Tax Revolts in Turkey in 1906–07

From the New York Times:

Turkish Passive Resisters

A significant movement has arisen among the Mussulman population of Erzerum, in Asia Minor, which in the present condition of the European provinces constitutes the only living part of the Ottoman Empire.

An organized and ever-spreading agitation is on foot against the payment of the poll tax imposed by the sultan in . The people do not refuse to pay the tax, but resist passively, declaring that the country cannot pay and that there is no reason for the tax. Such a movement among the Sultan’s faithful subjects deserves to be followed with the closest interest.

This was the first I’d heard of the Turkish tax revolts of .

Aykut Kansu devotes some pages to the revolts in The Revolution of in Turkey. Kansu believes that the Committee of Union and Progress (the “Young Turks”) was able to channel the dispersed and disorganized tax resistance campaigns into a successful revolutionary movement. Excerpts:

[T]he burden of taxes had reached unbearable proportions in , a situation which the notorious rapacity of the tax-collectors only aggravated. At this time, the collection of the “temettü” tax — some form of income tax — met with such problems in İzmir that the collection of that tax was allowed to remain in indefinite abeyance. Similar events took place in Mytilene in , though this time complaints came mostly from the local Greek population of the island.

Kansu says there was a de facto tax strike already, as rural people had become so uncertain that the tax collectors would leave them enough to live on that they had abandoned their farms and occupations to come to the cities and live on charity.

What came to be known as the tax revolts started in in various parts of the country upon the decision of the Government to institute two new taxes, one on individuals, the Şahsi Vergi, and the other, a poll tax on domestic animals, Hayvanat-i Ehliye Rüsumu. Immediately upon the Government’s attempt to collect these additional taxes, citizens all over the country began organising acts of civil disobedience, the first of which manifested itself at Kastamonu, a town of little distinction from other towns in Anatolia, except for its high concentration of political exiles of the Hamidian regime.

In , dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Kastamonu erupted with the issue of municipal elections. The Government put up the customary notices in public places for the elections of city councillors. Nobody in the city, however, paid any attention to these notices and boycotted the elections on the grounds that they had no control over taxation and expenditure, be it provincial or municipal. … One of the most pressing issues was the new tax, Şahsi Vergi, which, they claimed was exacted from every individual at the same rate without concern for the wealth of the person. Considering this a serious breach of justice they demanded instant government attention, and refused to pay the tax, especially in view of the fact that all high-level state officials were exempt in the province. They were especially resentful of the fact that Enis Pasha, the governor of Kastamonu, who was one of the wealthiest persons in the whole province, was not paying a single cent.…

When their demands remained unanswered, they organised a demonstration, on , of about five hundred people in front of the Government offices, after which, they proceeded to the Telegraph Office, and occupied the building. They sent telegrams to the Sultan’s Palace reiterating their demand for the repeal of the tax. During the crowd in front of the Government buildings grew to more than four thousand. Both the Muslim population and the Armenians acted in unity in this act of mass demonstration. People eagerly waited into for an answer from the Palace to their repeated petitions. Enis Pasha, the Governor, was so terrorised as not being able to leave his residence during . During two police commissioners tried to enter the Telegraph Office. Both were manhandled, and one of them was seized and taken prisoner, while the other managed to escape. With the full support of a majority of the town’s notables, citizens occupied the Telegraph Office for , during which they continuously corresponded with the Central Government and pressed for the acceptance of their demands. On , fresh demonstrations started, again, in front of the Telegraph Office, in which a huge crowd of Muslims, Armenians, and Greeks participated in the protest to have the tax repealed, and have Enis Pasha, the Governor, and the Tax Commissioner recalled. In solidarity with the crowd, all shops and businesses remained closed during . One of the leaders of the revolt was Esad Efendi, a judge. He and some of the exiled intellectuals, who had been in forced residence at Kastamonu, had carefully planned the movement, and had, furthermore, entered beforehand into negotiations with Ali Riza Pasha, the Military Commander of Kastamonu, and obtained his approval as well as his promise not to use force against them. As soon as he learned of the new disturbances, Enis Pasha summoned the Military Commander as well as the Police Chief to his office and ordered them to disperse the crowd and collect information as to the cause and organizers of these demonstrations. Both men objected to the use of force since they judged that the forces under their command were both weak in strength and unreliable. They said they could not take on the responsibility of the consequences of an attempt at military repression. Thereupon, Enis Pasha tried to have the town notables use their influence on the masses to diffuse the situation. He summoned Namik Efendi, one of the members of the City Council, Sheikh Ataullah Efendi, Sheikh Ziyaeddin Efendi, Mahmed Emin Efendi, the mufti of Kastamonu, Said Hemdem Dede, and Merdane Efendi. Upon being requested by Enis Pasha to talk with the masses, they attempted to “normalise” the situation by meeting with the representatives of the revolt. They were told that the reason and preocupation of the current revolt was not the repeal of the tax but the dismissal of the Governor and several other high-ranking provincial bureaucrats. They were, then, taken hostage and were set free only after they agreed to put their signatures on the petition for the dismissal of the Governor which they sent to the Sultan. The occupation of the Telegraph Office continued for one more day, during which the citizens impatiently waited for the order of the Governor’s dismissal. Eventually, their demands for the expulsion of the Governor as well as the Tax Commissioner were met: on , Ali Riza Pasha was summoned to the Telegraph Office by the Palace officials, and after communication with him, the Palace decided on the dismissal of Enis Pasha. The Government appointed Ali Riza Pasha interim Governor. The crowd cheered after the news were broadcast and celebrated their success into the small hours of the morning.

[S]imilar incidents began to appear in other parts of the country as well. In Sinob, several thousand people marched on the government offices, captured the Telegraph Office, and forcibly placed the Sub-Governor of Sinob on a ship bound for İstanbul. In the Mosul province, a riot took place in , also in connection with the collection of these taxes.

However, the most important revolt following the events at Kastamonu took place in Erzurum in . The population had already been financially suffering under the rapacious administration of Nâzim Pasha, the Governor, . Instead of using the money for the needs of the province, he had been sending about twenty-five percent of the collected amount to the capital in return for personal favors from the absolutist regime. When the new taxes… were announced this became the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Thirteen representatives of the local merchants responded to the news of increased taxation by immediately signing a petition and presenting it to the Governor, requesting the repeal of the tax on domestic animals as well as the extraordinary tax levied in order to raise money for the Hedjaz Railway. Nâzim Pasha promised to convey the grievances of the population; instead, he sent a telegram, on to İstanbul, informing the Sultan that certain provocateurs had conducted a propaganda against the new taxes, but that he had taken the necessary measures to suppress the revolt. After receiving no reply from İstanbul, the leading livestock merchants of Erzurum gathered to discuss the situation. They decided to send another telegram reiterating their demand for the repeal of the tax. When they again received no reply, the local members of the Committee of Union and Progress, organized under the name of “Can Veren,” decided to take radical action against the local representatives of the Central Government.

Almost from the start, the tax revolt in Erzurum was both more organised and larger in scope than on previous occasions. The population demanded the Governor’s recall, and merchants closed their shops in solidarity, as citizens took possession, on , of the Telegraph Office in order to directly communicate with the Palace. When the Governor asked the mufti to pacify the population, the latter refused to make a speech to calm the citizens of Erzurum, and, instead, joined the revolt, disregarding political authority by stating that the imposition of the new taxes went against the principles of Islam and that therefore the protest was justified. During these events, military troops at Erzurum disobeyed the orders of the Governor and of their officers, and did nothing to suppress the revolt, despite the fact that military officers supported the established order.…

The tax that was most unpopular with the general population was the poll tax, or Şahsi Vergi, levied on individuals. Here, the unequal levying of the tax had been instrumental in its universal rejection. The particular grievance was that the amount to be paid under the new tax had been fixed at 400, 200, and 35 piasters, according to the category under which each person might be placed. It was generally considered that, under this method of assessment, the burden of the tax would fall heavily on the poor, while the sum to be paid by the rich would remain ludicrously small as compared with their means. The serious ferment which this tax provoked among the Muslim population of Erzurum led them to join forces with the Christians. As no satisfactory answer had yet been received, they, together, organized a mass protest to be held in front of the Government buildings. The population, however, brought the demonstration to the governor’s residence, tearing down the placards which the Government had posted giving public notice of the imposition of the new taxes. The demand for the Governor’s recall was renewed and shops were closed again on . During these protests, the city was for nearly ten days in the hands of the population, the usual representatives of the civil authority having practically abdicated their functions.

The rebels then cut off the governor’s private telegraph line and kept him confined to his residence. The central government responded by dispatching troops to the area in order to put down the rebellion and arrest its leaders. But by this time, the army was in no mood to follow such orders, and the central government was forced to cave in — swapping Nâzim Pasha with the governor of Diyarbakir, which placated the protesters somewhat.

By the beginning of , agitation had also spread to Bayburt, Narman, and Hasankale — closeby towns — though Erzurum’s example of closing shops seemed to have been followed only at Hasankale. Tax revolts had also spread to other commercial centers in Anatolia such as Trabzon, Giresun, Sivas, Kayseri, and other places. The new taxes… caused great hardships to the Macedonian subjects of the Empire, where there were rebellions in against these taxes, analogous to the ones that had taken place at Kastamonu, Mosul, Erzurum, Sivas, and other places. In Zeytun there was grave unrest in , the cause of which was the attempt to collect taxes in arrears as well as the imposition of these new taxes.

In Trabzon, the example of other provinces was repeated. A serious outburst of popular resentment concerning the imposition of the new taxes occurred which could be repressed only by the use of military force. Although the troops managed to repress the revolt, the Government could not enforce the collection of taxes…

The Governor there also had to find a new job.

In tax revolts also took place at Samsun, where the citizens protested the new taxes. There was not a day that passed without serious incidents not taking place, including deaths of citizens. In order to keep the disturbances secret, the authorities did not allow anyone, especially the Armenians, into the Telegraph Office.

In the meantime, no attempt had been made to collect any of the new taxes, the imposition of which had been the cause of the trouble. Encouraged by their apparent success, the population of Erzurum grew bolder on its criticism of the current regime and began to question the administration’s right to impose special taxation of any sort, except for purely local needs.…

The unpopularity of the new taxes created similar outbursts of civil disobedience and revolt in Ankara as well. There too, the local post office was occupied by the citizens and telegrams were sent to the Palace demanding the repeal of the taxes and the removal of the Governor of the province. The Government, as in similar cases, yielded to the demands of the people and dismissed the Governor of Ankara.

In serious disturbances took place at Trabzon on the issue of the new taxes. The revolt of the citizens, who refused to pay the newly imposed taxes, could only be taken under control by the intervention of military troops. The authorities, however, had to momentarily decide not to press the issue further, and postponed the collection of these taxes.

The disturbances at Erzurum erupted again in . On , both the Muslim and Christian citizens of the city acted in unison in demanding the repeal of the new taxes, saying that it was beyond their means to pay any more taxes. The mufti conveyed the grievances of the population to Mehmed Ata Bey, the Governor of Erzurum. Mehmed Ata Bey, however, stood firm and said that there was no question of repeal of the taxes and that he was determined to collect them. Upon being rejected, the population made a violent demonstration directed against established authority. The local police force and the gendarmes opened fire upon the demonstrators, killing many. Infuriated by this act of violence, the crowd replied with equal vehemence by killing the commander of the gendarmerie as well as many policemen and gendarmes.

Bey ordered an investigation into the rebellion.

There were twenty-two people who had been found to be leaders of the movement. Among them were Haci Lütfullah Efendi, the mufti of Erzurum, prominent merchants and lawyers, and Durak Bey, one of the local leaders of the underground revolutionary organization which had ties with the Committee of Union and Progress.

On … the Government in İstanbul instructed Mehmed Ata Bey to arrest the mufti and many other Muslims, all of whom were suspected of taking the most active part in the events of ; they were to be sent into exile. the number of arrests reached about sixty. On , the mufti and others were immediately deported after their arrests. Haci Akif Agha, one of the important local notables and a leader of the revolt, however, offered a successful resistance to the gendarmes who came to arrest him. His resistance publicised the arrests, and the citizens immediately organised themselves for the release of the prisoners. , a large crowd of furious Muslims surrounded the Governor’s residence, demanding the return of the exiles. The Governor escaped to a private house, but was captured and kept prisoner in the İbrahim Pasha Mosque.

The crowd also took revenge against the local police, and went to retrieve the exiled mufti and his companions, “the Governor having been compelled under the threat of death to give orders for their return.”

…Civil authority remained completely in abeyance, the Government Offices being closed and guarded by strong detachments of troops. Throughout no action was taken by the troops, who apparently sympathised with the populace.…

The next year things came to a head again:

Demonstrations ensued, and continued without interruptions , during which there were held several huge ones. The demands were the same: repeal of the unjust taxes. The revolutionary committee in Erzurum sent two telegrams to İstanbul stating their demands, one on , the other, on . As usual, no satisfactory answer was received. On , a crowd estimated at twenty thousand surrounded the Telegraph Office. After direct communication with the Palace, the Sultan, realising the seriousness of the situation, agreed to make concessions. The Government issued a decree to the effect that all exiles in connection with the disorders of would be pardoned, and a general amnesty granted for the events of . In addition, charges against those who had killed the two police commissioners and a policeman, as well as those who had wounded Mehmed Ata Bey, the Governor, during those events would be dropped. However, although the arrears of the last two years would be remitted, the poll tax had to be paid, as no exception could be made for Erzurum. The population was far from pacified. On the contrary, on a large but perfectly orderly deputation of Muslims visited the Governor, and after having stated that they were too poor to pay the taxes in question, begged him to procure their remission from the Government. Further negotiations were made between the citizens and the Palace, and on , the continued and pervasive resistance against both the poll tax and the tax on domestic animals forced the Government to totally give in to the demands of the population. Finally it was announced in the local newspapers of that an imperial decree had been issued and communicated to the proper departments which abolished the new taxes.