Who represents Ottomanism in Turkish politics?

Ottomanism is a critical concept in Turkey with which Islamic groups, including nationalists, proudly identify themselves.

Yet, while Islamic groups present themselves as actors continuing the political and cultural legacy of the Ottomans, they present secularists as symbolising the radical rupture with it.

But, do the Islamic groups really represent the Ottomans politically and culturally?

The Ottoman Empire was a comparatively successful example of the Turkish-Islamic cosmopolitanism. By cosmopolitan, I mean the urban high culture that was made of elites of various religious and ethnic backgrounds.

On this account, the Ottomans can be compared with the Abbasid cosmopolitan order, which was a brilliant chapter of the Islamic history on many accounts.

In the 18th century, the Ottoman elites adopted an intensive course of Westernisation to overcome structural problems in fields ranging from economics to the military.

The Ottoman modernisation reached its peak with the 1839 Tanzimat reforms that symbolise the empire’s grand aspiration of reorganising itself, even at the social level in line, according to a Western model.

However, such an ambitious agenda created a deep reaction in the Ottoman periphery, which quickly labelled it culturally and religiously a dangerous process.

The resentment of the Ottoman periphery is important to understand contemporary Turkish politics since it is the historical and sociological bedrock of the present day Islamic movement in Turkey.

Particularly in the Republican period from 1923 onwards, Islamic groups gradually became more reflective of the local Anatolian culture and mostly recruited from villages, small towns or newly urbanised groups still under the influence of traditional culture.

Naturally, Islamic groups – under the deep impact of their local Anatolian culture – reinterpreted both Islam and Turkish history mostly in the form of rejecting the Ottoman cosmopolitan, urban and pro-Western worldview.

As a multicultural empire, the Ottoman order had many different groups playing important roles, such as Greeks and Armenians. Yet the Ottoman cosmopolitanism was not limited to the non-Muslims. The Ottomans for example had representatives in their parliament from Kurdistan. Or, there were schools teaching in Circassian in Istanbul in the early years of the 1900s.

Other examples of this cosmopolitanism are Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz, who was a composer of waltzes, and Sultan Abdulhamid II, a great admirer of ballet. The members of the royal dynasty were themselves examples of the Ottoman cosmopolitan, urban and pro-Western lifestyle. The Ottoman cosmopolitan high culture was indeed not limited with the dynasty: Mecelle, the first Ottoman civil code, was a brilliant example of harmonising modernity with traditional Islamic law.

By contrast, the sociological and intellectual origins of the present day Islamic movement are traced back to the Ottoman periphery. Thus, the Turkish Islamic leaders have continued reflecting their peripheral characteristics as well as their reservations and resentment towards the cosmopolitan and urban Ottoman lifestyle.

Witnessing dancing high school girls, Said Nursi, the founder of the Nurcu Islamist movement born in the eastern town of Bitlis, wrote that he cried for the girls’ miserable condition.

Nursi was not the only case. Many of the founding fathers of the contemporary Islamic movement emerged in the Ottoman periphery where there was a deep resentment against Westernisation. Abdülhakim Arvasi, Mehmed Zahid Kotku, Esad Erdebili, and Ahmed Ziyaüddin Gümüşhanevi; each of these names played key roles in the formation of various Islamic groups in Turkey.

Naturally, having their origins in the Ottoman periphery, they brought their cultural baggage along with their interpretations of Islam as well as history.

For example, Mehmed Zahid Kotku, the legendary name of the Turkish Naqshbandiyya tradition who had a great impact on current Islamist political actors, lamented in one of his books that modernisation made people forget their cultural traditions. For Kotku, new practices such as eating at table or from one’s own individual plate were assaults to Turkish Islamic culture.

Kotku is a typical example of peripheral resentment of the Ottoman cosmopolitan elites’ modernisation agenda.

He also harshly criticised new behaviour such as wearing a tie, Western-style trousers and shoes. He was sure that such new trends, which he said were “civilisational only in name”, were a threat to traditional culture.

This approach, which sees Ottoman modernisation as a disaster according to conservative Anatolian peripheral culture, later developed its own historical narrative.

As a typical populist narrative, however, it was mostly detached from historical realities and it reinvented the Ottomans as if they were the agents of the Anatolian peripheral culture.

Thus, it carefully erased three components of the Ottoman high culture: cosmopolitanism, Westernisation and the secular (orfi) traits of the Ottoman system.

Though it may sound surprising, the true successors of Ottoman high culture, particularly at the bureaucratic and intellectual levels, were the Kemalist secularists. The largely urban groups – who had represented Ottoman high culture – adapted to the secular regime of the Republican period and continued the process of Westernisation, but this time within the radical framework of Kemalism.

But the secular Kemalists also rejected Ottoman cosmopolitanism. Instead, they adopted a radical nation-building agenda aiming to create a nation state from the debris of the Ottoman state.

Ironically, the radical nationalist agenda resulted in the complete Turkification and Islamisation of Anatolian demography.

Thus, any study dealing with the Islamisation of Anatolia should recognise the historical and exceptional role that Kemalism played.

Consequently, Islamic groups have rejected key components of Ottoman high culture such as it secular traits, as well as its pro Western orientation.

On the other hand, though continuing the secularist and pro-Western Ottoman traits, Kemalist groups have never approved of Ottoman-style cosmopolitanism. They naively believed a homogenous Anatolia would be sufficient to breed a secular and pro-Western order in Turkey.

Ironically, though they fight with each other on many issues, Islamic and Kemalist groups have developed a division of labour where each group destroyed a substantial component of the Ottoman legacy.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.