From Abdulhamid II to Ataturk: Change or Continuity in Turkey's History

By Gökçek, Mustafa | Islamic Horizons, May/June 2017 | Go to article overview

From Abdulhamid II to Ataturk: Change or Continuity in Turkey's History


Gökçek, Mustafa, Islamic Horizons


TURKEY HAS LONG BEEN CREDITED with being unique as regards its democratic, secular government in a predominantly Muslim society. However, history reveals a persistent and deep-rooted thread of authoritarianism.

Ataturk's establishment of the republic in 1923 is typically viewed as a major rupture with Ottoman history. However, more recent historians are revealing its strong roots in the Ottoman past. In fact, one cannot understand Turkey's present challenges without a solid grounding in at least the late Ottoman Empire. After all, the republics founders were raised and educated during that era and the Young Turks had introduced or discussed many of the reforms that Ataturk later implemented.

REFORMING AN EMPIRE

The Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) stretched over three continents, was the continuation of Byzantium and the home of the caliphate. Its fierce Janissary corps awed Europe and was invincible for almost three centuries. And yet as early as the 17th century Europe was moving ahead economically, technologically and militarily via its explorations, the Industrial Revolution and discovery of alternative trade routes. The sultans therefore initiated diplomatic ties and started sending missions to Europe. By the late 18th century, many in the administration acknowledged that western-style modernization was essential if the empire wanted to maintain its splendor.

Not all institutions agreed. For example, the Janissaries were so outraged by the new excessive training and other reforms that they eventually murdered two sultans. The ulama regarded everything "European" as imitating the Christians and therefore evil. The large calligraphic industry, fearing unemployment, blocked the printing press for almost three centuries. Reform, to say the least, did not come easily.

Sultan Selim III (d. 1808), the first real reformer, was killed in a Janissary coup. His successor Mahmud II had to make concessions to local lords in the "Deed of Alliance." But he did eventually manage to initiate centralization, raise separate European-style military regiments and, in 1826, annihilate the Janissaries in the "Auspicious Event." This paved the ground for rapidly introducing more reforms (Stanford J. Shaw, "Studies in Ottoman and Turkish History," 2000).

Increasing European pressure forced the introduction of western-style reforms. The British, French and Russians interfered in Ottoman affairs by manipulating the empire's Christian minorities and ailing economic structure. The Tanzimat (Reorganization; 1839-76) and Islahat (Reform) Rescript of 1856 emphasized all subjects' equality as regards the application of law, rights and duties (Roderic H. Davison, "Reform in the Ottoman Empire," 1963). These reforms shattered the millet system, which had given each non-Muslim religious congregation great internal autonomy. Their powerful religious authorities had helped the sultan rule a major portion of the population and maintain law and order. But with their power curtailed, the more secular nationalist elites among the nationalities, primarily the Christian ones, began to assert themselves.

ABDULHAMID II: THE RED SULTAN OR THE CALIPH OF ALL MUSLIMS?

The newly emerging bureaucracy pushed forward with its modernizing agenda. A coup led to Sultan Abdulaziz's death and his successor, the young Sultan Abdulhamid II, being charged with introducing the first constitution (1876). But within a year, this skilled political maneuverer had used the war with Russia as a pretext to abolish Parliament, suspend the constitution and force the reformist bureaucrats out of Istanbul.

Abdulhamids 33-year reign (1876-1909) was one of the empire's longest and most influential. This very contentious sultan is usually remembered as a heavy-handed autocrat who tolerated no opposition and spread fear through his extensive secret police network. To his critics he was the "Red Sultan." His supporters, the romantic Ottomanists, credited him with extending the empire's life for several decades. …

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