The Ottoman Effect

The Ottoman Empire was established under the leadership of Osman I where – legend has it – he had fallen in love with a woman Malkhatun that he was unable to marry because her father refused the union. Several years of continuous rejection left him depleted and powerless, her father had already established himself as a great religious figure in the region and was completely unmoved by his pleas. It was at this time that Osman I had a powerful dream of a moon rising out from the chest of his sleeping friend – the moon itself symbolising a great love for Malkhatun – and this moon floated toward his heart before he absorbed it as the earth would a seed, at which point from his chest grew out a monumental tree that provided shade over the four great Caucasus, Atlas, Taurus and Haemus mountains.

In the dream, the wind gently blew the leaves into the direction of Constantinople, a city made of diamond set between sapphires and emeralds. He awoke believing that the dream meant that he would marry his beloved and that the city that was fashioned into a ring of precious stones was a wedding ring meant for her. The dream inspired her father enough to permit the marriage. What emerged from that love was a great dynasty that overwhelmed most of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe strengthened by centuries of leadership born out of their progeny.

Indeed, from humble tribal beginnings, the Ottomans steadily grew in power during most of thirteen and fourteenth centuries as they absorbed vassal states and provinces,  warding off the Crusaders until they finally captured Constantinople when Mehmed II The Conquerer ended the reign of the Byzantines. The empire established an Islamic presence in the region and birthed the Islamic Golden Age where philosophers, mathematicians and scientists such as Ibn Sina and Ibn al-Haytham advanced many areas of intellectual and theological pursuits and, indeed, became a bridge that translated ancient texts such as that of Aristotle that was later taken into Europe. The strategic territorial position they were now in enabled them to continuously expand and develop authority in both land and on the sea until Suleiman the Magnificent finally came to power in 1520 at the peak of this colossal Ottoman mountain. During his lengthy reign, he initiated a number of new laws and successful military campaigns that solidified the Ottoman presence for a number of centuries after him. Despite the quality of leadership declining after his death in 1566, the empire remained powerful and thriving because of his legacy.


The Ottoman Empire was a religious sovereignty ruled by the caliphate that had for many centuries created a multi-ethnic system of diversity that allowed millets or communities/nations to be free to practice their own religion and culture under protection, for a price. This is particularly the case for Jewish communities that escaped the persecution that they endured in Europe such as the Spanish Inquisition where more than 40,000 Jews were invited to settle in Constantinople. While the Ottomans have been demonised in western literature as barbaric heathens, they did provide a protected landscape for many ethnic minorities to blossom culturally compared to the extreme and continuous persecution they had experienced within the European confines. The Ottomans viewed Islam as the religious authority and scripturally they were demanded to protect the People of the Book and embedded this patriarchal attitude socially and politically that provided Jewish people the autonomy and tolerance as Ottoman subjects.

It was not until the 19th Century that a decline became clear whereby as Europeans powers increased their skills and capacity for new and emerging warfare, the Ottomans remained stagnant. The murmurs of communism along with a dissatisfaction for the internal processes such as the jizya tax and Shari’a created an underground movement that sought to topple the power elites, compelling leaders to seek an authoritarian approach that pressured through fear and ultimately crushed rebellion by massacring many communities as well as ethnically cleansing territorial positions. It was at this time The Young Turks sough to eliminate the Ottoman and Islamic caliphate system, which they believed to be outdated and a thorn to modern progress. The Ottoman decline became highly visible during the reign of Sultan Adbulhamid II, where totalitarian enforcement and pan-Islamic propaganda dramatically increased until he was finally deposed by the Allies during World War One. In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres was signed and the Ottoman Empire partitioned, which provided the Young Turks a perfect opportunity to implement their dream for an independent national identity.

Ziya Gökalp is a leading figure who influenced the modernist ambitions of the Young Turks (Committee of Union and Progress) and their nationalist plight to eliminate religion in political life. Gökalp wrote about the challenge and transformation of millet (nation), ümmet (religion) and muasirlaşma (modernisation) when developing a modern civilisation. By attempting to elucidate the difference between culture and civilisation, Gökalp became a prominent figure of Turkish nationalism and a supporter of political secularization, which sought to reduce the power of religious ideology and clericalism in political and social decision-making. Only when religion is separated from the State can modernity truly develop, but this does not imply the complete eradication of religion nor was Gökalp a supporter of individualism.

Gökalp believed that the egoistic and utilitarian individualist ideals found in some western societies should never be the basis for building altruistic, tolerant, and public-oriented social norms in Turkey. Accordingly, individualism was a bankrupt social and political philosophy and a “threat to equilibrium and harmony of society but also to the individual himself.

Andrew Davidson

Similarly, Louis Dumont claimed that ‘equality’ and ‘individualism’ is an idea of an ideal but in no way natural like the hierarchy or caste system, particularly in India. “This individualistic tendency, which became established, generalized and popularized from the eighteenth century to the age of romanticism and beyond, was in fact accompanied by… organic solidarity.”[Alan Mcfarlane] This “purblind provincialism” or the ideology of individualism has instead made the understanding of natural nomalism even more difficult. In similar vein, orientalism attempts to describe this romanticised imaginings that distorts the actual Arab culture. From a temporal point of view, there were indeed extremely vicious acts done as certain periods, however the Ottomans ruled for centuries and to dismiss that only verifies the distortion of our understanding of history.

Nevertheless, Gökalp’s triptych involved explicating the relationship modernism has with being a Turk and a Muslim. Is there an inherent challenge between Islam and modernity, or do the gates of ijtihad need to be re-opened in order for Islamic reform to take place, allowing modernity to flourish? Gökalp rejected the şeriat or Islamic jurisprudence because he believed it to be inadequate and rigid to the ever-changing processes of modern society and claimed that şeyh-ül-Islam (Islamic officials and religious courts) and the medrese (religious schools) need to be transferred to the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Education respectively. The Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) remained the only single party to rule until Turkey transitioned to the multi-party system in 1946. The fall of Nazi Germany and their fascist regime had the greatest impact for this political modification and it was generally acknowledged that in order to accomplish a modern society, Turkey required less totalitarian restrictions.

The synergy between maintaining political secularism and democracy vis-à-vis Islam has become an important issue when discussing Turkish laicist politics, or broadly speaking whether Islam and democracy is even compatible. The Ottoman Empire applied numerous kanun (law) into its structural matrix that enabled the Sultan to exercise Ottoman laws as a seperate and secular system to that of Shari’a or Islamic jurisprudence. In addition to this, Sufism played a predominant role in Ottoman life and many authorities were immersed into the mysticism that favoured a more tolerant approach to the rigidity of the conservative religious establishment. This gave the fabric of society the necessary flexibility needed to manage the varying cultural groups where crimes could not be tried under Islamic sharia. With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Ziya Gölkalp became the leading figure who influenced the ambitions of the Young Turks (Committee of Union and Progress) and their nationalist plight to eliminate religion in political and social life, in particular Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Father of the Turks). After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey was declared under the leadership of Atatürk, he attempted to reform the country and create a modern nation-state, a problem that remains today with parties like the MHP and the AKP who appeal to Sunni Islamic Orthodoxy as a predominant method of symbolic legitimisation. Turkish nationalists and conservatives began to associate a dialectical synthesis with Islam (Turk-Islam Sentezi).

It perplexes me how the Ottoman Empire that reigned in the region for so many centuries remains continuously ignored by contemporary Westerners who obscure historical narratives by purporting them as regressive and even barbaric, immediately deciding what they were despite the underlying fundamental assumptions that may have influenced this attitude. It is not to say that the Ottomans did not commit atrocious acts of mass violence, however to ignore historical facts that describe the very dynamic of a unique system that penetrated and influenced the region for centuries because of an underlying prejudice makes me wonder about the ambiguity of history, the problem of how history was written, by whom, and taught selectively in order to inspire greater pride for their own historical place. “If nationalism is formulated in such a system of differences (A: non-A), it tends to destroy heterogeneity. The Other is then seen as the knife on the throat of the Nation.” To try and capture the authenticity, one would need to re-examine their own intellectual framework in order to avoid an emotionally-rooted and eurocentric analysis.

Also see:

Andrew Davison, Secularism and Revivalism in Turkey: A Hermeneutic Reconsideration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) 92

David Shankland, The Turkish Republic at Seventy-Five Years. (Cambridgeshire: The Eothen Press, 1999) 60

lan Mcfarlane, “Louis Dumont and the Origins of Individualism” Cambridge Anthropology 16:1 (1993) 3

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