Sultan Abdul Hamid II
Sultan Mehmed V
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, national
hero who changed Turkey.
From 1876 and into the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who was also caliph to Sunni Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa – the caliph being the person who followed Muhammad the Prophet as Islam's leader and the servant of Islam's three holy cities: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The Sultan spoke of Allah as having entrusted him with the guardianship of the people. Beginning in 1876 there was a constitution that provided a legislative body. But legislation remained subject to the approval of the Sultan, and the Sultan appointed members to the upper of the body's two chambers.
The Ottomans had associated a loss of military power vis-a-vis Europe with internal disorder and had believed that the empire could strengthen itself by adopting some Western institutions. In place of the sharia, Ottoman authorities had constructed a legal system known as the Tanzimat. The Islamic scholars who had been a part of the sharia had quietly accepted their fall.
Sultan Hamid II ruled as an absolute monarch, and his subjects responded to him as if he were their true and pious sovereign. Most of his subjects – including some who did not like him much – were eager to demonstrate their submission to him by kissing his hands. Children at the end of their school day stood at attention in ranks and three times shouted, "Long Live the Sultan." Some others called the Sultan the Great Assassin or described him as a blood-soaked tyrant.
Under Hamid's rule, hostility to the West and pan-Islamism increased. Some among Hamid's devoted subjects boasted of the superiority of Arab civilization over European civilization. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire had been growing more involved with European bankers. Trade with the West had been increasing, and more Western technology was being acquired. Since 1883, the Orient Express railway had been in operation between the empire's capital city, Constantinople, and Paris, and there was also a new rail line between Constantinople and Baghdad.
Hamid was interested in buying luxury items from the West, but he wished to prevent the importation of ideas hostile to him and his manner of rule. His regime confiscated Western newspapers and magazines. Hamid was an autocrat. Back in late 1876 he had discarded the constitution and had been ruling since with an increasingly centralized government. He had spies everywhere within his empire and spied on his subjects who were abroad. He carried a gun and was always on edge about being assassinated. Anyone opposing his regime in the slightest detail also had to fear assassination – by one of Hamid's agents. Some of Hamid's disgruntled subjects referred to him as "the hangman."
Some ethnic minorities opposed Hamid's rule. Among them were the Armenians and the Kurds, and Hamid had sent the Kurds (who were Muslims) against the Armenians (who were Christian), producing in 1894 the slaughter of more than 300,000 Armenians.
The West was advancing in education, technology and military might while the Ottoman Empire was foundering. Threats against Hamid's regime were growing – repression failing the Sultan. Turkish intellectuals opposed to Hamid II were drawing inspiration from the West. In institutions of higher learning people formed secret societies. In places such as Geneva, Cairo and Paris, exiled Turks formed anti-Hamid organizations devoted to Western political ideas. Military officers were also influenced by Western intellectuality, and they too formed a clique hostile to Hamid's rule. Not unlike what was being felt among progressives in China, they disliked the weakness and backwardness they saw in contrast to the advanced industrial societies. They also disliked the corruption they saw around the Sultan – people buying positions, power and favors rather than earning these through their competence.
One of the dissidents was Ahmed Riza, soon to be leader of parliament in a new Turkey. Riza had been concerned with the plight of the peasantry and wanted to see modern agricultural methods in Turkey. But under Hamid, there were no such advancements, and after serving as Minister of Education, Riza went into exile to Paris. There, with other Turks, he adopted the scientific outlook of the French sociologist, Auguste Comte. Ahmed Riza and his colleagues were impressed by the lack of chauvinism toward the Turks among the positivists. The Turkish exiles studied revolution in detail, and they invited others from within the Ottoman Empire to join their movement, including the Armenians. They were growing hostile to colonialism, as were European progressives, and they were opposed to class privilege.
Riza and his colleagues put their calls for transformation of Ottoman society in terms that would appeal to the Muslim majority. They promoted themselves as good Muslims and found common elements between Islam and positivism on the subjects of property, family and government. But in private, Riza felt contempt for Islam's holy men, the Imams. To his sister, Fahire, he wrote that if he were a woman, he would embrace atheism and never become a Muslim, and he denounced men being allowed four wives and as many concubines as they wished.
Privately, Riza described the imams as ignorant and as misconstruing the Prophet's words regarding science. Privately he and his colleagues held that science was for the elite and religion was for the masses. Riza and his colleagues wanted a strong government in which they, the intellectual elite, played a dominant role and religious leaders played no role in government or in education. Publicly they spoke of an ideal Islamic government in which authority is collective and every citizen free.
In 1906, army officers joined together in a rebel group called the Vatan (Fatherland). Student groups, Masonic lodges and Dervish orders had joined in the dissident, and in 1907 they merged with the Vatan into what was called the Committee for Unity and Progress (CUP), which was linked also with the rebel movement in Paris.
The rebel army officers had a significant portion of the power of the army with them, and in 1908 they led a military coup against the Sultan – the new regime proclaimed on July 6. The Turks were not as brutal toward their monarch as the British had been toward Charles I. Despite the rebels' dislike for Hamid, they left him on his throne. What the rebels wanted was the reproclamation of the Ottoman Empire's constitution (abandoned by Abdul Hamid in 1876) and the reopening of parliament (closed by Abdul Hamid in 1877).
The leader of the coup, Enver Pasha, still in his mid-twenties, identified the coup as under the leadership of the Committee for Unity and Progress. He proclaimed freedom and equality for all under a uniform set of laws, and he proclaimed safety for foreign investments in the empire. Troops sent against the coup refused to fight. The Sultan gave up resistance. And Muslims, Christians and Jews rejoiced in the streets.
The new regime spoke of justice and brotherhood for all of the empire's people, whatever their religion or mother tongue. They foresaw the end of backward Asian habits of nepotism, corruption and the proliferation of sinecures. Investments would be made to strengthen the armed forces and the civil administration, and appropriate educational qualifications would be required of all military officers and civil servants.
Bulgarians decided to opt out of the Ottoman Empire and declared their independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina had been nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, and a move by Constantinople to have Bosnia and Herzegovina represented in the new parliament incited a move by Austria to annex these provinces – a step in the direction of World War I. And on the island of Crete, an assembly voted for unity with Greece, much to the chagrin of the Muslim minority there, which had rioted in opposition to majority Christian domination of the island.
The new Turkish Parliament assembled December 17. Ahmen Riza was called from Paris to preside. And in parliament, much wrangling took place. Supporters of the new regime favored centralization of power while some who were less supportive of the new regime favored autonomy for ethnic minorities – Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian, Arab and Albanian.
The coup leaders believed in expertise and in schooling, and opposition to the new regime remained among military officers who, unlike the coup leaders, had not been trained in a military college. Opposition also existed among some who had strong attachments to religious tradition, which included respect for the person of the Sultan and caliph. Muslim clerics felt threatened by the lack of religious devotion among supporters of the new regime, and an Islamist campaign began, with much of the press joining those opposed to the new regime. Opposition to the regime by these newspaper men overrode whatever pleasure they might have felt at no longer being subject to censorship. But people were seldom concerned about the tyranny of those with whom they agreed.
In April, 1909, mutiny broke out among conservative soldiers in the capital. Teachers and students from religious schools joined in and marched against parliament. Leaders and supporters of the new government were forced to go into hiding, and Sultan Hamid proclaimed his supremacy and the supremacy of Islamic law – the Sharia (Sheriat in Turkish). Troops loyal to the revolution and hostile toward the Sultan were called in from Macedonia, and on April 24 these troops retook the capital city. The new regime resumed power and deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid, replacing him with his brother, Mehmed V.
Government, under the leadership of the Committee for Unity and Progress, began to pursue a strategy of equality among the empire's various ethnicities, regardless of religion. The government wanted unity among these peoples, and to this end it launched a program to make Turkish the common language. This program engendered resentment, especially among Arab Muslims, whose language was the holy language of Muhammad the Prophet.
Copyright © 2000-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.