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Turks across Empires: Marketing Muslim Identity in the Russian-Ottoman Borderlands, 1856-1914 by James H. Meyer (review)
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Turks across Empires: Marketing Muslim Identity in the Russian-Ottoman Borderlands, 1856-1914. By james h. meyer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 256 pp. $99.00 (cloth).

This book is about a group of Muslim intellectuals from the late Russian Empire who were politically active in Russia (including in the set-up of the Ittifaq movement/party and its congresses of 1905 and 1906), but who were also in close contact with the Ottoman Empire, where they contributed to the journal Türk Yurdu (Turkic homeland), which became the mouthpiece of what became known as Pan-Turkism. The major personalities in this monograph are the Volga Tatar Yusuf Akchura, Ahmed Aghaoghlu from the South Caucasus, and the Crimean Tatar Ismail Gasprinskii. The former two, and several others, eventually ended up in Istanbul when World War I broke out.

Meyer places the trajectory of these intellectuals into a peculiar context, that of “trans-imperial Muslims” who are “marketing identities.” He argues that while previous scholarship has focused on the ideological aspects of the Pan-Turkists’ writings, it is more helpful to consider their practical concerns, especially their striving for recognition, and their need to obtain money to stay afloat. Consequently, whenever fate brought them into a new political context (through revolutions or transfers), the activists were ready to quickly change their ideologies: Aghaoghlu, for instance, at different times and to different audiences spoke in the name of Persians, Muslims, Caucasus Muslims, Russian Muslims, the Turkic world, and Azerbaijanis (p. 173). The underlying objective of these traveling intellectuals, says Meyer, was never to unite all of the world’s Turks under a common political system (which was clearly not feasible), but “to create a market and address readers on both sides of the Russian-Ottoman frontier, and perhaps even beyond” (p. 161). Meyer explains: “Their goal was not specifically national, [End Page 168] but rather reflected a broader search for embeddedness that could take them into a variety of directions” (p. 144).

Meyer’s second major argument is that the project of Pan-Turkism, as a promise or as a threat, was constructed not just by those “Pan-Turkists” themselves. Rather, Pan-Turkism also lived on the anxiety of tsarist government officials and of Muslim conservatives who opposed those progressive Muslim intellectuals and denounced them to the Russian authorities as separatists and revolutionaries. Meyer also argues that professional Orientalists had their share in exaggerating the danger of Pan-Turkism (or Pan-Islamism), but here he is less convincing: One of the major Orientalists to whom Meyer refers, the Turkologist Wilhelm Radlov, made an impression of helplessness when the Ministry of Education charged him with the supervision of Muslim schools in the Volga region (pp. 48-50, 75-76). Radlov was certainly not blowing up any threat; rather, he was trying to accommodate Muslim interests. Another piece of evidence Meyer uses to demonstrate that professional Orientalists contributed to the public anxiety about a Muslim/Turkic threat is a letter written by the director of Russia’s Imperial Oriental Society to the Interior Ministry in which he asked for financial support for the publication of a new journal, Mir Islama (The world of Islam). In this letter the director (whose name is not given) mentioned the Muslims’ desire for “spiritual union on the basis of their common religion and ethnographic relationship,” obviously to underline the timeliness of this new journal. Yet there was no Imperial Oriental Society in Russia—just an Oriental Department of the Russian Archaeological Society.16 It is open to question whether as Meyer claims further, “the Imperial Oriental Society was ready to answer everyone’s questions regarding Muslims’ belligerence towards Russians and other Europeans.” In fact, the journal in question became a very respectable academic product, not an organ of political advice (p. 149).

I found the strength of Meyer’s monograph emanating not from his theoretical framework but from his diligent work with materials from a plethora of archives in Russia (including Kazan and Ufa), Turkey, and even the South Caucasus (Baku, Tbilisi, and Batumi), which provide fascinating insights into those transborder activities. While in a case like the one cited above he could...