INTERVIEW: Ali Yaycıoğlu on the Ottoman Empire in the ‘age of revolutions’

INTERVIEW: Ali Yaycıoğlu on the Ottoman Empire in the ‘age of revolutions’

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Ali Yaycıoğlu on the Ottoman Empire in the ‘age of revolutions’ The late 18th and early 19th century was a time of extraordinary upheaval in the Ottoman Empire. As in elsewhere in Europe, social, technological and economic changes led to demands for reform that found resistance from established interests. A new book, “Partners of the Empire: The Crisis of the Ottoman Order in the Age of Revolutions” by Stanford University historian Ali Yaycıoğlu, examines this crucial era of reform and revolution in the empire. 

Yaycıoğlu spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his book (reviewed here), the long-term effects of the upheavals it considers, and what it can tell us about contemporary Turkey’s turbulent political landscape. 

The period explored in the book was a time of great changes in Europe, with the French Revolution and whatnot. Can you place the Ottoman Empire in the context of wider revolutionary upheavals going on at the time in Europe and elsewhere?

Instead of arguing or telling the story of how European upheavals affected the Ottoman Empire, I try to understand the Ottoman experience in a larger global context of upheavals and political, social and economic crises. For a long time, the Age of Revolutions was handled separately as a European phenomenon. Then from the 1960s people started talking about the "Atlantic revolutions," seeing the American, French, or Haitian revolutions in the same Atlantic context. But there has been a new wave of thinking over the last 10 or 15 years considering the world together in the Age of Revolutions: There was turmoil, transformation, crisis and settlement happening concurrently in different parts of the world, from China to Eurasia to the Americas. 

I decenter the European revolutions and describe the Ottoman experience in this very shaky period. In a way I see the Ottoman, European and other experiences in the same global context. The idea was to ask questions about how the Ottoman experience might change our ideas about this major period in which modernity started.

Much of the book focuses on Sultan Selim III, who came to the throne in 1789. He was a reformer and came up with a program of changes known in English as the New Order or “Nizam-i Djedid.” What was the aim of these reforms?

It's not only Selim III. He was the patron of the reform agenda. In the 18th century more or less everywhere in the world there were people who talked about reforming the order. In the French case, for instance, Louis XVI was a big reformer. His career started as a reformer although he later became a victim of the French Revolution. George III in Britain in the same era was also a reformer. 

Generally the reform agendas in the late 18th century aimed to reform military and administrative structures. But while doing that you need to deal with opposition and with vested rights and interests. That was the dilemma. Selim III and his cadre wanted to change the order and make it more efficient - inspired by new military engineering methods, new forms of tax collecting, etc. But reform challenged the existing order. There were obviously different interests and groups that didn't want change. 

In the Ottoman case, reformers knew that the existing military structure didn't address the needs of the time. But they couldn't agree on a single project. Would administrative reform be about centralization or would it trigger decentralization? Would provincial actors be included or excluded in the state structure? Would the reform include or exclude the janissary corps, who were one of the core pillars of the Ottoman state? On trade, would the reforms lead to a stricter economic policy to collect taxes or would they allow a freer market? 

Selim III knew there was no way that the Ottoman Empire could survive without reform to the administrative and military system. But they couldn't agree on one coherent project, and anyway there was serious opposition among people who had acquired rights and privileges over time. Urban communities and the janissaries, who controlled urban public opinion, and certain peasant communities were very suspicious of unpredictable changes coming from the state.

I try to go beyond the old historiography that said reform was about Westernization and opposition by conservative or reactionary forces like the janissaries and the Ulema [Islamic scholars]. This "Westernization vs. conservative reaction" narrative continued for many years. But I try to present another picture. I argue that the situation was like in other places: There was a reform agenda with lots of competing versions, but these agendas were challenged by groups and individuals who had acquired certain rights and privileges. I wanted to show that there is no one tight narrative that explains everything.

You mention the Janissaries, who were an elite group of soldiers that was very influential over centuries and acquired interests and privileges over time. They became the locus of opposition to the reforms. This led to an extraordinary period of political crises over 1807 and 1808. Selim III was overthrown in a janissary rebellion. Then there was a counter coup and the janissaries were suppressed. It’s all rather confusing. What kind of order emerged after 1808?

The crisis in fact started in 1806 in Edirne. The New Army tried to enter the Balkans, and there was opposition - a coalition of janissaries and some local dynasties and communities blocked the New Army in Edirne, stopping it from going into the Balkans. This is very interesting - the Ottoman Army was blocked by the Ottoman people. It was the start of a political crisis that included multiple events and episodes that were very complicated. It was all seen as a kind of revolutionary time by contemporary authors, and the people who witnessed these events knew that something similar was happening in the Ottoman Empire as in other parts of the world. It was a major crisis with lots of bloodshed, violence and conspiracies. There are actually some similarities with what we have seen in Turkey over the last three or four years. 

The institution of the janissaries is very interesting. They were a huge social strata - around 200,000 janissaries in total. The janissaries were an army with their own army culture, but they were also like a labor union. They negotiated with the state on their salaries and privileges like a union. But they also acted like a political party, because they didn’t only represent their own corporate interests, they also claimed to represent something more. They claimed to represent the commoners, the ordinary people, the old order.

They presented themselves as the guardians of conventions and laws, using their historical prestige as one of the historic pillars of the empire. At the same time, the janissaries were within the state. So they were part of the state but at the same time they represented an opposition with broader interests. 

The military reforms obviously challenged the janissaries, because if the empire established a new army based on new technology the old janissary military culture could end up becoming useless. The janissaries understood this threat and therefore opposed the changes. The janissaries were so closely integrated into society that challenging them meant challenging the social order. Creating a new army meant not only creating a new army - it also meant creating a new disciplinary organization, changing society itself. 

But from 1806 to 1808, multiple actors were involved with different interests and ideas about how the Ottoman Empire should be reformed. These agendas and ideas constantly shifted and were renegotiated. Eventually in May 1807 there was a janissary revolution that ended the New Order. That was followed in August 1808 by a conspiracy and coup by the New Orderists in alliance with provincial notables. Then in November 1808 there was another Janissary revolution, which was the bloodiest because of a big fire that devastated one third of Istanbul and abolished the New Order for the second time.

I ended the book in 1808 but the story obviously continued. The janissary corps was eventually abolished in 1826, and the janissaries were massacred by the people of Istanbul and a new militia formed by Sultan Mahmut II.

Thinking about all this intrigue, coups and counter coups, it's easy to be reminded of today’s Turkey. What can this period of history teach us about the present day?

There are many things I wrote about in the book that may be relevant for contemporary Turkey. The military question is still there of course. The role of Nashibendi-Mujaddid religious preachers and the way they infiltrated into the New Order was another big aspect of the military reforms. I argue that there was a discursive alliance between the new military engineering and this new Islamic activism of the Mujaddid ["revival"] movement in the 18th century. Today, the Gülenist network, which was one of the forces behind the recent coup attempt, is actually a descendant of the Mujaddid movement, and there is a lineage from Gülen to Imam Rabani.

But the biggest lesson from the book is about the failure to find settlements. The book discusses the Deed of Alliance document that attempted to find an end to a crisis in 1808. It was a settlement document finding common ground between provincial notable families, Ottoman bureaucrats, and the janissaries. It tried to include everyone and create a kind of unity. But it failed. Looking at the Deed of Alliance and the history of the 19th and 20th century, I realized that Ottoman-Turkish political culture has always severely failed to find settlements. Settlements have never worked in the Ottoman-Turkish political culture. There were attempts to find settlements but they never continued for long before the powerful players took over. 

This happened in the early republic, it happened in the early 19th century, and it is happening today. The powerful forces who are able to eliminate others always try to do so. They impose themselves and they don't want to make any concessions to establish a settlement with others. Periods of stability have only ever been very short before there was another crisis and another attempted settlement, which also failed. So Ottoman-Turkish history can be written as a history of failed settlements.

After the recent coup attempt there was another chance to find a settlement. There was a possibility for alliance or partnership, which they called the "Yenikapı ruhu" [Yenikapı spirit] of unity. But we can now see that this is failing. This is a lesson we can draw, an unpleasant lesson. I don't know the reason for this - whether it is a political-cultural reason, or whether it is about institutions. But a cycle is constantly recurring: There are moments for possible political settlements but they fail; there are periods of stability because a leader or government takes control, but another crisis is inevitable because that government does not reach a settlement.

Turkish political leaders should take lessons from history. Today many like to glorify certain figures from Ottoman history, but instead of glorification they should first and foremost understand this destiny that has prevailed for 200 years in Ottoman-Turkish political culture. Why has there been continued instability in this country? Why do different groups come together but fail to sustain a partnership? This is something they should think about if they really want to make a big change to Turkey's history.

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