Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Ottoman Legacy and Turkish Politics

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Ottoman Legacy and Turkish Politics

Article excerpt

"The absence of civil society in Turkey was an inheritance from the Ottoman Empire, where political, economic and social power coalesced in the center."

Continuity rather than change characterizes Turkish political culture. Ottoman political norms emerged and developed during the many centuries of the Empire. They persist today; affecting numerous aspects of contemporary Turkish politics. This article first presents an overview of the important milestones in Turkish history; from the foundation of the Ottoman Empire to the present. Second, it points out several lines of continuity in the Ottoman and the Republican political cultures. Third, it examines the impact of the Ottoman legacy on Turkish democracy. Finally; it addresses the question of why; until recently, continuity rather than change has characterized Turkish politics.

The Ottoman Empire was founded at the end of the 14th century and reached its zenith in the 15th century. At the time, it was one of greatest empires of the world, stretching from the Caucasus to the Balkans to North Africa. From the second half of the 16th century until the end of the 19th century; the Empire slowly lost momentum, during what is now referred to as the Period of Decline. First, the territorial expansion of the Empire came to an end. Then, the Empire began to lose territory steadily. During this second period, the ruling institutions underwent changes as well. Among other things, the palace, at the apex of which stood the sultan, showed signs of losing its dominant position in the polity. Meanwhile, religious institutions and the military gained ground.

In this second period, the Ottomans remained oblivious to the intellectual, economic and technological transformations that were taking place in Europe. Great efforts were made to revive the governmental structure of earlier centuries. Not surprisingly, this strategy did not prevent the Empire from losing further ground, literally and metaphorically, to its adversaries in Europe. Because of this decline, from the end of the 18th century onward, the Ottomans tried to reform first their public bureaucracy and then their military, the Janissary Corps, by emulating their counterparts in Europe. The Westernizing reformers faced stiff opposition from the Islamist traditionalists, and they were only partially successful.

With the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Westernizing reformers gained control over the country. Consequently, in the 1920s and 1930s, the founders of the Republic instigated a far-reaching cultural transformation to substitute enlightened reasoning for Islamic dogma. This period was followed by political transformations in the mid-1940s with the introduction of a multi-party democracy. The third important transformation in Republican Turkey came in the early 1980s, when the import-substitution economy was replaced with an export-oriented economy.(1)


The Ottoman state was formed by warriors who were opposed by eclectic popular culture, heterodox religious sects and threatening rival principalities.(2) Under such circumstances, keeping the realm together became the governing institutions' most critical concern, leading them to emphasize eternal vigilance against foreign enemies and the maintenance of law and order within the country Tursun Beg, Ottoman statesman and historian of the late 15th century, reiterated an Ottoman maxim: "Harmony among men living in society is achieved by statecraft."(3) It was with this concern in mind that the ruling institution in the Ottoman Empire was called Askeriye (the military).(4)

This imperative led the Ottomans to concentrate power in the hands of the sultan. Consequently, in the early Ottoman centuries, the Empire's political organization was marked by personal rule by the sultan. As a result, laws propounded by individual sultans were not considered permanent. …

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