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

By Amit Bein | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Political Activism and Its Discontents

The Ottoman Empire was heading into uncharted political waters in the wake of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. For the first time, party politics and a parliamentary system appeared to become the pillars of the political order. Ulema, like all other Ottoman citizens, were purportedly free to engage in political activism. Many of them were indeed enthusiastic to take advantage of these newfound rights. They had good reason to expect that their religious and moral authority would attract the support of many voters, mostly outside the upwardly mobile intellectual and bureaucratic elite of the Young Turks, and could be translated into political influence. The political realities of the time turned out to be more complicated, however.

The CUP initiated the revolution in the name of constitutionalism and some of its members were sincere in upholding the merits of an elective government and the parliamentary system. In the years after the revolution, however, dominant factions in the Unionist leadership became increasingly determined to hinder any challenge to the CUP’s political hegemony, be it by legal means or by subverting the constitutional system. The clandestine organization-turned-dominant-politicalforce welcomed the political activism of ulema, as long as it was under the CUP’s auspices. The Unionist leadership did all it could to obstruct and delegitimize the political activities of their opponents in the religious establishment. On the one hand, the CUP did not refrain from questioning the legitimacy of the involvement of ulema in politics. On the other hand, the CUP’s active pursuit of supporters among the ulema and its intervention in appointments and dismissals helped politicize the religious establishment. This ambivalent approach was also evident among other major political groupings that competed for power with the CUP.

The involvement of ulema in politics indeed became a topic of heated controversy after the Young Turk Revolution. The advantages and risks

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