Early Steps to the foundation of Modern Turkey: Nineteenth Century Reforms and the Young Turk Revolution

Essay, 2011

16 Pages, Grade: A



The modern Republic of Turkey has been hesitant to embrace its Ottoman past for nearly three quarters of a century following the years of its foundation. During the Ottoman period, majority of the people were living an Islamic lifestyle under the guidance of traditional Islamic shari’a law. This situation was challenging to the modern, secular ideas of the young republic. In order to overcome this problem, the new secular state controlled religious affairs and abolished the institution of Caliphate. Morever, founders of the modern Turkey created a National Assembly and which served as the early steps to the representative democracy. There were series of reforms on the education, military system, women’s rights and general dress code for public places. However, although Ataturk and his friends’ contribution to the Turkish modernization is undeniable, it should be made clear that his ideas were inspired both by the realities of his time and more importantly the reforms of the late Ottoman period. Thus, contrary to what primary level education which is taught in state schools in Turkey suggests, it is hard to claim that he singlehandedly invented all the ideas and reforms concerning the Turkish modernization. In fact, the idea of Turkish modernization long predates the foundation of the secular republic. There had been reforms from top to down during the nineteenth century. These were followed by a new group of intellectuals who were influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment and French Revolution who were called ‘Young Turks’. The Young Turk movement, which was emerged among the students of higher learning schools of Istanbul attracted many other members of the society. The members of the movement were united in their opposition to the personal rule of the Sultan and created the backbone of the modern democratic reforms happened during early years of the modern Turkish Republic (Hanioglu, 2011).

This research paper will analyze how the nineteenth century reforms and the ideas of the Young Turks has contributed to the process of Turkey’s modernization which peaked under the rule of Ataturk. The paper will begin with a small scale survey of the socio-political situation of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century and the reforms made by the ruling elite to avoid the downfall of the Empire. It will then mention the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 and their policies prior to the end of WWI. The conclusion will be a summary of findings and try to describe the impact of modernization attempts prior to the foundation of the secular republic.

The Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th century

From mid-19th century onwards; elites of the Ottoman Empire began to realize that the country’s economic and military capacity was not comparable to that of European powers. Its power and capabilities were restricted compared to its golden years which were 15th and 16th centuries. Historians tend to describe the situation of Ottoman Empire in its last two centuries of as ‘The Sick Man of Europe’, due to the military and economic weaknesses of the country. The Empire’s military technology and organization had not kept up with techniques from the West and it was vulnerable to attack by its neighbours, especially Russia, which it shared a long boundary in the Caucasus and Balkans. Moreover, loss of lands resulted in the decline of tax revenues from provinces which were major sources of income during its period of expansion. Although the empire was probably the most cosmopolitan country in the world by that time, different religious and ethnic groups started to create conflict due their aims of gaining independence. With the introduction of the ideas of French Revolution and the weakening of the central authority in the Balkans, the independence movements started to emerge in the Rumelia provinces of the empire. It can be argued that the Imperial authority settled in Istanbul was far from efficiently controlling the lands under its rule.

In the west, the empire faced with imperial competitors who wanted to control Ottoman lands which were gained in the earlier centuries. Among these rivals, Austria and Russia were the biggest threats to the Ottoman lands of control. In 1774, with the Kucuk Kaynarca Treaty made by Russia, Crimean Khanate gained independence and Wallachia and Moravia was no longer under the governance of Ottoman Empire. In the east, the situation was not better. Although the empire claimed the control of entire Arabian Peninsula, tribal Arab leaders made allegiances which limited the control of the central Ottoman rule in the region. With regards to the political situation of the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century, Hanioglu argues:

“The most salient characterization of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the eighteenth century was its decentralization. On paper, Ottoman territory at the turn of the nineteenth century stretched from Algeria to Yemen, Bosnia to Caucasus, and Eritrea to Basra, encompassing a vast area inhabited by some 30 million people. In practice, the reach of Ottoman government in Istanbul rarely extended beyond the provinces of Anatolia and Rumelia, then only weakly” (Hanioglu, 2008).

In reality, the decline of the Ottoman Empire started as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century. However, as some scholars such as Goffman argues, some economic and military successes of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gave the Ottomans the hope for regaining superpower status. Although there were times of bureaucratic and economic stability throughout these two centuries, the long wars against Habsburgs and then Russians ended in the retreat of the Ottoman forces. Moreover, its competitors both on trade and political control imroved their governmental and military structures more efficiently than the Ottomans ( Goffman, 2002).

By the beginning of the ninenteenth century, the Ottoman economy was agrarian and merchantilist. It was a state policy to import scarce products from the West and foreign merchants doing business in Ottoman lands were enjoying high profits. The empire had already lost some ground to the Dutch, English and French competitors in terms of trade as a result of capitulary treaties granted to these countries in the past. Circulation and use of money was very limited, especially in the rural areas of the empire. Prior to late eighteenth century, the state owned roughly 80 per cent of the lands under its control and the structual feature was the ancient ‘Timar’[1] system. With the weakening of central authority and decreasing importance of cavalrymen, important proportion of these lands became private lands which resulted in the decline of the state revenue from agricultural lands. Moreover, the loss of territory and population along with the war compensation paid to Russia in 1775 created enormous deficits in the Ottoman budget (Hanioglu, 2008 & Goffman, 2002).

The legal system of the Ottoman Empire was based on the Ottoman law which consisted two different laws: Sultanic law (Kanun) and traditional Islamic shari’a law. The first one, Sultanic law was designed to fill in the gaps of the religious law and locally enforced practices called ‘Örf’ contributed to the Ottoman law in tax collection. The second one, shari’a law, served as the sole base for issues like family, individual rights and commerce. With regards to the extend of the shari’a law was determining the judicial decision making, Faroqhi argues:

“ As the time went on, influence of religious law became more and more pervasive; all Ottoman judges were familiar with this law, which formed a part of their training; secular schools did not exist until nineteenth century. In consequence, the shari’a acquired a central significance not just in religious but also in civil life” (Faroqhi, 2004).

Nonetheless, the Sultan had a broad authority in legislation and ability to create new laws as a part of centuries old state tradition in the Ottoman Empire. The legal system recognized three major groups and all subjects had to belong to one of these three. First one was the Muslims, second was the dhimmis who were the people of the book (Christian and Jewish subjects) and musta’mins who were non-Muslim foreigns residing in the lands of the Empire. Many Jewish and Christian subjects of the empire enjoyed a certain autonomy within their group, as the Ottoman authorities only dealt with chosen leaders of non-Muslim groups in terms of tax collection and judicial matters. The ‘millet’ system, which distinguished subjects according to their religion, eliminated the chance of developing national identity within the groups. By the turn of nineteenth century, this situation begun to change and national feeling among many different linguistic groups started to emerge (Hanioglu, 2008).

Nineteenth Century Reforms in the Ottoman Empire

From late eighteenth century onwards, self questioning and doubt became popular among the Ottoman elites. The humiliating defeats against Western powers and economic crisis made the Ottomans to understand that they were overcome by the ‘infidels’ who were mastered in technology and science. They realized that if they would not reform the country’s administrative and military system, the Empire would sooner or later collapse. These concerns resulted in the introduction of the idea of modernization to the Ottoman Empire. Although it setting boundaries and making a clear definition of the term ‘modernization’ is hard, it is generally referred to the Empire’s turning its face to the West. As Barkey argues:

“In the Ottoman context, modernity has mostly had been used to characterize a reformist and modern center pitted agains the conservative and traditional regional actors” (Barkey, 2008).

Selim III (1789-1807), was the pioneer of Ottoman modernization. He aimed to re-organize the institutitons and policies of the Empire which marked the beginning of the modernization of the Empire. Military reforms were the priorities as Ottomans aimed to defend their lands against technologically superior enemies and if possible, expand their territories to the size of country’s golden years. Thus, Selim III founded ‘ The Royal College of Naval Engineering’ and established an army engineering school. He hired many French instructors and set French as the language of instruction in these academies. He switched the foreign policy of the Empire from isolationism to the principle of engagement as he believed having powerful allies would help the country to be able to have a say on diplomacy. He reformized the tax system and tried to create a healthy economy by attempts on balancing the trade deficit. Moreover, he changed the administrative structure by creating a provincial structure and assigned a vizier to govern each of them (Hanioglu, 2008).

While many of the reforms during Selim’s rule helped the Empire’s military and economic conditions, some external and internal conflicts stopped him going further. The reformist ideas of Selim III challenged with the traditional ideas of both ulama[2] and Janissaries. This situation created many dualities on the army, education and foreign policy. In terms of military, there was a clash between a European style army against conservative Janissaries. The situation was no different for the education, as modern academies with French books were not in the same line with the traditional ‘medreses’ which had the same curricula for centuries. There were also divided opinions about his foreign policy abroad. An example would be the critizition of the famous conservative thinker Edmund Burke, who was disturbed by the possible British support to Ottomans against Russia which he described as a partnership with the infidels[3]. Moreover, an uprising began in Serbia, which had always been difficult to rule, and made an example for other nationalities to revolt against the central rule. As a result, Selim was dethroned in 1807 by the Janissaries and replaced with Mustafa IV, who was keen to return to the old traditional policies (Hanioglu, 2008).


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Early Steps to the foundation of Modern Turkey: Nineteenth Century Reforms and the Young Turk Revolution
St. Mary's University
Politics of the Middle East
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early, steps, modern, turkey, nineteenth, century, reforms, young, turk, revolution
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Can Esen (Author), 2011, Early Steps to the foundation of Modern Turkey: Nineteenth Century Reforms and the Young Turk Revolution, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/184874


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