Workshop Review: “The Main Intellectual Currents in the Late Ottoman Empire”, University of Basel, May 20 - 21, 2016

Selen Etingü's picture
May 20, 2016 to May 21, 2016
Subject Fields: 
Cultural History / Studies, Intellectual History, Middle East History / Studies, Nationalism History / Studies, Political History / Studies

Seminar Report: “The Main Intellectual Currents in the Late Ottoman Empire”, University of Basel, May 20 - 21, 2016

The 4th Annual MUBIT Seminar on the Main Intellectual Currents in the Late Ottoman Empire, which was organized by Prof. Dr. Maurus Reinkowski, Dr. Selen Etingü and Murat Kaya, M.A. and led by Prof. Şükrü Hanioğlu, took place in Basel on 20-21 May 2016. In the seminar, 20 participants from 8 different countries and 12 universities with a variety of specializations and academic interests exchanged their knowledge and ideas.

In the introductory session, Prof. Hanioğlu offered a tour d’horizon across the major intellectual currents of the late Ottoman period, namely the Ottoman materialism, Westernism, Islamism and nationalism as the intellectual baggage of the pre-1923 period in relation to the single party period between 1923-1947. In this regard, the question to what extent and how the formation of the official ideology of the Turkish Republic and certain republican policies were affected by the Ottoman-materialism and proto-Turkish nationalism has come to the forth. This trajectory considering the legacy of the Ottoman intellectual life inherited by the Kemalist leadership was applied throughout the seminar. This introductory session was followed by the sessions that were more specifically devoted to the aforementioned intellectual currents. It should be noted that the seminar was also partly conducted in the form of an interactive workshop during which the participants were able to actively contribute to the sessions with their comments and questions. While the major focus was on a single intellectual current in a particular session, the other currents were inevitably taken into consideration during the debates.

In the first session on the Ottoman materialism, Hanioğlu by far explained the European intellectual origins of the materialist ideas in the Ottoman Empire, the specific braches of materialism that the Ottoman intellectuals subscribed to (namely the vulgar materialism or German popular materialism), the dissemination of these ideas and the channels through which they were spread (e.g. coffeehouses, publications both in the empire and in abroad and student gatherings), the impact of the institutional structure on their dissemination with particular reference to the new schools (e.g. Imperial Medical School), the leading representatives of the Ottoman materialism and the political repercussions of their ideas in the Ottoman world due to the policies implemented by the CUP.  In the context of the publications, widespread translation of the European materialist literature was more specifically discussed with a critical eye toward the extent of the translation activity, the works of the major writers such as Büchner, Haeckel and Spencer, the quality of the translations in relation to the arbitrary changes made by the translators and finally, the role played by the (self-) censorship. In the discussions, two burning issues were largely debated: First, the impact of the Ottoman materialism on the Republican People’s Party and Mustafa Kemal was questioned within the broader context of the relationship between the Ottoman intellectuals, Kemalist ruling elite, materialism, science and religion (namely, Islam). In this regard, Prof. Hanioğlu and the participants expressed their ideas on the similarities and differences between the Ottoman and Kemalist understandings of European materialism. Second, the question whether the Ottoman materialists could be classified as ‘intellectuals’ and/or ‘literati’ and, if so, to what extent, came into prominence.

The second session on westernism was rather concerned with the political impact of the materialist and westernist ideas in relation to the place of Islam and nationalism in state and society during the late-Ottoman and early republican periods. In this respect, Prof. Hanioğlu has put the emphasis on the fact that the leading cadres of the CUP and the RPP did not necessarily implement the materialist and westernist political and ideological programmes: Instead of granting unconditional support for the materialist and westernist publications, the CUP would control them strictly. The cooperation  between the ultra-secularist central committee of the CUP and the ulema in the decision-making process also shows that the CUP leaders were at times acting politically rather than attempting at an all-out ideological war. Even though the Turkification of Islam was not an element of the materialist programme, the Kemalist ruling elite was willing to endorse the formation of a ‘Turkish Islam’. In addition, Hanioğlu pointed out to the need for more sophisticated academic research especially on the CUP, which extend beyond the labels such as ‘materialists’, ‘westernists’ etc.

The session on Islamism has started with an analysis of the role played by the caliphate during the Hamidian and Young Turk periods. Then, the approach of the Ottoman ulema towards the constitution and CUP before and after the 1908 revolution has been explained by Hanioğlu. In this regard, Prof. Hanioğlu underlined the need for the analysis of the Sufis as complex networks via more micro research rather than broad generalizations, pointing out to the examples such as the influence of the Rufa’is in the imperial capital and support of the Bektashis and Nakshibendis for the constitutionalist movement. Moreover, the divisions such as the ‘high-ranking’ and ‘low-ranking’ ulema, ‘Istanbulin ulema’ and Anatolian sufis were discussed in relation to their position among the reformist and conservative circles and agendas.

In the final session on nationalism, Prof. Şükrü Hanioğlu questioned the current narrative in the literature, which suggested that the outbreak of the Balkan Wars represented a watershed in the emergence of the Turkish nationalism. In this regard, Hanioğlu pointed out to the publication of the journal ‘Turk’ in Cairo between 1903 and 1907 as the first appearance of political Turkism and ‘Üç Tarz-ı Siyaset’ (‘Three Policies’) of Yusuf Akçura in 1904 in order to confront the aforementioned argument based on the alleged late development of Turkish nationalism. After the differences between the nationalisms of the Young Turks and Kemalists were discussed with regards to the benchmarks such as approach toward different ethnic groups, alternative expressions of nationalism in an empire and nation-state and the legacy of Ottomanism, Hanioğlu interpreted the Young Turk Ottomanism as an offshoot of an earlier form of Ottomanism, which may also assist in understanding the type of Turkism subscribed by the Young Turks. Moreover, he suggested that the three types of Ottomanism that are classified according to the chronological order should also be taken into account in order to understand the origins of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire: 1- Ottomanism of the Tanzimat Period as a supranational “nationalist” approach 2- Ottomanism in the Hamidian Period during which the Muslims managed to partly regain their earlier privileges 3- Ottomanism under the CUP during which a new hierarchy to replace the religious identity upheld by the Tanzimat order was established. Finally, the ethno-religious and class-based diversity of the Ottoman communities such as the Arabs, Armenians, Greeks and Jews was also largely considered in the analysis of these three Ottomanisms and their impact on the emergence of nationalism in the late Ottoman Empire.

Onur Ada, Leiden University