On 9 October 1911 the Persian newspaper of Seraj-al-Akhbar was published by Mahmud Tarzi (1865 - 1933) in Kabul. Better known as Mahmud Beg, Tarzi lived in the Ottoman territory from 1886 to 1905, where he learnt the Turkish and Arabic languages. He showed sympathy for the Young Turks, particularly the Turkish United and Progressive Party.
In 1905, Tarzi returned to Afghanistan where his two daughters married to the sons of King Habibullah (1901 - 1919). When Amanullah became the King in 1919, Tarzi was appointed as Minister for Foreign Affairs. When Amanullah lost power in March 1929, Tarzi returned to Istanbul, where in November 1933 he died at the age of 68. He was buried there.
Seraj-al-Akhbar abided by many specifications and known principles of journalism. Throughout its publishing life, it maintained the 33x24-centimetre format. In general, all issues contained an editorial and a table of contents. Obviously, news occupied an important place in the newspaper. During World War I, almost half of the pages contained categorised news. Letters from readers, which mainly reflected the spirit of praise as well as the flattery of the Amir and his Court, were published under the title of "Letter". Persian poems appeared in the newspaper, as well. However, little attention was paid to satire, jokes, and caricatures.
As a political newspaper, Seraj-al-Akhbar represented Mahmud Tarzi's viewpoints whose main concern revolved around expressing support for the Young Turks, ethno-nationalism blended with Pan-Islamism, promotion of authoritarian modernism, and struggle against colonialism, ignorance and superstition.
Modernity occupied a conspicuous place in Seraj-al-Akhbar. Many researchers believe that modernity and knowledge movement in Afghanistan stems from the reformist movement which was on the rise in the entire East at the turn of the twentieth century. Thus, modernisation and reformist movement in Afghanistan was affected by the intellectual movements and socio-political changes in the Ottoman Empire, Iran, India, Russia, and the Central Asia in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In addition, the British grip of India and the Russian penetration and conquest of Central Asia created fundamental changes in the political structure of the region, thus affecting political trends in Afghanistan.
Seraj-al-Akhbar pays attention to the expansion of knowledge, spread of education, and building schools. The first Western style high school, named Habibia, was established in Afghanistan in 1903. The intellectuals considered schools as that backbone of the country's progress and all-round development and were encouraging children to gain knowledge and professional skills.
Another fundamental aim of Seraj-al-Akhbar was the call for the promotion of Pan-Islamism, ethnic nationalism and debate over the political significance of language. Mahmud Tarzi was strongly influenced by the notions of Pan-Islamism and nationalism in the Ottoman Empire. Upon his return to Afghanistan, Tarzi made an effort to apply them to multi-ethnic Afghanistan.
Seraj-al-Akhbar draws special attention to the Ottoman affairs by depicting caricatures satirising Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenians and publishing poems against them.
Given the contents of Seraj-al-Akhbar, some other newspapers detected familiarity between Mahmud Tarzi's views and those of the Young Turks'. Hence, they believed that he was a Turk. Therefore, they entitled him Mahmud Beg.
One of Mahmud Tarzi's concerns was his ethnic nationalism. He always stresses on ethnic nationalism rather than territorial nationalism. Mahmud Tarzi was the first to touch upon the issue of language in Seraj-al-Akhbar, which later on became part of the dominant political literature of Afghanistan.
Seraj-al-Akhbar was seriously engaged with the support of the Monarchy and praising the Amir. Mahmud Tarzi openly sided with the inherited monarchy and did not endorse republicanism or constitutionalism.
Also, Seraj-al-Akhbar contains articles on the role of industry, mines, agriculture, commerce and the creation of a strong army to defend the country, prevent foreign attacks, and protect the population from internal schisms. Among these articles, the call for the expansion of independence has a special place. However, the Amir and his court showed no genuine interest in considering or implementing of proposals that were put forward by Seraj-al-Akhbar in regard to modernisation, development and independence.
What did not appear in Seraj-al-Akhbar were issues such as constitutionalism, political freedom, democracy, people's participation in the sovereignty of the country, establishment of the parliament, and laying the foundation for democratic institutions. Instead, authoritarian modernism to maintain the monarchy, creation of a centralised state, and safeguarding the independence of the country constituted the core themes of the newspaper. Obviously, exaggerated eulogies lavished on the Amir and his court and furthermore popularising this notion by Seraj-al-Akhbar encouraged and promoted a culture of hypocrisy and dissimulation.
Although Seraj-al-Akhbar supported the notion of modern Afghanistan, and considered modernity as a means to achieve political independence of the country, it only dealt with economic and political aspects of modernity rather than theoretical and philosophical issues. The independence of Afghanistan from British colonialism and the establishment of relations with the outside world constituted one of the main goals of Seraj-al-Akhbar. In this regard, the abolition of the 1907 Anglo-Russian agreement was warmly welcomed.
Although the newspaper was being published during the violent years of the Russian Revolution of 1917, no reflection of this period appears in Seraj-al-Akhbar. However, building closer ties with the Ottoman and German Empires as well as the support for the unity of the Muslim world and the caliphate on the one hand, and distancing from Iran, Russia, and Britain on the other hand remained strategic goals for the newspaper.
Although the language of the newspaper was contemporary Persian spoken in Iran, Bukhara and Afghanistan with the Kabuli vernacular of that time, it was heavily influenced by Arabic and Turkish vocabulary.
Almost 100 years after its first appearance, Seraj-al-Akhbar seemed to be a valuable journalistic experience. One should bear in mind that Seraj-al-Akhbar's attempts to achieve modernisation from above, without effective participation of people and introduction of democratic institutions, seemed to have little impact on the social life of the nation. Despites these attempts, modernisation in Afghanistan was also challenged by difficulties like the society's traditional structure, especially the underdeveloped area of the south predominantly inhabited by the ethnic groups, despotism, repression, socio-economic restrictions, and subversive acts of colonialism. Some of the notions promoted by Seraj-al-Akhbar such as the ethno-lingo-nationalism, nation-building based on one tribe in a predominantly multi-ethnic country, and politicising the ethno-linguistic issue were, in reality, ineffective, troublesome, and harmful. In Afghanistan, ethno-nationalism, with an assertion of tribal superiority, posed a major obstruction to the process of nation-building, and, hence, a hindrance for the establishment of civil society.
Throughout the twentieth century, modernity remained a major concern of the intellectuals of Afghanistan. Various groups of reformists attempted to implement modernisation from above but they did not succeed due to precipitancy, the absence of the rules of the law, tribal culture, resistance from traditionalists and colonialism.
The existing collection of Seraj-al-Akhbar depicts social, political, and cultural transformations that took place in Afghanistan in the newspaper's lifetime. It is a valuable source of information for researchers and academics alike.
Seraj-al-Akhbar is available in the IISG catalogue under call number ZK 68452.
Text: N. Kawyani