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The Sultan and the Sultan

November 8, 2017

I’ve written a long-ish article for History Today on historical revisionism in Turkey around the figure of hard-line late Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II – who many are keen to imagine as a precursor of President Erdoğan.

Abdülhamid has long been venerated as ‘Ulu Hakan’ (the Supreme Sultan) by conservative ideologues within Turkey, but the reverence has reached fever pitch under Erdoğan. An idealised memory of Abdülhamid, which casts him as the last proudly Islamic Ottoman leader standing up to the West, has become part of the government’s narrative of civilisational ‘restoration’, in which Turkey is once again a great power that shapes history. Abdülhamid is often glorified as a symbolic precursor of Erdoğan – proof that historic forces are at play today. …

When he first became sultan in 1876, Abdülhamid appeared to be an enlightened reformer. He supported the Ottoman constitution, giving the empire its first experience of constitutional democracy. The next year he opened the first session of an elected Ottoman parliament … But the experience of ruling a vast, decaying empire hardened him into an absolutist, and he became convinced that he needed to rule with a stronger hand to protect it from further dismemberment. …

The parallels with Turkey’s current president are obvious. Erdoğan was once lauded in the West as a moderate Muslim reformer, raising the country’s democratic standards and advancing its economy. But his international reputation has since deteriorated badly. Authoritarianism, rent-seeking and demagoguery mark his era. The state administration is subject to the whims of capricious one-man rule. A cult of personality is in full swing, with Erdoğan embodying the frustrations, hopes and grievances of Turkey’s conservative masses, bound by a powerful sense of shared identity. …

Erdoğan’s supporters see the decline in his reputation abroad as part of a dark international plot to halt this forward march. Conspiratorial thinking runs rampant. Orhan Osmanoğlu, a fourth-generation descendent of Abdülhamid, claims that Turkey is today witnessing a ‘repetition of history’: ‘Meddling foreigners now call our president a dictator, just as they used to call Abdülhamid the “Red Sultan.”’ Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman compared last year’s coup attempt to the dethroning of Abdülhamid in 1909: ‘They wanted to do the same as they did when they overthrew Abdülhamid, but this time they couldn’t succeed.’

I’ve been meaning to write this article for ages so do go and read the whole thing (there are also some nice visuals).

Abdul_Hamid_II_BNF_Gallica

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