The Republic of Turkey, founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, spent most of the last century deliberately framing itself as the opposite of much that was Ottoman or even Islamic. Yet the Ottoman legacy remains tangible in many parts of Turkey’s geography and culture, and the Turkish people have become increasingly fascinated by their long-belittled past.
A taste for post-Ottoman chic (and kitsch) emerged in the 1990s, cropping up in places from restored Greek taverns to mosque design. The once-banished Ottoman royal family began making it into the society pages. For the secular rich, a restored Ottoman mansion became the desirable abode. The trend has reached new heights since 2002, as the pro-Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan restored parts of Istanbul to resemble an Ottoman Disneyland and blended neo-Ottoman themes into party ideology.
This has triggered a deeper debate. How much is Turkey still rooted in the Empire that held sway for centuries over territories in the Balkans and Middle East that now encompasses more than 30 modern states? And do these roots represent a past best forgotten, an inherited magnificence to be recreated or a cautionary history of the region’s ethnic, sectarian and historical cleavages?
Take, for instance, the scenes on the streets in front of my apartment building near Taksim Square during Istanbul’s 2013 summer of political unrest. “Now nothing will be like it was before,” read one slogan spray-painted onto a nearby wall. There was an intoxicating spontaneity and a freedom to say anything at all, out loud and in public—including egregious insults hurled by both the government and secularist sides. But was this outpouring on city walls and social media really so new? Was it a replay of Egyptians’ freedom-loving chants on Tahrir Square two years before? Or the Syrians’ later demonstrations? Or was this an echo of something from the Ottoman Empire, whose own pro-secular and pro-Islamist ructions in 1908-1909 reached a bloody climax in that same Taksim Square?
Prime Minister Erdoğan certainly thinks they are linked. He insistently uses an obscure insult, çapulcu (“looter”), as a label for the pro-secular demonstrators against his government, recalling the name given to Bulgarian irregulars who joined the secularists against the Ottoman Sultan in 1909. In a way, he may be right. Taksim and Tahrir’s praise of freedom, their early anti-sectarianism, and their heady moments of civil society asserting civic rights, do echo exactly those that inspired Ottoman public squares and meeting halls in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul in 1908-1909.
This early cycle of revolution and counter-revolution, of secularist nationalism and Islamism, is captured in vivid detail by the book Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, by American Middle East specialist Michelle U. Campos (Stanford University Press, 2011). Just as with the heady days of 2011 when Arab peoples were carried away by the dream of an ‘Arab Spring,’ Istanbul’s pro-constitution coup of 1908 swept the empire’s multi-ethnic citizenry off their feet.
Above all—as in Tahrir in 2011—the word “hurriyya”, or freedom, seemed to herald a new dawn. “It sometimes seems as if one lives in a dream” one resident of Jaffa writes to his friend in Beirut in 1908. Another, reformist Rafiz Al-Azm, wrote that “wherever I met an Ottoman friend who was known for his love of freedom, whether in Syria or Egypt, we became overwhelmed with emotions, and our eyes burst with tears for the joy that was within us.” In 2013, such spontaneity was an unprecedented feature in Turkey too, as thousands of ordinary pedestrians expressed euphoria and togetherness with impromptu waves of clapping along the length of İstiklal Street leading to Taksim.
If Twitter and Facebook define communications now, the social media of the earlier era lagged only slightly behind, to judge by the wealth of telegrams, letters, wire reports, posters, diary entries and newspaper columns quoted by Campos. Crowds in Palestine shouted “Long live the Padishah [Sultan]!”—because the sultan had brought back the secular constitution—just as Turkey’s crowds shouted “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s republican founder, who died in 1938 and invented Turkey’s secular constitution). In both Palestine then and Turkey today, months of extemporaneous meetings in parks and public places followed, in which all were welcome to express their views.
Among the Jews, Muslims and Christians in Palestine in 1908, and the Copts and Muslims in the first weeks of Tahrir in 2011, observers were astonished at the extent that people put aside differences to embrace and support each other. Then as now, the army leaned to the modernist side. Ottoman intellectuals’ narrative of “awakening,” “revolution,” “rebirth” and “throwing off tyranny” all “reasserted the empire’s role at the center of Europe rather than at its margins,” Campos argues. Similarly, the “occupy” spirit and “anti-authoritarian” language in Taksim and Tahrir persuaded European visitors in 2011-13 that these events were a breakthrough for Western values. The same language echoes in the title of Ashraf Khalil’s bracing account of Tahrir: Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation (St. Martin’s Press, 2012).
Another parallel binds these oft-scorned neighbors of Europe to the old continent. The old Sultan cultivated an image of divine-paternal-political omnipresence, copied from the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg or Russian Romanov dynasties, while today’s Taksim demonstrators attacked Erdoğan as a “Putin,” shorthand in their minds for an oppressive Russian autocrat. And to cap off the comparisons: just as Tehran’s Green Revolution of 2009 came two years before the Arab uprisings, so did the Iranian Revolution of 1906 come two years before the Ottoman upheavals.
Of course, there are differences too. The scenes of ethnic and sectarian intermingling during the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution were more extraordinary than in 2011, with priests, rabbis and imams hugging and kissing in front of everyone. It was also accompanied by real changes in laws and prisoners’ releases, it was an empire-wide affair against an Islamic establishment backed by the army and a strong new political secularist faction, the Committee of Union and Progress, and it roundly defeated a 1909 counter-revolution by pro-Sultan Islamists in the old Taksim Barracks. By contrast, if there is a region-wide political movement involved in the unrest today, it is pro-Islamic, including Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoods. There is no neat story line. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood now represents a failed revolution. Meanwhile, the AKP has overcome many traps laid by the pro-secular establishment and built itself into a new pro-Islamic status quo. Istanbul’s summer protests rumble on with tear gas-filled weekend moments on İstiklal, confounding the pro-Islamic Erdoğan, but not overthrowing him.
Neo-Ottoman aspects of Erdoğan’s policy, however, are clearly at a dead end. The AKP’s idealistic attempt in the late 2000s to create a Middle Eastern area of free trade, free movement of people, regular joint Cabinet meetings and infrastructure integration collapsed with the Arab uprisings. Erdoğan’s chief policy guru Ahmet Davutoğlu—foreign minister since 2009—denied this was an attempt to turn back the historical clock, and indeed it also looked like an attempt to copy the European Union’s success. But Davutoğlu read from Ottoman firmans (royal decrees) when visiting former Ottoman lands, drew attention to what he considered good Ottoman policies and publicly praised Ottoman leaders.
More dramatically, Davutoğlu repeatedly vowed to smash the Sykes-Picot agreement, the 1916 British-French pact that divided up the Middle Eastern lands of the Ottoman Empire. AKP leaders also seemed seduced by the ideal of Islamic brotherhood, disregarding the lessons of the Ottoman period. The Sublime Porte’s policy was rarely pan-Islamic and kept a suspicious eye on non-Ottoman Muslims. And the Turkish republic’s policy of caution, neutrality and commercial opportunism towards the Middle East was based on the memory of how pan-Ottomanism failed and realism about Turkey’s limited capacity for regional hegemony.
The republic’s skepticism was branded into the Turkish consciousness by how brutally short-lived the euphoria of the empire’s 1908 revolution proved to be. The 1909 Armenian massacres and Ottoman defeats in a new Balkan War made it even harder to keep all the empire’s religions and ethnicities in balance, and defeat in the First World War of 1914-18 devastated Turkey’s geography. Ultimately, the events of 1908-09 presaged the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—just as the Arab uprisings are now putting under pressure the Sykes-Picot borders drawn one century ago.
The 1908 upsurge of pan-Ottoman citizenship may not have survived imperial collapse, but other Ottoman ghosts live on. The long-lasting pain of the Greeks forced out of Anatolia in the 1923 population exchange has been excellently explained by Bruce Clark in his book Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (Granta, 2007). And a revelatory new book by French journalists Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier La Turquie et le fantôme arménien : Sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, 2013 (Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide) found much that has survived the genocidal massacres of Armenians in 1915: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second-hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, as well as songs and traditions that have blended into mainstream Turkish culture.
Do the Arab uprisings presage a worse fragmentation to come, a regional rebalancing as dramatic and bloody as the First World War? Michelle Campos’s book argues that the failure of Ottomanism was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that the 1908 outburst of togetherness and reform showed an empire that was arguably more tolerant than its European contemporaries. She also notes that later, the First World War’s European victors tried to buttress the political role they seized in the Middle East “by ignoring or even reversing the developments that had taken place in the last decade of Ottoman rule.”
Certainly, many Ottomans regretted the social disintegration. As Campos quotes an Ottoman Jewish writer in Liberty in November 1909: “Everyone says to give it time and our situation will improve … our situation gets worse by the day.” In Palestine, Campos argues, Zionism did not gain adherents so much as the failure of the idea of a common Ottoman identity lost the Zionists. She also details how the confused unscrambling of the imperial omelet made Arabs and Turks unintentionally lose their sense of common cause.
When Ottomanism did collapse, however, it rent apart the Middle East’s society and geography. Similarly, the retreat of the twentieth century order is today tearing open ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, even putting pressure on the fault-lines of Turkey, the region’s most stable and successful twentieth century state. Indeed, when Foreign Minister Davutoğlu rejoices that the whole twentieth century was an aberrant “parenthesis” that has now closed, this may mean more challenges than opportunities for Turkey. Already, Kurdish intellectuals demanding autonomy in Turkey today regularly use the same arguments as Michelle Campos quotes from the Arabs’ Decentralization Committee in 1913:
“Every thinking Arab who understands the meaning of life demands that his place will be side by side with the Turk in this empire…where neither of them takes advantage of the other….But if our brothers do not want to understand this fact … then the Arab people want life and will struggle for it.”