Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Young Turks

Steve Muhlberger

One of the most important ways that Muslims have tried to meet the European challenge has been through nationalism.
One of the earliest such movements and one of the ones with the greatest impact on Islamic and world history was Turkish nationalism.

Neither the rulers nor the subjects of the Ottoman Empire during the earlier 19th century considered themselves Turks, at least not Turks first.  Europeans may have called that state “Turkey,” and its dominant members “Turks,” but the people they were talking about did not identify themselves in that way.

The reason for this:  the Ottoman Empire was thought of, traditionally, as a Muslim state.  It had been created by a Turkish dynasty, with the support of many Turks, but that was, at least in later centuries, something of an irrelevance.  The language of culture, administration, and the upper class generally was Turkish, but it was not an ordinary Turkish.   It was a learned language heavily influenced by the most prestigious language of later Muslim civilization, Persian.   This language, and the culture of people who used it, were not the language of the ordinary Turkish people who lived in a number of places, notably in the interior of Anatolia (the country we now think of as Turkey).   People of culture and importance thought of themselves either as “Ottomans” or “Muslims,” probably the latter more than the former.

So the struggle to modernize the empire which we talked about before should not be seen as a struggle to find a way that Turks and other peoples could live together in what was originally a Turkish state.   Christians probably did see these efforts and attempts to save Turkish power at Christian expense.  But the Muslim reformers, upper-class, liberal reformers, were trying to build a new Ottoman nationality that would unify all the religiously defined communities of the empire into a single new community.  For that reason, they met a lot of opposition both from Christians, who were trying to define new national communities, and from Muslims.

The defeat of liberalism by Sultan Abdul Hamid in the 1870s, the huge loss of Ottoman territory, and the renewed absolutism of the Sultan slowly changed the face of reform, and its goals.

The identity of the reformers changed.  The old-style liberal reformers, who had largely been members of the Ottoman establishment, had been damaged by executions and exile in the repression, and under Abdul Hamid’s unsympathetic rule, had no chance to work for the changes in Ottoman culture that they had long felt were necessary.  However Abdul Hamid’s own efforts to strengthen his power and that of the state created a new wave of would-be reformers.  Abdul Hamid built schools and encouraged technical education because it was obviously necessary.  However, many of the products of those schools became opponents of his regime and his entire strategy of absolutism based on the traditional position of the Sultan and the Caliph.

Although all sorts of people became Young Turks  (a movement officially called the Committee of Union and Progress), we can say several things about them.  In contrast to earlier constitutionalists and liberals, they were generally not from important families and had not enjoyed brilliant careers in the bureaucracy.  Also unlike the earlier reformers, they had little attachment to the high Ottoman culture of the past, or its Turco-Persian style and language.  Instead, these Young Turks were educated in a practical manner, as soldiers, as modern bureaucrats, even as linguists (since knowledge of the European world in European languages was very important).

Also, many if not all of them were of ethnic Turkish background.  This last fact is very important.  Although early in their movement and early in the period when they controlled the government, the Young Turks thought of themselves as building a new Ottoman nationality, unconsciously and later consciously they thought of  true Ottomans as being people like themselves, Turks—not Arabs, not  Albanians, certainly not Greeks or Armenians.

The Young Turk was the best organized of many secret revolutionary organizations that grew up in the last years of the Ottoman Empire.

During the early 1900s, however, dissatisfaction of all kinds got closer to the surface.  The worst of the trouble was in Macedonia, the most valuable remaining part of Ottoman-ruled Europe.   It was the place where nationalities were most mixed, and a satisfactory solution to nationalist pressure was most difficult.  Even today, the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia is the subject of much dispute.   In the 1890s and early 1900s, the situation was even more complicated.  Possession of the major city of Salonika was the goal of Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians and even Austria-Hungary, while the Muslims had no intention of giving it up.

As a result, the area was filled with secret societies and armed gangs, some Christian, some Muslim.  Not only were the Christian groups agitating for “reform,” as a way towards independence, but Macedonia was filled with people who had uprooted themselves from areas annexed by Christian countries in 1878.  It was in this situtation, which seems reminiscent of the early stages of the recent Bosnian conflict, and on this battleground where the survival of the Ottoman Empire seemed to be at stake, that the Committee of  Union and Progress got its start.  The challenge before the Committee seemed to be this:  if there was no Ottoman regeneration, then the disorder in Macedonia would eventually doom Ottoman Europe.

In fact, there was good reason to fear this.   In 1902-3 there had been an uprising in Macedonia, and intervention by the European  powers.  In 1905, the Europeans had with the threat of force compelled the Ottoman government to reform the administration of Macedonia to their liking.   After this the Young Turk leadership started making connections with dissatisified groups at home, especially junior officers and some moderately high-up officials in Macedonia’s chief city, Salonika.  There were plenty of such dissatisfied people.  They were disgusted by the weakness of the Sultan’s government, and fearful of the loss of one more key province.

In 1908, the Committee of Union and Progress was big enough in Macedonia, especially in the III Army stationed there, that the risk of discovery was growing.  When an indiscrete letter by a new recruit to a relative sparked a police investigation, some of the CUP members in Salonika rose against the government.  The army, instead of suppressing the revolt, joined it, and pretty soon the CUP was in a position to demand the restoration of the Ottoman constitution of 1876.  A new parliament was elected and an experienced bureaucrat became Garnd Vizir.

In early 1909, then, it looked like the dreams of constitutional government and modern reform of the empire might be coming true.  But the establishment of an orderly government on new lines met several obstacles.

First, the empire’s neighbors immediately reacted to the revolution by attacking it.  The motivation for these anti-Ottoman moves seems to have been the fear that the revolution might succeed in revitalizing the empire, so everybody grabbed while grabbing was still possible.  As in 1876, there was no international support for constitutional or parliamentary government; it was seen either as a threat or a source of disorder that might be exploited.

Second, there was no clear leadership within the new Ottoman government.  The organization with the greatest support was the CUP.   It had been able to parlay this prestige into the election of a majority of parliament.  Not all of these M.P.s were Turks or Muslims,  either.   However, the CUP did not form the government.  The Grand Vizir was not a Young Turk, nor was the rest of his cabinet.  The Grand Vizir, named Kamil Pasha, rather despised the nobodies who had accidentally led the revolution.  He thought they could be brushed away.

Curiously enough, the Young Turks were very much aware of their own shortcomings.  They had no experience at the top level of government.  Their party was hardly a party at all.  The M.P.s elected under their banner were a very diverse lot, and not subject to any form of party discipline.  They knew, in other words, that they had won the revolution—so far—by accident, and felt the best they could do was push for reform from the second rank of government.

A third problem is that the government faced a lot of internal opposition.  People of all sorts hoped for a more decentralized empire in which they could have more of a say without the interference of an establishment in Constantinople that they all distrusted.  On the other hand, there were also conservative elements who were against any of the changes the revolution had brought so far and might bring in the future.  They held on to the symbolism of rule by the Sultan and the Caliph.  Both decentralization and rule by the Sultan on traditional lines were anathema to the CUP.  Their goal was a united, revitalized, modern Ottoman nation.

The Young Turks were soon put in the position of taking control of events or being pushed aside.  They quickly became dissatified with the Grand Vizir, Kamil Pasha, and using their parlaimentary strength to force him out.  This in turn inspired a conservative rising in the capital.    For a moment, the conservatives were in charge again, until an army from Macedonia arrived to put them down.  In the aftermath, the CUP and the army emerged as leading elements in the government.  The government proceeded to depose Abdul Hamid in favor of his brother, who was easily controlled, and the constitution was amended to give the parliament control over the cabinet.  Formally, at least, the empire was now approaching parliamentary government more or less as it was practiced in Britain or France, and freer than the government of Russia or Germany.

However, the government was not a liberal one.   The authorities in the various regions of the empire were often the same people who had been in office in the time of Abdul Hamid, and their reaction to demonstrations or agitation of any sort was the same as it was in the past—force.  Armenian demonstrations in 1909 resulted in massacres inflicted on them by Muslims, who may or may not have been encouraged by the Muslim authorities.  In 1910, there was an insurrection in Albania—a Muslim province—which  was put down with great bloodshed by the army.  There was trouble in Arab provinces, too.  Books written by Europeans put such things down to the ferocity of a new Turkish nationalism.  But I’m not sure this is true.  At this point, the motivation was probably Ottoman nationalism, a desire to keep the empire together.  Other people may have been identifying the government and the CUP as Turkish oppressors or Turkish nationalists, but I don’t think the government or CUP leadership—not quite the same thing at this point—saw itself as fighting for a Turkish cause.

All this disorder led to European attacks.  First the Italians seized Libya, then Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece attacked Turkey.   At the same time the Albanians rose up and declared their independence.  When the smoke cleared, the empire had lost all of its European provinces except Thrace, the area closest to Constantinople.

This was a great crisis, but the CUP and the Young Turk cause emerged strengthened from it.  Non-CUP elements in the imperial government, old-line administrators and liberal politicians got the blame for the losses—and seemed to have deserved it.  The patriotic elements, the army and the CUP, got credit for saving the city of Edirne (Adrianople) from the enemy.   From 1913, the Young Turks were firmly in control of the government.

They were also in the process of turning themselves into true Turkish nationalists.  As long as the empire had held the ethnically mixed European provinces, it was hard to avoid the ideal of a  multi-ethnic empire.  But with most of Europe gone, the core of the empire  was now Constantinople plus Anatolia, the Asian peninsula inhabited primarily by Turks.  Although the empire still had large Arab provinces, they were a depressed area and had been for a long time.  No one in Constantinople took them seriously.  The essential nature of the state, in the eyes of Turkish-speaking leaders based in Constantinople, was now recognized as  Turkish..

What, after the great crisis, was the future of the Turkish people?

The more advanced thinkers among the nationalists thought the Turks should now become a secular nation on the European model.  Far in the past, the Turks had adopted the Arabian religion of Islam, and the Persian literary and artistic culture, because they were the most advanced in the world.  But, said the new Turkish nationalists, these ideas and instituitons were now bankrupt.  They had been holding back the Turks for generations.  It was time to turn away from them and adopt the new values of Europe.

In other words, the Young Turks were willing to cut loose from almost everything that had defined their identity in the past.  The only way they could see forward to a great future was through the rejection of everything that had been considered important by Ottomans in the past:  their learned culture; their governmental traditions; their self-identification as Muslims among other Muslims.  They would jettison all that, holding on only to their Turkish language and their Turkish folk culture; on these, they would build a new, modern, secular national identity on the European model.

This was a daring project.  Was it possible?


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.