Ottomanism, Republicanism, Nationalism I

The Republican experiment in Turkey goes back formally to 1923, when Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Atatürk) proclaimed the Republic of Turkey after the deposition of the last Ottoman Sultan, becoming the first President of the Republic after holding the office of Speaker of the National Assembly. The office of Caliph (commander of the faithful), which had a symbolic universalism for Muslim believers world wide and was held by the Ottoman dynasty, was abolished in the following year. The Republic, as you would expect in the early 20s, was founded on intensely nationalistic grounds, creating a nation for Turks distinct from the Ottoman system which was created in an era of religiously defined and personalised rule rather than ethnic-national belonging.

The move in a republican-national direction can be taken back to the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which itself put down a counterrevolution in 1909, and might be taken as a model for current political divisions (in a qualified clarification through simplification manner). The name rather exaggerates the nationalist element of the revolution. The governments which came after 1908, ruling under an Ottoman dynasty reduced to a ceremonial role, were torn between Turkish nationalist, Ottomanist, and Islamist replacements for the personalised nature of Ottoman rule.

In this context Ottomanist refers to creating the idea of an Ottoman citizenship and shared institutions rather than restoring the political power of the dynasty. Variations on these ideas include Pan-Turkism/Turanism (the unity of Turkish peoples from the Great Wall of China to the Adriatic Sea) and a Dual Monarchy of Turks and Arabs modeled on the Habsburg Dual Monarchy of Austrians and Hungarians (that is the Habsburgs were Emperors of Austria in the Austrian lands and Kings of Hungary in the Magyar lands).

The move away from a patrimonial state based on the hereditary legitimacy of dynasties, who were not formally restricted by any laws or institutions, goes back to the Tanzimat edict of 1839, issued by Sultan Abdulmejid I in 1839, establishing administrative reforms and rights for Ottoman subjects of all religions. This might be taken as providing a model of moderate or even conservative constitutional reformism associated with the Young Ottoman thinkers and state servants. It has its roots in the reign of Mahmud II. Mahmud cleared the way for the reform process by the destruction of the Janissary Order, that is the military corps which had expanded into various areas of Ottoman life and was an important political force. The Tanzimat period led to the constitution and national assembly of 1876, which was suspended by Sultan Abdul II in 1878.

Abdul Hamit carried on with administrative reforms, of a centralised kind which were seen as compatible with his personal power, accompanied by war against rebellious Ottoman subjects of such a brutal kind that he became known as the Red Sultan. His status has been greatly elevated by President Erdoğan who evidently wishes to see himself as a follower of Abdul Hamit II, rather giving away his tendency to regard democracy and constitutionalism as adornments to be displayed when they can be bent and twisted to his end, rather than as intrinsic values. The brutality of Abdul Hamit II, the violent reactionary, was foreshadowed in the reformism of Mahmud II. His destruction of the arch-conservative corps of the Janissaries was a highly violent affair in which an Istanbul mutiny provoked by Mahmud was put down through the execution of prisoners who survived the general fighting.

In this sketch, I try to bring out the ways in which the Ottoman state used systematic violence to reform and to push back reform, when giving rights and when taking them away. There is no Ottoman constitutional tradition respecting the rights of all and the pre-republican changes were just as violent as the most extreme moments of the republican period.

The ‘millet system’ of self-governing religious communities under the Sultan was a retrospective idealisation of ways in which the Ottomans accommodated religious diversity, at the time the capacity of the state to have legitimacy over non-Muslim subjects was declining. Serbia started revolting in 1804, leading to self-government within the Empire in 1817, on the basis of national post-French Revolution, not the ‘millet’ tradition rooted in classical Muslim ideas of ‘protected’ minorities. The strength of modern nationalism in the Ottoman lands is confirmed by Greek Independence, internationally recognised in 1832, following a war in which western educated Greeks familiar with ideas of nationalism and sovereignty provided the ideology.

The republican national tradition in Turkey is sometimes seen as a fall away from Ottoman pluralism and therefore as regressive. The ‘regression’, as in the influence of nationalism and reconstruction of the Ottoman state through centralisation and centrally controlled violence, actually goes back much further. The Ottoman state was not able to find ways of accommodating the aspirations first of non-Muslim subjects then even of Muslim subjects outside Anatolia and Thrace. In this process the Ottoman state was step by step becoming what is now Turkey, based on the loyalty of mostly ethnic Turkish subjects, including Muslim refugees from break-away states who fled into Anatolia, and to some degree on the loyalty of Kurds in Anatolia to the Ottoman system. Antagonism towards Ottoman Armenians was one part of this.

To be continued

9 thoughts on “Ottomanism, Republicanism, Nationalism I

  1. What do you think of the millet system (semi-self-governing confessional communities) that prevailed for much of Ottoman history? Was the breakdown of the millet system and the rise of territorial ethno-nationalism where it first went wrong for the region? Could a similar system of non-territorial federalism be resurrected?

    • I think I’ ve tried to address this in the post. I do say that the idea of a ‘milltet system’ is a retrospective idealisation of Ottoman version of classical Muslim concept of protected minorities. In a slightly less direct way I’ve cast doubt on the idea of a pluralist Ottomanism developing on a federal bassi as you mention or on a less territorial cultural pluralist basis. As I argue in the post, Ottoman accommodation of minorities was in collapse from the early 20th century, Serbian uprisings leading to Serbian autonomy and then a war leading to Greek Independence. I presume that Ottoman modernist pluralism/federalism was simply unobtainable by then, it was just far too late for the Ottoman state to become a kind of Switzerland or even a liberalised highly pluralised unitary state. The movement towards a national republic for the core Ottoman lands, i.e. what is now Turkey, can be traced back at least to the destruction of the Janissary order and the Serb/Greek break aways. Part of what I am arguing overall, as I hope will be clear as proceed, is that it is very very difficult for a traditional state based on a traditional hierarchy of traditional communities/estates/corporations existing over a large varied territory can exist in the modern world without some kind of top down homogenisation (think of the way China expanded over the centuries assimilating conquered peoples into Han culture) or a Russian style solution of constant political autocracy in different forms in which Slavic Orthodox Russian identity is at the centre even where Orthodox Christianity is apparently replaced by Bolshevism/Marxism-Leninism. In short what I’m assuming and arguing is Ottoman pluralism/cosmopolitanism is an illusion, that there was never anything more than a temporary balance between components, fragmentation and separatism kept growing and separation between ‘nation states’ was inevitable. If we look at the world now, we might take India as the closest thing to a federalised liberalised Ottomanism, but India still rests on a massive predominance of Hinduism, a de facto hierarchy in which Hinduism is above other religions, regional and caste based violence, and a persistent element of Hindu chauvinism which is now explicitly in power and has never really been out of power even when the governmental ideology was apparently something else. I’m not suggesting there is some alternative conception of what could have happened in the sub-continent which would work better than what there is now, but I can’t see that Indian neo-imperial (because based on the work of imperial regimes over the centuires) federalism works better than Turkish national-republicanism.

      • Nice thoughts, thanks for the reply. I’m no expert on Ottoman history but it’s super interesting, so look forward to the next posts. Agree that the millet system wasn’t the pluralist/federalist ideal it’s sometimes made out to have been, and was used as a strategy of control/legitimisation, rather than being motivated by concern for minority rights or self-determination. Still thought experiments can be fun.

  2. […] In the last post, I gave some historical background on how the Ottoman state, whether in reformist or repressive mode (or some combination of the two), was on a road, at least from the early nineteenth century, that was very likely to end in a nation-state for the Turks of Anatolia and the Balkan region of Thrace, which forms a hinterland in its eastern part for the part of Istanbul on the Balkan side of the Bosphorus. Despite the centuries of the Ottoman dynasty (the founder Othman was born in 1299 and this is usually taken as the starting point of the Ottoman state, though obviously there was no such thing when Othman was born), it was also an increasing possibility that the nation-state would be a republic on the French model. […]

  3. […] Previous posts in this series have looked at the preconditions for the proclamation of the Republic of  Turkey in 1923. The Ottoman Empire was in a very difficult situation from the early 19th century, effectively lacking the capacity to prevent erosion of its territory, extraterritorial legal rights for the stronger Great Powers which were extended to non-Muslim subjects the powers claimed to protect, and ‘mediation’ regarding break away groups within the Empire. The survival of the Empire was certainly in doubt by 1914 and World War One killed it, along with three other empires: Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian. In a more long term way, the war hastened the end of colonial European empires, though the French and British Empires gained territory from the Paris Peace Treaties. […]

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