The Ottoman ‘Westwardness’

Recently published under the editorship of four Ph.D. candidates, “Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman History” is the concrete outcome of a research project on, in the editors’ words, “processes of exchange, interaction, and entanglement between the Ottoman Empire and its neighbors in the west”[i] — and hence on the “well-connected domains” of the early modern Ottoman Empire. Such an application of the recently rising methodological approach of “entangled historiography” to the Ottoman case bears relevance as well as significance for the theme of Turkey’s modernization from empire to republic. This defies the theoretically established divide between a Christian-European and an Islamic-Ottoman world, as predominated in earlier studies on the history of modern Turkey that can be grouped under the main heading of the so-called “bloc paradigm.” [ii]

This volume underlines more connections and exchanges than divisions and conflicts; plurality and entanglement of domains as opposed to a monolithic or rather a disconnected entity; and a multiplicity of centers rather than a monocentric structure.[iii] By focusing on the western frontiers of the Ottoman state during its early modernization phase, such an “entangled” point of view contributes to the scholarly attempt to read the Ottoman Empire not only as a structural component but also as one of the “cultural others” of the history of European modernization. Therefore, the Ottoman obscurity — being at the same time an insider and an outsider of Europe — characterized and thus contributed to the formation of the Ottomans’ Westward-looking state of existence. For the reconsideration of the well-connectedness of the Ottoman Empire, it may not be irrelevant to briefly examine the linkage between the Ottoman and republican conceptions of Westernization through discussing the self-imposed obscurity toward the inherited Ottoman legacy in the republican state discourse.

The “arrogant infancy” of revolutionary minds[iv] rarely, if ever, allows them to acknowledge the legacy of the object that they aim at destructing, and almost always defining themselves as the “zero-point of history,”[v],few, if any, revolutions have succeeded in escaping from the discursive state of the “poverty of tradition.” Beyond anything else, the French Revolution was, in this respect, a theatrical defiance against anything associated with the Ancien Régime. In his unfinished “L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution,” Alexis de Tocqueville, the iconoclastic political philosopher whose studies relied more on painstaking empirical work than those of many, if not all, of his contemporaries, demonstrated through a vast quantity of official state records that the French Revolution, as opposed to its self-historiography, was more of an “awkward” transitory period from the Ancien Régime to the Consulate than a rupture, which temporarily disturbed the structural continuity of administrative centralization.[vi]

In the case of Turkey, it is curious that the newborn nation-state, which discursively reconstructed the Ottoman state as its “other” on the mutually exclusive dichotomies of “reaction” vs. “progress,” “old” vs. “new,” “barbaric” vs. “civil” and so forth at home, embraced both structurally and discursively its status as the Ottoman state’s successor, if not that of a full-fledged heirdom, abroad. While the republican course of Westernization organically, thus not only directly, emanated from the Young Turks’ wholly pragmatist and therefore philosophically shallow handling of “Western civilization” only to come up with almost enchanted shortcut resolutions for the divine objective of saving the “Devlet-i Aliyye”  (Ottoman State)[vii], the latter, as has been rightfully asserted by some, was the direct outcome of the Ottoman modernization firstly initiated and led by the Ottoman sultans, beginning with Sultan Selim III and reaching its climax in Abdülhamid II’s 30-year “period of autocracy.”[viii] However, as has been literally and practically asserted by “Well-Connected Domains,” the Ottoman “Westwardness” began long before the turbulent and decisive 19th century, because the Ottomans actively participated from the 16th century onwards “in many of the major developments which European historiography once considered unique to Europe.”[ix]

Before the 19th century, when being a natural component of the European modernization process, above all, meant for the Ottomans to centralize the empire’s administrative bureaucratic structure, the Ottoman state ruled over a multiethnic, multi-religious, multilingual and multicultural empire throughout a vast plurality of domains comprising a multiplicity of centers.[x] Examining the early phase of the Ottoman modernization at its western frontiers and then gradually moving toward the decisive 19th century, “Well-Connected Domains” comprises three thematic parts. Concentrating on trade, warfare and diplomacy, the first part is composed of (i) Suraiya N. Faroqhi’s examination of trade between the Ottoman Empire and its Western neighbors in the 16th and 17th centuries, which sheds light on the Ottoman state’s and its Muslim and non-Muslim merchants’ significance in the flow of objects and ideas between Asia, Africa, and Europe; (ii) two articles on the Ottoman impact on maritime sovereignty, written by Joshua M. White and Michael Talbot, covering piracy, diplomacy and trade in the Ottoman Mediterranean; and (iii) Viorel Panaite’s analysis of the French consular presence in the Ottoman Empire. Focusing on identity not only as an expression but also as a “formative element of connectedness”[xi],the second part comprises (i) Nur Sobers-Khan’s analysis of the still-uncharted topic of slaves’ integration into Ottoman society; (ii) an interesting contribution by Gábor Kármán to the research subject of the Christian-European conception of the Ottomans as “Turks” by analyzing the writings of a former Transylvanian diplomat, which defies the existence of a uniform image of the “Turk” in the early modern Europe; and (iii) two articles — written by Tobias P. Graf and Christian Roth — analyzing the integration of, respectively, the “renegades” and non-Muslims in the 18th-century Ottoman Empire. Aiming to avoid “teleology and Eurocentrism”[xii] while examining the modernization of the globe, the third and final part of “Well-Connected Domains” is dedicated to the examination of various political and social challenges raised during the Ottoman reformation and modernization process in the 19th century. In this respect, Pascal W. Firges studies the mutually sought cooperation between the French and the Ottomans in modernizing the Ottoman military; two articles — written by Gülay Tulasoğlu and Sotirios Dimitriadis — analyze Ottoman modernizing efforts, along with their problems, in the case of Salonica; Maximilian Hartmuth sheds light on 19th-century Ottoman reform efforts in the case of a civic initiative for the founding of a museum in Tanzimat-period Bosnia; and finally, Aylin Koçunyan analyzes the Ottoman constitution of 1876, paying particular attention to its transcultural dimension.

In short, “Well-Connected Domains” provides an invaluable contribution to the development of an “entangled” point of view, as framed above, toward the Ottoman modernization process through emphasizing a well-connectedness of processes in a Westward-looking, if not Western, empire characterized by a multiplicity of centers and a plurality of domains. Still, whether or not such a multiplicity of centers succeeded in forging within the reforming and modernizing leadership of the Ottoman capital a structure of well-connected domains against all the odds of their somewhat “disconnected” plurality requires further study.

Reference: Özcan, Ahmet (2015). “The Ottoman ‘Westwardness”, Turkish Review, Vol. 5/3, May-June, pp. 258-260.

Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman History
Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman History

[i] Pascal W. Firges et. al (eds.), Well-Connected Domains: Towards an Entangled Ottoman History, Leiden: Brill, 2014, p. ix.

[ii] Ibid, p. 3.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 3-4, 9.

[iv] “The beginnings of confusion with us in England are at present feeble enough, but, with you, we have seen an infancy still more feeble growing by moments into a strength to heap mountains upon mountains and to wage war with heaven itself.” Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, J. G. A. Pocock (ed.), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987, p. 9.

[v] Françoit Furet, Fransız Devrimi’ni Yorumlamak (Penser La Révolution Française), Ahmet Kuyaş (trans.), Istanbul: Alan Yayıncılık, 1989, p. 105.

[vi] Ibid, p. 175. Also, see: Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Stuart Gilbert (trans.), New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955.

[vii] Şerif Mardin, Jön Türklerin Siyasi Fikirleri (1895-1908) (The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought), Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 15th Edition, 2008, pp. 16-17.

[viii] Eric Jan Zürcher, Modernleşen Türkiye’nin Tarihi (Turkey: A Modern History), Yasemin Saner (trans.), Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 27th Edition, 2012, pp. 25-142.

[ix] Firges et. al, p. 5.

[x] Ibid, pp. 7-9.

[xi] Ibid, p. 8.

[xii] Ibid, pp. 166-167.

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