Ottoman Ulema, Turkish Republic: Agents of Change and Guardians of Tradition

By Amit Bein | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Branding and Rebranding
the Religious Establishment

The closing decades of the Ottoman Empire were a period of escalating challenges to the survival of the state and of urgent internal debates on how to save it. European imperialism was one major threat. New nation states and separatist movements in the Balkans and Anatolia, particularly among the Christian minorities, were another serious challenge. These multiple threats served as the backdrop against which state-led reforms were formulated and implemented since at least the early nineteenth century, to various degrees of success. As the century was coming to a close, however, the challenges facing the empire appeared increasingly daunting to many Ottoman officials and intellectuals. Many of them came to the conclusion that the survival of the empire necessitated more comprehensive reforms and profound social, educational, cultural, and political transformations, largely informed by purportedly successful European examples. The ulema and their institutions were perceived by many intellectuals and bureaucrats as a major cause of the empire’s dire straits and, at least in their existing state, as a serious hindrance for its regeneration and future prosperity.

None of this was in itself unique to the late Ottoman Empire. The threat and experience of European imperialism and the challenges of ethnonationalism were faced to varying degrees by many contemporaneous societies and states all over the globe, including in neighboring lands such as Austro-Hungary and Iran. The crises that many of these societies faced prompted calls for reform, including in religious institutions and their jurisdictions and functions. In some Islamic lands, “progressive” or “firebrand” ulema led or supported demands for change. Many other critics were graduates of new-style schools or men who embraced European modernist and secularist thought. Some of them were outright

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