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