Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism II

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.

The obvious alternative being a style of monarchism mixing populism and (rather constructed) tradition, born out of a national movement and accommodating the idea of a popular will represented by the monarch, mixed in varying degrees with constitutional and representative institutions. The clearest example of this style is maybe Serbia, to which can be added Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. The older monarchies of imperial Germany and Russia incorporated elements of populist-national monarchy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, as the Habsburg empire based in Vienna for many centuries became known in 1867, was the Empire most lacking in a core and not surprisingly suffered the most complete disintegration after World War One (that great killer of Empires).

France was the exception in Europe as a republic, particularly as a unitary republic, and was only continuously a republic from 1870. In 1870, Switzerland was the only other republic, but known as the Swiss Confederation, with strong powers for the constituent cantons. The example of French republicanism was still supremely important because of the transformative nature of the 1789 French Revolution, and the ways its development became central events in European history. Part of that came out of the preceding status of France as the premier European nation and the biggest cultural force of the continent. Educated Ottomans were readers of French, and Ottoman political exiles were often in Paris.

High level education often meant studying in Paris. This had such a big influence on the fine arts, including architecture, that apparently 19th century architecture in Istanbul was more based on French Orientalism than earlier Ottoman architecture. The religious conservatives and neo-Ottomanists in power today, who claim to represent authenticity and escape from western models, in reality promote imitation of these 19th century imports.

Ottoman intellectuals and writers read French and were familiar with the idea of France as intellectual and political leader. There were other influences, including important relations with Imperial Germany, but French influence had a particular status for those aiming for change.

Namık Kemal, the ‘Young Ottoman’ reformer who has some continuing appeal to the moderate political right in Turkey, as demonstrated in the foundation of a Namık Kemal University in Thrace 4 years after the AKP came to power, appearing more moderate conservvative than it does now, translated Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws into Ottoman Turkish (modern Turkish is based on major changes from Ottoman).

The more radical reformers who came to power in 1908 were known as Young Turks, that is Jeunes Turcs, often now written in half-Turkish, half-French style as Jön Türkler. The more radical reformers wanted less role for Islam in public life and at the most radical end even regarded Islam as responsible for backwardness. French laicism was therefore a natural pole of attraction, as were the ways nationalism and republicanism came together in the French revolutionary legacy as an expression of the sovereignty of the people.

The Ottomans studying in France were strong influenced by the sociology of Emile Durkheim, who is usually counted as one of the three founders of the discipline of sociology, along with Karl Marx and Max Weber. Durkheim’s social thought was very influenced by an understanding of Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as precursors of sociology. This partly reflects the social analysis they engaged in, but also their idea of how a society is constituted legally and politically, particularly Rousseau’s theory of the social contract. Durkheim’s social thought is permeated by concerns with what kind of social solidarity there can be in modern societies in ways which build on the long history of republican thinking about a community of citizens. This was very important in the late Ottoman and early republican period.

The German

Max Weber was also a major influence. His ideas about disenchantment (a version of secularisation) and the role of the nation-state were of definite interest to Turkish thinkers inclined towards republicanism, nationalism, and secularism. One of the consequences of this is that criticisms of the Turkish republican tradition, as it passed through Kemal Atatürk (‘Kemalism’), are tied up with criticisms of Weber. Some of this Turkish absorption of Durkheim and Weber can be found in English in the work of Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924) and Niyazi Berkes (1908-1988).

It is also worth finding Atatürk’s Great Speech of 1927 (a book length text read out over several days), which is a political intervention not a discussion of social theory, but does show how ideas connected with social theory enter political discourse in Turkey. It is very widely distributed in Turkey, I’ve even seen it on sale in Turkish supermarkets; and it has been translated into English. Berkes is the social scientist and has a rather more academic way of writing than Gökalp (a famously ambiguous thinker) or Atatürk. His The Development of Secularism in Turkey (published in English 1964, while he was working at McGill University in Montreal) must be the single most influential work of social science by a Turk or about Turkey.

Unfortunately a discussion  of republicanism in relation to Durkheim, Weber, or any other major thinkers declined after the 1920s and Berkes is really the last great flowering of this tradition in Turkey. This is part of the story of how Turkish republicanism as a mode of thinking declined into defensive gestures and the repetition of dogmas, so is also the history of how extremely superficial gestures towards liberalism by leaders of the Turkish right had undue influence over the more liberal parts of Turkish thinking.

The weakness of thought about republicanism and the superficial absorption of liberalism was the main thread on the intellectual side leading to the disaster of Erdoğan-AKP rule. The rise of AKP was welcomed by many (I suspect most, but I don’t know any ways in which this has been quantified) Turkish liberals until the suppression of the Gezi movement in 2013 and even in some cases until the wave of repression following the coup attempt of 2016.

To be continued

3 thoughts on “Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism II

  1. […] 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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