The Young Turk revolution of 1908 called for the restoration of the constitution, and declared that all Ottomans—Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and others—were equal under the law. Although the euphoria of that summer faded quickly, and the Committee of Union and Progress over the years proved to be inept and corrupt, many people still supported the party in hopes for a better Empire. Even the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF or Dashnaktsutyun) had supported the party until 1912. The editors and readers of the Jeune Turc (Young Turk), the daily French newspaper published in Constantinople (1908-1918), advocated for policies of understanding, cooperation and equality for all ethnic groups within the Empire. Ahmed Aghayev was a former editor of a Baku newspaper who had written a series of articles following his visit to Anatolia about the possibility of it being a peaceful, ethnic and religiously diverse region. In 1913 he wrote an eloquent article in the Jeune Turc urging the government to act—and act promptly—to instigate the proposed reforms in eastern Anatolia.
The Very Slow Reforms of the Ottoman Empire
The Tanzimât (reorganization) was an attempt to modernize the Ottoman Empire, from 1839 until the Sultan ended it in 1876. In the late 19th and early 20th century the Empire was quite backward in its economic, agricultural, social and education systems when compared to Europe. The Young Turk revolution of 1908 called for the restoration of the constitution, and declared that all Ottomans—Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Kurds, and others—were equal under the law. There was a renewed attempt to modernize the Empire by bringing in Europeans to institute reforms in the military, education, political and economic systems. They made some progress, particularly on the military front thanks to the Germans, but the Sick Man of Europe, as the Empire was known because of its debt-ridden economy, largely remained behind the times. In 1912 European powers insisted on political reforms for minority Ottomans. The government, controlled by the ruling party of the Committee of Union and Progress, agreed to these reforms, but was extremely slow to act. They had passed some laws allowing courts and schools in Ottoman Arabia to be conducted in Arabic, but they had not yet permitted comparable permission to Armenians in eastern Anatolia. And they were dragging their heels when it came to combining the six predominantly Armenian vilayets (provinces) into two vilayets, under the supervision of two European inspectors-general.
When Are the Reforms to Be?
Under that title, Ahmed Aghayev (Ahmet Ağaoğlu) wrote in the Jeune Turc in May 1913:
The lack of will-power from which we suffer, as do also our statesmen, is indeed a fatal disease; it is bringing us into great peril. A characteristic sign of this weakness is in the ease with which we get excited over vast plans, great ideas. Magnificent wishes have no trouble in getting hold of us and making us dream of colossal enterprises destined to make over the country from top to bottom and make it the happiest land on earth. But as soon as it comes to the execution, the realizing of these dreams, the employment of activity, we fall back powerless in the rut of irresolution, of routine, of sloth and idleness.
This produces in all who do not know us the impression of ill will, even of duplicity; the contradiction between our words and our deeds makes them think we make promises when we have determined beforehand not to carry out such promises. Yet this is a mistaken judgment; we are never lacking in good will, good intentions, sincerity—nay and the desire to do well. What we do lack is the will to act, and above all the will to act promptly; we always believe that time will not fly, but will wait for us, and that we can act when we have leisure. But alas! it does not wait, it flies, and the moment comes when it is too late to act. Our good intentions alone will not answer; we shall never get far with them only; we must also have the courage and the decision to put them into practice.
It is already several weeks since foreign instructors began to be talked of, also reforms, and commissions about to start off for Anatolia; but whole weeks have passed and we see none of these realized; the reform commission does not budge, its president and even its members are not yet appointed; no foreign specialist is yet engaged. Really this is incomprehensible. Have not the terrible blows that have just overwhelmed us [the 8-month First Balkan War ended in May 1913] and the painful misfortunes of our country been yet enough to wake us from this torpor, to force upon us the duty of wrestling with our own feebleness? Are we waiting for new blows and new misfortunes before deciding to do something? Yet movements appearing in the eastern vilayets and in Syria and the intrigues from abroad connected therewith are serious enough to command our attention without a moment’s delay.
He referenced agitators in Europe who were making a great deal of noise about the Armenian and Arab questions but that they did not represent the Arab or Armenian nationalities.
The real representatives of the Armenians ask only peace, tranquillity, the enforcement of law, security of life, honor and property—in fine, the chance to live and work quietly. Do we not recognize the justice of these demands?
He also noted that in Syria already the measures taken as to the use of the Arabic language in instruction and in official circles have produced an excellent impression among those Arabs who are unwilling to be instruments for foreign plots, and who cherish only the idea of the development of their nation. He urged prompt and actual application of the decisions [already] made.
In a word, we have not a moment to lose. We must decide quickly and act immediately; the question of calling foreign instructors ought not to drag on a long time in our official circles; we have admitted the principle of calling them, and now we must do so as soon as possible. Thus we will convince the world of the sincerity of our desires and of our firm determination to realize the projected reforms. Then we must hasten the starting of the reforms commission to Anatolia; since peace abroad seems assured, we must now work day and night to assure peace at home as well; let us secure that, let us give each man his rights, let us make life safe and work productive, and we shall see that no agitation, no intrigue will find favorable ground among us.
Though Talat Pasha, the powerful Minister of the Interior, publically endorsed the proposed reforms, he stalled as long as he could. Finally, on February 8, 1914 the proposed reforms became law. However, there was a lengthy interview process before the government accepted two Europeans for the positions of inspector-general in late April. It took another month to sign contracts with L. C. Westenenk from the Netherlands and Nicolai Hoff from Norway. They did not begin their jobs until July. In August World War I started. In October the Ottoman Empire entered the war, joining the side of the Central Powers. In December, Mr. Westenenk and Hoff were dismissed. Thus ended any hope for reforms in eastern Anatolia.
Ahmed Aghayev was an interesting guy. According to Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, Aghayev was disturbed by the violence that “wracked Baku in 1905 and joined a peace committee of twelve pledging their personal wealthy against damage wrought by members of their community.” He worked with the newly-created Republic of Azerbaijan in 1918 (which only existed two years, before the Soviet takeover), but was arrested by the British en route to the Paris Peace Conference, and was imprisoned in Malta in 1921. Upon his release, he lived in Turkey and contributed to the 1924 constitution.