Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

A Modernizing Regime:  the Ottoman Empire

Steve Muhlberger

The Ottoman Empire was undoubtedly the strongest Muslim power of the 19th century, and as such enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy in its response to the European challenge.  But as in the case of Egypt, that autonomy was more restricted than it might appear on first glance.  Like Egypt, the Ottoman Empire had to submit to humiliating treatment from European countries, though it managed to retain some independence over the course of the 19th century.

Large and as historically important as the empire was, it was commonly called  "the Sick Man of Europe."  There were several reasons for this.

To understand the third point, it is necessary to look at the situation of Christians under Ottoman rule.

The Christians and Jews of the empire had a special status within it.  They were treated as distinct religious communities (millets) who had no say in the larger affairs of monarchy, but enjoyed a certain autonomy within their own group.  “Having no say in the larger affairs” meant, in a theoretically absolute monarchy, that individual Christians could not hold imperial or provincial office, and that individual Christian adults could not join the army—they were not even conscripted into it.  “Enjoying a certain autonomy” meant that the Ottoman authorities dealt with chosen leaders, who controlled certain properties, the collection of taxes within the millet, and with judicial matters that only affected members of that community.

Since the millets were considered religious groups, the Christian communities were ruled by their clergy, with little or no input from lay leaders or ordinary people.  In many cases, the conquest had entirely destroyed the lay nobility, and the millets were made up of  a subject peasantry headed by a small clerical elite, which might or might not be drawn from the peasantry.  For instance, the people of Moldavia and Wallachia, who now call themselves Rumanians, and who then and now spoke a language based on Latin, were, because they were part of the Orthodox church, subject to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and effectively ruled by a rich Greek group based in that city.  Likewise the Bulgarians were ruled by a Greek clergy.

The result of this system meant that the various Christian groups were encapsulated, isolated from outside world, relegated to a very backward existence.   Under such circumstances, you can see that various Christian groups would have no clear idea of a “national” identity.

However, in the 19th century, this situation began to change.

First, there was a revival of “national” feeling among many different linguistic groups.  Some of it was quite indigenous, as educated clerics of certain backgrounds, poking around in their cultural past, rediscovered their national glory.  Ideas of this sort were also inspired by the example of the French in the French revolution.  People all over Europe saw the French Revolution as a case of a people renewing their national and political identity, and wanted to do likewise.  (Early 19th century Germany for example felt itself a backward country in this regard;  French was the language of the nobility.)

The position of Christians in the empire was also affected by the increasing involvement of western and central Europeans in the Ottoman trade.

Western merchants doing business in the empire had never been particularly happy about how their position as infidels would affect their legal position if their was a dispute.  Also, the judicial bodies of the empire were both arbitrary and corrupt.  This had led them to do two things.

Both of these strategies encouraged the Christians of the empire to look west and take their cues from the rest of Europe.   Not only were many Christians in touch with intellectual developments in Europe—and not many Muslims were—Christians involved in such contact were able to get recognition as Europeans within the empire.   In other words, if a Christian in Alexandria or Salonika did a lot of business with Venetian or British companies, he might get  the Venetian or British consul tell the Ottoman government that he, the Christian merchant should no longer be treated as a subject of the Sultan but as a subject of the republic of Venice or the King of Great Britain.

So during the early 19th century, the relationship between Muslims and Christians in the empire was almost reversed.  In the past, the Christians had been encapsulated in their various millets, isolated from high culture, positions of influence in the empire, and the whole outside world.  Now, some Christians were in a privileged position.  They had access to the economic privileges of European contact; they were increasingly part of the cultural world of the dominant west; they had political leverage thanks to their European connections.  Muslims still ruled the empire, of course, but that was an increasingly precarious position.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, the weakness of the Ottoman empire had become very obvious.    The Greek revolt was particularly dangerous.  It was supported in England, elsewhere in Western Europe and in Russia for sentimental part because of the brutality of the Turkish government to the rebels, and in part for sentimental reasons.   The combination of Western European and Russian influence forced the Ottomans to allow the establishment of a Greek kingdom (which was given a German prince as its first king).

The Greek revolt of the 1820s and 1830s and its European-dictated resolution (which also resulted in autonomy for Moldavia and Wallachia) showed the perilous state of the Ottoman empire.  The empire’s survival was now dependent on the good will of Russia and Britain, and to a certain extent France and Austria.

Although European governments wanted the empire to be kept intact, to keep other European governments out, they often intervened in a disruptive way.

The best excuses the Christian powers had for intervening in the Empire were the brutality of the Muslim rulers toward their Christian subjects, and the fact that Christians were not accepted as being equals to Muslims.  These excuses had some basis in reality.   However, there was a certain insincerity about the Christian stance.  Not only did Christian powers use these levers for their own political economic interests, the Christian subjects of the Sultan also manipulated these issues.  It would be hard to argue that any of the organized political movements among Christians were just “civil rights” movements, which would have been satisfied with legal and social equality.  They all were, or very quickly became, separatist movements, striving for autonomy as a first step toward  ultimate independence.

This left the governing class of the empire in quite a fix. The need for reform was clear:  there was a need to transform the empire into a modern, economically dynamic, and technologically up-to-date state.  All the problems of proud Muslims facing the challenge of  Europe were there.  But there was this complicating factor of the Christian minorities in Europe and even in Syria and Armenia.  Their existence posed the question:  what kind of modern state would a revived Ottoman empire be?  Would it be a state in which all citizens, independent of their religious faith, were equal in status and rights?  Would Christians accept this, if it could be implemented?  And could it be implemented?  Would Muslims accept that the empire their ancestors had built in the name of Islam would no longer be a state where Muslims and Islamic institutions were supreme?

The Ottoman government took these problems seriously.   It was dominated in mid-century by individual ministers who were very serious about educational reform, administrative reform, and military reform.  They initiated a policy of Tanzimat, or reorganization, and went some way to reforming the relationship between the Muslim government and the millets.  But there was a lot of footdragging from conservative elements, and impatience from people who thought that reform was going entirely too slowly.  Even the most enlightened ministers were very arbitrary and paternalistic in their attitudes..  They only very gradually began introducing some popular institutions on the provincial level, assemblies that had some elected elements.

Critics wanted more.  They wanted much wider political representation on the imperial level, so as to mobilize the population of the empire, or at least its best elements (in their view), to push forward the renewal of the state.  In particular they wanted a constitutional government. Even these critics, who considered themselves liberals, tended to believe that such liberalism could only be extended to the educated elite of society, those who were willing to break with outmoded superstitions and values.  In other words, modernization in the empire tended to be the concern of very upper-class Muslims.

In the late 1870s, the Empire stumbled into a great crisis that almost destroyed it and did transform it.  It began with a revolt of the Serbs in Herzegovina, which quickly spread to Bosnia next door (1875).   The uprising was met by a fierce but successful response by the Ottoman government, despite the eventual intervention of the Serbs of autonomous Serbia (1876).   This upset the Russians in particular, who considered themselves the big brothers of all the Balkan Slavs.  However, Britain wanted to keep the Russians from too dominant a role in the Balkans or at the straits of Constantinople, and did its best to prevent intervention.

Then, a second crisis blew up.  There was a revolt in Bulgaria (early 1876) as well, and another savage repression.  Despite the best efforts of the British cabinet to keep people cool, the Bulgarian Horrors (as they were called by the British Liberal leader Gladstone) turned British opinion around, and made it impossible for Britain to be too active in favor of the Empire against the Russians.   At the same time, the Russians invaded. (1877)

Simultaneously, exciting things were happening in Constantinople (1876-77).  The handling of the revolts, the foreign policy crisis, and the collapse of the government’s finances had discredited the court.  Liberals were able to force the Sultan and his ministers to accept a constitution and mandate the election of an Ottoman parliament.  In very short order, one was elected and meeting in the capital.

It probably would have taken a crisis like this to push the empire in the direction of constitutional government, but it was a very bad time to actually implement a change in favor of more regular government.  Modern research has shown that the provincial notables elected to the parliament had a fair idea of what needed to be done, but the government was preoccupied by the Russian army that, in support of the Bulgarians, marched all the way to Constantinople, and forced the empire to grant Bulgarian effective independence within very wide boundaries.

This settlement did not stand for very long.  Britain got back into the act to restrain Russia, and a major international conference, the Congress of Berlin was held in 1878 to settle the affairs of the Balkans.  This new settlement was very important, because it not only led to the First World War, but changed the face of Ottoman politics.

The Treaty of Berlin stripped the empire of much of its European territory:

The Bulgarians and the Serbians were actually very disappointed, because they had hoped for more.  The Serbs were infuriated when Bosnia, Herzegovina and Novipazar were occupied by Austria-Hungary, which was afraid of too strong a Serbia on its southern boundary.  This question of Bosnia touched off the First World War and is still being fought about today.

More important for our purposes is the way the situation of the empire had changed.  The settlement forced on the empire helped scuttle the attempt at constitutional government.  A new Sultan, Abdul Hamid, closed down the parliament and brought in a new absolutism.  There was not a word of protest about this from the European powers.  This says something about the sincerity of European demands for reform, or perhaps something about anti-Turkish prejudice.  There is quite a bit of anti-Turkish prejudice in the 20th century books on the subject.

Up until 1908, Sultan Abdul Hamid was in control of the imperial government.  He followed a dual strategy.

First, he posed as an upholder of the traditional institutions and sources of greatness of the Ottoman empire.  He was the Sultan and the Caliph, the upholder of the Muslim cause, the defender of the Shariah of the religious-based law of Islam.  His emphasis on these titles had a strong international importance.  This was a time of great insecurity for Muslims, and the idea that there was still a Caliph somewhere had great symbolic value, in British India for instance.  At the same time, the willingness of the government to tolerate Christian nationalism decreased significantly.
Second, Abdul Hamid implemented a great deal of technical modernization:  things like railroads and telegraphs.  Technical education was greatly extended.  In so far as modern techniques could strengthen the imperial government, Abdul Hamid was in favor of it.  It was remarked upon that the Turkish police forces, especially the political police were very up-to-date.

However, the empire was not in good shape.  The new Christian states on its borders and the major Christian powers were chipping away at the empire, or planning to.   Foreign interference in the internal affairs of the core provinces was still great and increasing.  The situation is in fact similar to that of Egypt under Khedive Ismail in the 1860s and 1870s.  Foreign banks and French financiers in particular held so much government debt that eventually the government had to hand over control of the customs duties to their representatives.

So Abdul Hamid’s strategy did not really deal with the weakness of the Ottoman Empire vis-à-vis the European powers, and did not defuse the problem of Christian minorities.

If there was any effect, it was to spread dissatisfaction among the Muslim subjects of the empire.  Abdul Hamid’s technical and Western-style education created a new group of modern-minded people.  These were not important aristocrats or bureaucrats who felt that, given the levers of power, they could straighten things out.  They were “middle class,” in the loosest sense of the term, people who from their own experience understood the opportunities of modernization and the weakness of traditional Ottoman culture in the 19th century context.  They were the Ottoman equivalent of Ibn Urabi in Egypt.  They knew that Abdul Hamid’s traditionalist pose was no answer to the challenges of the time.  Drastic change would have to come, or the Ottoman nation—as they increasingly thought of it—was doomed.  Some of them were concerned enough to begin organizing in secret for the defense and the transformation of the fatherland.  This is the soil out of which the Young Turk movement would eventually come.  We will look at this movement in a later lecture.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.