It’s hard to find a “neo-“ ideology that is so utterly detached from the original version than neo-Ottomanism, the political worldview associated with Turkey’s ruling Islamists, driven by a testosterone-filled re-imagination of a glorious imperial past.
In fact, the neo-Ottomanism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not only intellectually unrelated, but also diametrically opposed to the principles of the original Ottomanists, the nineteenth and early twentieth century proponents of pluralism, constitutionalism and parliamentarism in the Ottoman Empire.
There is, of course, a simple explanation for this. The term “neo-Ottomanism” was coined neither by modern-day advocates of Ottomanism, nor by political Islamists, but presumably by journalists or IR scholars more interested in Turkey’s geopolitics than its history. As it called attention to the imperial ambitions of the AKP’s foreign policy, it has been publicly rejected by leading government figures, including Erdoğan and his former foreign and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who is credited as being the architect of that policy.
Be that as it may, it was still difficult to miss the irony of watching commentaries on the “triumph of neo-Ottomanism” on 24 July, when Erdoğan was crowned the second conqueror of Istanbul, as he led the Friday prayer in the newly converted Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. The chosen date was doubly packed with revanchist symbolism. It has been widely noted that 24 July is the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, the founding agreement of the secular republic under which Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum; a historic account that generations of political Islamists vowed to settle. Fewer people noticed that it was also the anniversary of the Ottoman Constitutional Revolution of 1908, which marked the short-lived victory of Ottomanism against the absolutist rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the tragic hero of Turkey’s Islamists.
An inclusive notion of citizenship
The original Ottomanists were a diverse lot. They included the powerful bureaucrats of the Tanzimat era, who were driven not so much by a democratic purpose but by the practical urgency of saving the empire from disintegration and restoring state authority, the patriotic “Young Ottoman” critics of Hamidian despotism, revolutionary members of the Committee of Union and Progress, as well as liberal-minded Ottomans of all millets – Muslims, Greeks, Armenians and Jews – who yearned for a cosmopolitan future under a constitutional monarchy. At its core, Ottomanism represented a belief in the necessity to establish an inclusive notion of citizenship, based on equality before (secular) law regardless of race or religion, and a pluralistic view of society, where diverse identities would be united under a shared Ottoman civic identity (Osmanlılık).
If we were to search for a “neo” version of Ottomanism reflecting these aspirations in modern Turkey, we would find it not in Erdoğan’s neo-imperialism, but in the left-liberal intellectual strand that emerged in the 1990s and advocated redefining citizenship on the basis of a shared belonging to Turkey (Türkiyelilik) that would allow for the expression of diverse sub-identities. In other words, instead of assimilating majority-Muslim ethnic groups into a monolithic “Turkishness” and excluding non-Muslims, as the Turkish Republic had sought to do since its foundation, it proposed layered expressions of identity, such as “Turk from Turkey” (Türkiyeli Türk), “Kurd from Turkey” (Türkiyeli Kürt) or “Armenian from Turkey” (Türkiyeli Ermeni).
The Ottomanists thought that the only way to preserve the empire’s integrity was through redefining the relationship between its diverse communities.
Like the original Ottomanists, Turkey’s would-be neo-Ottomanists were in close contact with western ideas, fashions and institutions. While the constitutionalism of the American revolution and the egalitarianism of the French revolution inspired the former group in the nineteenth century, it was the liberal democratic principles of the European Union that influenced the latter at the turn of the twenty-first century. The Ottomanists thought that the only way to preserve the empire’s integrity was through redefining the relationship between its diverse communities. Turkey’s pluralists believed that the only way achieve to peace in Turkey was through an honest introspection into the cataclysmic loss of that diversity during the transition from empire to nation-states. Unsurprisingly, both ideas faced ferocious opposition from followers of rival ideologies, namely Islamism and Turkish nationalism.
Rise and fall of optimism
The Tanzimat pashas and the Young Ottoman intellectuals supported the ascent of Abdulhamid II to the throne in 1876 on the condition that he proclaim the empire’s first constitution and assemble a parliament. This coalition proved to be short lived, as Abdulhamid suspended both institutions with a state of emergency declared during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 - 78. As the sultan went on to restore absolute monarchy, build a police state and pursue a pan-Islamist foreign policy, the Young Ottomans reorganised as an opposition movement underground and in European exile.
Abdulhamid’s three-decade reign came to an end when a new generation of liberals, nationalists and revolutionaries, led by the Young Turk officers, rose up against the sultan and restored the parliament and the constitution in 1908. This “second constitutional era” ushered in a period of exceptional optimism and liberties that was undermined by the devastating losses of the Balkan Wars and cut short by the coup d’état of 1913, when the radical wing of the Young Turk movement seized power and steered the empire into its final ruin in pursuit of pan-Turkist ambitions in the First World War.
Like the Young Ottomans, Turkey’s left-liberal intelligentsia supported the rise of Erdoğan’s AKP in the early 2000s, hoping that the Islamists would unravel the Turkish military’s grip on state institutions and push the country towards the European Union. Like their Ottoman predecessors, they were abandoned by their European allies and cast aside by the Islamists as soon as the latter consolidated their grip on power.
Like their Ottoman predecessors, they were abandoned by their European allies and cast aside by the Islamists as soon as the latter consolidated their grip on power.
In the summer of 2013, a younger generation of liberals, nationalists and revolutionaries rose up against Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic rule, imposition of a Sunni-Turkish social engineering project, and pursuit of executive presidentialism. That pursuit appeared to be stopped in its tracks when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in June 2015, thanks in large part to the electoral success of the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), which advocated a renewed vision of Türkiyelilik, and its charismatic co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş, whose energised opposition to Erdoğan drew the support of many Turks and Kurds.
The window for democratic restoration that opened with the June election was forced shut with the eruption of violence between the Turkish government and the PKK in the radicalising midst of the Syrian war, and the repeat election in November, which handed the control of the legislature back to the AKP. It was locked and sealed with the declaration of state of emergency and the purges that followed the coup attempt of July 2016.
Seeing himself in the shoes of Abdulhamid, but eager to avoid his fate, Erdoğan struck a Faustian bargain with Turkey’s ultra-nationalists to secure his grip on power and put a nail in the coffin of the country’s parliamentary democracy. Proponents of democratic pluralism – from Demirtaş to human rights defender and philanthropist Osman Kavala – have since been branded as traitors and terrorists, harassed and intimidated, imprisoned or forced into exile.
Ultimately, both expressions of pluralism failed because they were unable to sustain popular support beyond the confines of the activist and intellectual circles that endorsed them. Osmanlılık and Türkiyelilik came to be seen as awkward and inauthentic constructs, artificially imposed by men and women derided by their critics as gullible and out of touch at best, and as collaborators at worst. For many Muslims in the Ottoman Empire and Turks in Turkey, these pluralist visions represented the loss of a superior status implicit in the social contracts of the empire and the republic. Nor did they manage to convince those Christians in the empire and those Kurds in the republic, who were already committed to the cause of nationalism and the pursuit of independence.
Ultimately, both expressions of pluralism failed because they were unable to sustain popular support beyond the confines of the activist and intellectual circles that endorsed them.
Beset by the distrust amongst the communities they sought to bring together, and lacking a sustainable enemy to mobilise against beyond the strongmen in power, the pluralists could not compete with the mass appeal of Islamism and the clashing nationalisms of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey; emotive ideologies that emphasised in-group homogeneity and out-group hostility, and surged in times of existential angst and radicalism spurred by wars and refugee crises.
In his magnum opus Cereyanlar (“Currents”), which traces the intellectual trajectory of modern Turkey’s political ideologies, Tanıl Bora wrote, “Ottomanism lost its credibility, latest in the Balkan Wars, but it nonetheless left a trail as the source of a non-ethno-centric understanding of patriotism… a defeated and weak trail.” Turkey’s “real” neo-Ottomanists picked up that frail trail and carried it into the twenty-first century. Though they too have been weakened and defeated, the stubborn vision of a tolerant and democratic Turkey, honest about its troubled past and at peace with its present self, has yet to be vanquished. For those who feel dejected by the sultan’s neo-Ottoman chest beating, but are not overly enthused by the nationalistic credentials of the opposition bloc confronting him, that doggedness remains the only glimmer of hope and consolation.