a grandiose heritage by linkage to Genghis Khan.

What picture of Aqçura's promotion of Turkish nationalism do we obtain from the content of his April 5, 1911 lecture? How do the views he expressed in it compare to his better-known 1904 treatise on the subject, Üç Ṭarz-ı Siyaset? How can his 1911 lecture be related to his other writings leading up to it, with particular attention to a selection of articles he published around this time in the Islamist periodical Ṡıraṭ-ı Müstaqim in 1910–1911? It is important to pose these questions because they point to the influence of his psychological motivations. If we obtain a picture of the state of his shifting psychological motivations using the theory of Karen Horney, M.D. (“Horn-eye,” 1885–1952), it will enable us to understand more precisely how these motivations were influencing him to perceive events and respond to them in his particular ways. This investigation is also important because it will present an illustration of Horney's concept of the “search for glory,” using historical data, and it will thereby help make the analytic tools of Horneyan theory accessible to historical investigators, including those working on late Ottoman history. To perform this inquiry, I will use the literary critic Bernard J. Paris's concepts of rhetoric and mimesis, to distinguish between what belongs to the interpretation (rhetoric) and what belongs to the representation (mimesis) in Aqçura’s own writings and also in those of his biographers. In this way we will gain a view of what were the “vision of possibilities, the perspective of infinitude” that predominated in Aqçura’s awareness and influenced what he was trying to achieve. In addition, to update Horneyan theory and reinforce it by connection with recent scientific evidence, I will show that its principles are corroborated by the latest findings in dream research and brain science (e.g., Hobson, 1999; Friston & Hobson, 2012, 2014).

A review of David S. Thomas’s (1976) and G. François Georgeon’s (1980) biographies of Aqçura shows that his April 5, 1911 lecture marked a turning point in his thought and behavior, and had important connections to his earlier and later experiences in the two empires. Specifically, the lecture marked a shift in his thinking, from seeing in Ṡıraṭ-ı Müstaqim an island of free expression — where other periodicals seemed to be stuck in a self-censoring mentality even in the era of free press in the wake of the 1908 Constitutional Revolution — to seeing Islamism as inimical to his hopes of establishing bases for creating a vast “Turko-Tatar” space that could accommodate him and his Tatar kin. Both Thomas and Georgeon explicitly avoid dealing with Aqçura’s psychological motivations. This avoidance is warranted with regard to the diachronic reasoning that inheres in the theory of Sigmund Freud (1900), which tends to reinforce the determinism and teleology that historians seek to challenge. However, more realistic theories of dreaming and of brain-mind function have become available (Horney, 1945, 1950; Hobson & McCarley, 1977; Tershakovec, 2007; Kahneman, 2011; Friston & Hobson, 2012, 2014) which are free of these weaknesses and can be applied to historical studies. By making use of these more recent theories, I seek to re-introduce the psychological factor into history, so that it may shed more light on individual and group motivations. I investigate Aqçura’s psychological motivations using the synchronic psychoanalytic theory of Karen Horney to characterize Aqçura’s attitudes toward various currents of thought among leading Ottomans, as revealed in the aforementioned selection of his writings and activities between 1910 and 1911. Since clear methods have not been developed for applying Horneyan theory to the study of history, this study undertakes to fashion rudimentary tools for inferring Aqçura’s motivations, and it shows that Horneyan theory finds validation in historical data.

It must be noted that Freudian and similarly diachronic psychoanalytic theories tend to reinforce the teleological and essentialist tendencies that historians generally and Ottoman historians more specifically have sought to avoid.1 Thomas and Georgeon avoid dealing with overtly psychological analysis of Aqçura, but the problem of how to characterize apparent shifts in Aqçura’s thinking over time, and the motivations behind these shifts, has lurked in the background of studies of nationalist movements in Turkic-speaking Muslim societies, most of which cite Aqçura’s influential role. This questione della psicologia is important not only to Ottoman studies, but also to history more generally, because investigating it will help us understand what the world looked and felt like to particular individuals such as Aqçura, and find out what was motivating them to make their particular decisions and take their particular courses of action. Aqçura’s writings and activities are ill suited to analysis by diachronic psychoanalytic theories, but they are highly amenable to being understood through the synchronic psychoanalytic theory of Karen Horney. Her theory has furthermore been fruitfully applied in literary criticism, and it finds validation in the latest findings from dream research and brain science. Seen from another perspective, this study contributes to psychology by presenting historical evidence that corroborates Horneyan theory. Moreover, it offers a realistic approach for identifying the psychological motivations of later writers, which gave shape, direction, and impetus to what they noticed and focused on in re-examining history. This calls to mind Croce’s insight that « Ogni vera storia è storia contemporanea » / “Every true history is contemporary history.”

Using Horneyan theory, I relate Aqçura’s 1911 lecture synchronically to the articles that he printed in Ṡıraṭ-ı Müstaqim. By examining these writings against background of knowledge about his life provided by Thomas and Georgeon, I argue that Aqçura shifted from initially seeing his “vision of possibilities, the perspective of infinitude” in populist and Islamist terms to later seeing these in his future-oriented, Genghis-centered vision of “Turko-Tatardom,” rooted in German “scientific” philology, and having connections to German economic, educational, and military strength. At the same time — synchronically — two other trends appear in his other writings from 1910–1911: he sought to take over the strengths that he associated with Islamism, redirecting them in service of Turko-Tatarism, and he did not take much account, at least in his writings, of the risks that came with advocating a brand of ethnic nationalism that crossed borders and smacked of irredentism. The inflammatory comments about Tatars from his rival in newspaper editing gave Aqçura the occasion to regard and portray himself as standing up in defense of a badly-maligned minority (the Tatars), while collaborating with and lending intellectual, rhetorical support to others who wished to fashion themselves into the new Staatsvolk (the Turks).

1An important strength of Freud’s theory is that he kept psychology, then in its infancy, grounded in social realities and historically attested trends of the day. Against the backdrop of world war and horrifying anti-Semitism, the preponderance of his data militated against any presumption of a benign human nature. He overgeneralized from the limited sample of his highly neurotic patients within Viennese society, but self-reinforcing neurotic tendencies clearly do show up in civilized societies worldwide, and such destructive patterns of thought and behavior do occur with “fatiguing regularity” under common circumstances. Moreover, it was not known in Freud’s time whether or how psychology (the study of the mind) could be kept in touch with knowledge from neurology (the study of the brain).