The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs

Islam, Ottoman Legacy and Politics in Turkey: An Axis Shift?

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Since it came to power in 2002, Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AK Party[1]) followed a “zero-problem” approach in Turkish foreign policy leading to establishment of solid relationships with neighboring countries like Iraq, Iran and Syria (with whom Turkey was at the brink of war a few years earlier). Many scholars argued that this ‘axis shift’ was a result of AK Party’s Islamism which had its roots in Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist National View Movement, Turkey’s leading Islamic-political movement.

A closer look at the ideas championed by the AK Party and the resulting changes in Turkish politics, clearly demonstrates that this transformation is not purely Islamic and therefore is not an axis shift. This process is rather a result of deliberate reading of Turkey’s history and its relevance to the contemporary politics. This deliberate attempt of reconfiguring Turkish politics is a normative shift in defining Turkey’s history, culture and identity which have been dominated by Ataturk’s Kemalist legacy. This transformation represents a ‘return of the repressed’; the Ottoman legacy which is best explained by, as this paper argues, Neo-Ottomanism.

Ottomanism is not a monolithic understanding. Many Islamic groups see the Ottoman State as an ideal type yet interpret it in very different ways. I argue that through different, if not conflicting, Islamic understandings, the AK Party reconnected itself with Turkey’s Ottoman heritage in a post-Ottoman, secular setting and was able to develop an eclectic political identity of “Neo-Ottomanism” that is evident in the flexibility if not inconsistency of its (foreign) policy preferences.

In order to understand Neo-Ottomanism, we need to first define what Ottomanism is. With special reference to the preservation of the Ottoman State, Ottomanism emerged by incorporating Islamic principles like freedom, justice and consultation into the political system that was increasingly dominated by the secular ideas from abroad (Europe) and authoritarian and ineffective policies at home. There are two main factors contributing to the rise of Ottomanism. First, as a political ideology, it emerged at a time when late Ottoman era leaders wanted to limit the influence of the post-French Revolution Europe’s nationalism on multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Ottoman State.  The second important factor was the emergence of the new European Order of 1815 after the Vienna Congress and the Ottoman desire to have a place in it.[2] Ottoman response to these challenges was the Tanzimat reforms (1839). Ottomanism and many of its early supporters were products of the new thinking began with Tanzimat era and especially with its secular education system. Ottomanism became an umbrella designation for the attempts to unite the Empire’s dissident nations with newly coined terms like Ottoman nationality (Osmanlilik) and homeland (Vatan) while at the same time trying to keep the Empire in line with the new developments in the European order. The most important result of the Tanzimat reforms was that, the Ottoman leadership began to give equal rights to its citizens from different religious backgrounds and initiate reforms that eventually limited Sultan’s power.

Major figures of the Ottomanism were Namik Kemal and Ali Suavi who began to propagate their ideas actively in and around 1865.[3] They had secular educations in newly established European style schools where they learned western languages and concepts of governance. However, they also had a deep-rooted respect for religion and tradition including the Sultan himself. In an era of rising nationalist sentiments, in order to keep the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman State intact, they tried to achieve Unity of Ethnic and Religious Elements (Ittihad-i Anasir) regardless of their backgrounds.[4] Ottomanists believed that different nationalities and millets (people of different religions) could be unified under an Ottoman ideal which did not rely on religious allegiances but a new western concept of citizenship disseminated by a pro-Ottoman (though not necessarily Islamic) education system.[5]

Ottomanism as an early reform movement did not dare to question the monarch, at least in its earlier stages. However, it argued for a free political system based on a constitution and a parliament which limited the power of the Sultan. They took their ideas about constitutionalism and parliamentary system from European thinkers (some of with whom they personally identified with)[6] but they were able to modify it into an overall Islamic tradition. Free democratic system was called Nizam-i Serbestane, Constitutionalism was called Nizam-i Esasi and Parliament was called Sura-yi Ummet which were all justified with the Islamic principles like hurriyet (freedom), adalet (justice) and mesveret (consultation). As many scholars argue Ottomanists were instrumental, at least on the intellectual level, in bringing the Sultan Abdulhamid II to proclaim the first constitution and open the Ottoman Parliament in 1876.

With the advance of the Balkan War in 1912 and consequent independence of Balkan States from the Ottomans, Ottomanism became a bankrupt ideology. Following the WWI (between 1914-1918), the War of Independence (between 1918-1922), and the establishment of the secular republic in 1923, secularism and nationalism rather than Ottomanism became dominant in Turkish politics until 1980s.

Turkish historian Kemal Karpat argues that the term Neo-Ottomanism was first used by Greeks after Turkey landed its forces in Cyprus in 1974.[7] Therefore, Neo-Ottomanism originally reflected the negative connotations of how Turks were viewed in the former Ottoman territories. Consequently, many scholars focused solely on Neo-Ottomanism as a representative of Ottoman irredentism in terms of its involvement in the Balkans and the Middle East.[8] This might be a resaon why the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahme Davutoglu rejects the claims that Turkish Foreign Policy is Neo-Ottomanist. However the continuity of understandings between Ottomanism and its ‘Neo’ version makes the compelling case for the influence of Neo-Ottomanism in Turkish politics. There are five major similarities between Ottomanism and Neo-Ottomanism. [9]

  1. Reconfiguration of the state body in line with the international system: This corresponds to freedom and democracy demands (both from inside and from Europe) since the late Ottoman era. However, Ottomanism and in this regard we can argue that Neo-Ottomanism are in a way not revisionist in a sense that they are entirely based on attacking the state (be it Monarchy or Kemalism) but they intended to rectify the prevailing system with a new set of ideas. On the other hand, obviously, Neo-Ottomanism differs with the radical Islamists. Many members of the radical Islamist movements who wanted to get rid of Recep Tayip Erdogan argued that Erdogan’s successful policies strengthened the “infidel” system which they wanted to destroy totally.
  2. Attempts to form new political identity and culture in order to respond to rising nationalist demands: During the late Ottoman era, this issue was represented by Ittihad-i Anasir (unity of elements). In contemporary Turkey AK Party attempted to champion this principle with the idea of bounding all elements in the country under the “Citizenship of Turkiye” motto rather than nationalist “Turkishness”. The Kurdish question and the inability of Kemalist ideology in incorporating the Kurdish citizens of the country into the system, strengthened the AK Party position and their less nationalistic solutions in the country at least among the Kurds.
  3. Trying to keep a balance between the new thinking and the traditional values: Both Ottomanism and its Neo version believe that ideas coming from European ideas on freedom, democracy and human rights can be justified with, to some extent, cultural and religious values. But they are also aware of the fact that the very own identities of the Muslims are jeopardized with the new developments associated with the European ideas. For example, what are the places of adultery, homosexuality or same sex marriage going to be in the legal system? Kemalism provided AK Party more safety than EU requirements offer. Therefore, they are in search of finding a balance about which we’re not certain whether they were successful or not.
  4. Attempts to integrate into the European system: Both Ottomanism and Neo-Ottomanism wants to have a place in a European order. However, AK Party is not happy with the current EU policies where EU, under French and German governments’ leadership does not welcome a Muslim Turkey into a Christian Europe. Ottomanists probably did not have many alternatives to Europe at the time however, it is noticeable that AK Party is not as desperate as its Ottomanist predecessors. Especially this is the case when Turkey receives “special partnership” offers. Although it sees Turkey’s future in Europe, AK Party, backed by ideologically independent and self-confident Muslim –conservative intelligentia, especially after the recent financial crisis, wants equal membership in EU. Otherwise, it is open to other alternatives in the region and in the world.
  5. Harmony with the superpowers of the time (Britain and US, respectively). Contrary to many analysts, in the eyes of AK Party, US is still the major ally for Turkey. However, many AK party members think that US is providing Israel with an unconditional support. This is considered to be troublesome situation for many decision makers who see it a liability for Turkey’s relations with the Muslim World. Turkey believes that it should be Turkey, not Israel, whom US should rely on when it comes to its Middle East politics. I see a ‘critical dialogue’ between Turkey and US limited by US-Israeli relationship.

The inability of the Kemalist regime to co-opt religion into the state and to provide a widely accepted national identity, led conservative-Muslim communities into Neo-Ottomanism’s more appealing religious inclusiveness. Many independent scholars or community leaders played a significant role in this process. However, at the end, it was a result of AK Party’s own decision making process to create its own version of Neo-Ottomanism. This intellectual background of Neo-Ottomanism is similar to Conservatism (in Turkish sense Muhafazakarlk) as a middle way between the challenges of modernity and tradition. Neo-Ottomanism is not totally against change nor it is blindly accepting westernization. By following such a conservative perspective, Neo-Ottomanism was able to inspire practicing faith and still be content with the Kemalist secular system. Consequently, young Muslims were able to find in the Ottoman-Turkish experience an ideal past where they can relate to. More importantly, it provided practicing Muslims with the tools necessary to reform the ideological limitations of Kemalism.

This transformation required, however, adherents of Neo-Ottomanism to give up strongly ciriticising Kemalism yet do not be satisfied with its accomplishments. In this sense, although Neo-Ottomanism is not purely statist or Nationalist, it still does not question the legacy of Ataturk. Rather, its proponents defend the possibility of reading Kemalism in a different way. Neo-Ottomanism wanted the Kemalist republic to be at peace with its Ottoman past. This process is not an Islamization at the expense of Ataturk’s legacy but a sign of correcting the excesses associated with high Kemalism. Therefore this process also involved rectifying Kemalism.[10] It is interesting to see that Neo-Ottomanism allowed Muslims in Turkey to co-opt Ataturk after it had become clear that the secular establishment he founded was unable to co-opt Islam.


Mustafa Gokhan Sahin has a doctoral degree from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Government and International Affairs at University of South Florida where he teaches courses on International Relations, Comparative Politics and the Middle East. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual ISA-WEST Conference in Los Angeles on September 24, 2010.

[1] Since the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) its acronym has been part of an unresolved debate.  According to the official party records given to the Ministry of Interior, the acronym is “AK Parti.” In Turkish “ak” means white and clean; a clear reference to the party image of uncorrupted character. Instead of AK Parti, however, many scholars (and most political opponents) insist using AKP, which is a misnomer.

[2] Ahmet Davutoğlu. 2001. Stratejik Derinlik: Turkiye'nin Uluslararasi Konumu (Strategic Depth: Turkey's International Position). Istanbul: Kure Yayinlari, p. 85.

[3] Namik Kemal was the first Ottoman to formulate the idea of homeland that people can associate themselves with it as an ‘ideal’ rather than a piece of land. For more see Sina Aksin. 2007. Turkey from Empire to Revolutionary Republic: The Emergence of the Turkish Nation from 1789 to Present. New York: New York University Press, pp. 34-35; Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw. 1977. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey Volume II: Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808-1975. London: Cambridge University Press, pp. 131-132. On the other hand, as we learn from Sukru Hanioglu’s works, Ali Suavi was the first Ottoman to use the term “democracy” in 1870. For more see Sukru Hanioglu. 2002. “Ali Suavi” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 138.

[4], Erik Jan Zürcher. 2003. Turkey: A Modern History. New York: I.B. Tauris., p. 276

[5] For more see Aksin 2007, 82- 83.

[6] Shaw 1977, 130.

[7] Karpat, Kemal H. 2002. Studies on Ottoman Social and Political History: Selected Articles and Essays. Leiden: Brill, 524.

[8] For more see, Ola Tunander. 1995. "A New Ottoman Empire? The Choices for Turkey: Euro-Asian Centre vs National Fortress." Security Dialogue 26 (4): 413-426.; Stephanos Constantinides. 1996. "Turkey: The Emergence of a New Foreign Policy The Neo-Ottoman Imperial Model." Journal of Political and Military Sociology 24: 323-334.

[9] Davutoğlu 2001.

[10] Dariush Zahedi and Gokhan Bacik. 2010. "Kemalism Is Dead, Long Live Kemalism: How the AKP Became Ataturk’s Last Defender," Foreign Affairs, April 23, Accessed on April 24, 2010.


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