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Germane examples from Ottoman and British history

February 17, 2012

You may or may not find the following two historical nuggets useful when considering the modern-day Turkish situation.

The reign of Sultan Abdülhamit II (1880-1909)

I came upon the first in Norman Stone’s recently published history of Turkey. It follows thus: Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit II’s reign was characterised in Europe at the time as tyrannical, authoritarian, and paranoid. Prompted by wider events gripping the Ottoman Empire, Abdülhamit attempted to reassert the Islamic character of the empire and reemphasise the Ottoman Caliphate, suspending the liberal constitution almost as soon as it was passed in 1876. He himself retired from the open, European-style Dolmabahçe Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus to the secluded Yıldız Palace in the forest just up the hill, where he weaved an elaborate network of spy cells and state informants. However, at the same time Abdülhamit made important reforms to the civil service and significantly modernised the army. He also did much for education, introducing the first girls’ schools and setting up numerous technical institutions, schools of engineering, medicine, and even business foundations. His great achievement was perhaps the Hejaz railway, a fine metaphor for the paradoxical combination of religion and modernity symbolised by his reign: a fine logistical feat and the first Muslim-built railway, designed to take pilgrims securely from Damascus to the holy places of Mecca and Medina.

Abdülhamit’s authoritarian nature, his reemphasis of the Islamic character of Ottoman lands, and his simultaneous modernising reforms have their obvious parallels in contemporary Turkish politics. He was ultimately deposed in the Young Turk Revolution of 1909, which reintroduced liberal constitutional rule to the empire in a last attempt at preserving the withering Ottoman state. Norman Stone argues that the impetus for this revolution came, ironically enough, from the same technical, military intelligentsia that Abdülhamit had in fact helped create. He goes on to suggest that “modern Turkey is undergoing a smudgy version of what happened in the later nineteenth century”, and though he refrains from making any concrete predictions, there is a rather Whiggish suggestion that something like the model that ultimately led to the Young Turk revolution may well be repeated.

The “Glorious” Revolution (1688)

The second example is more fanciful, perhaps even “maverick”. It was suggested on my long commute to work as I listened to Melvyn Bragg (described by Will Self as a “handsome walnut”) discussing the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688 with his guests on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. Consider the following landmark in the development of English parliamentary democracy in the murky light of modern-day Turkish politics:

The Revolution of 1688 saw the Catholic King James II of England overthrown, to be replaced by his Protestant Dutch nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange (William III). The revolution was effectively organised by a union of Whig and Tory parliamentarians: an elite who had run the country and who between them had agreed that there was only one group of people who should be frozen out of politics and office (Catholics). James came to the throne in 1685 intent on removing the barriers that prevented Catholics from accessing office, and tried to get restrictive rules repealed. When he couldn’t do so, he effectively tried to subvert the law by dispensing members of the old order from office and replacing them with his own sympathisers in the army, the court, and in local government. He manipulated parliament, packing with MPs that would be favourable to his policies; he built up an alternative standing army that was feared could be used to impose his personal will; he revoked charters signed by previous monarchs. What started out as a seemingly innocent attempt to extend religious liberties to Catholics soon began to be seen as threatening authoritarianism. James seemed to be giving an extra twist to the policy of toleration that the English monarchy had been pursuing since the restoration of 1660.

The Orangist conspirators who eventually facilitated the revolution of 1688 comprised of the Protestant aristocracy and gentry, a far from representative group of individuals. They increasingly felt that their liberty and their parliament was under threat, and that if that Catholics were allowed equal freedom with Protestants, they would only use it as a first step to eventually subvert the toleration achieved and become the dominant power. Wherever Popery first arrives, so they thought, arbitrary or authoritarian government inevitably comes in its wake. Historians have discussed in some detail what James’ reign actually represented. Some say he was in fact never intent on absolutism, but was simply trying to achieve toleration for Catholics, in an age when the formal practice of Catholicism was still officially banned. Others believe that the authoritarian Catholic Louis XIV was his model, citing the growing links between the English monarchy and the French court. Absolutism was his ultimate goal, which he initially sought to achieve through liberal steps.

Esoteric though they may be, the parallels with modern Turkey should be fairly clear to anyone with even a sketchy knowledge of the contemporary Turkish political situation. For ‘Catholics’ read pious Sunni Muslims, for ‘Whigs and Tories’ read Turkey’s traditional secular order. To stretch the comparison ad absurdum: 1688 in England has its parallel in the failed attempted military coup of 2007 in Turkey. Imagine if the revolution of 1688 hadn’t happened, and that James II had stayed on the throne – that’s where Turkey stands today with the AKP government, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the Jacobite potential despot. However, while James II faced organised, energised and rising resistance in the Whigs and Tories, today’s ruling AKP has effectively pursued the remnants of the old order out of their traditional centres of power, and is blessed to be faced with an inchoate, haggered, and backward-looking opposition.

It’s up to you whether you find the above examples absurd, or enlightening, or both. What’s undoubtedly true is that if anyone says that they know what’s eventually going to happen to the political system in Turkey, they’re wrong.

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