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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balazs Trencsenyi
Michal Kopecek

Chapter III. The Nationalization of Space

The basis of reform

Ahmed Midhat Efendi
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Üss-i İnkılab (The basis of reform)

2Originally published: Istanbul, Takvimhane-i Amire Press, 1877

3Language: Ottoman Turkish

4A transliterated version of the Üss-i İnkılab has been published by Selis Books (Istanbul, 2004). The original Ottoman edition was used for the translation provided in this volume (pp. 8, and 36–37).

About the author

5Ahmed Midhat Efendi [1844, Istanbul – 1912, Istanbul]: publisher, journalist, novelist, playwright. Born into a family of very modest substance, Ahmed Midhat worked his way up the social ladder to become the most illustrious example of the self-made Tanzimat polymath. He started his primary education in Vidin (today in Bulgaria), where his brother served as a government officer, and then moved to Niš (now in Serbia), where he graduated from the secular high school. In 1864, as a protégé of the eminent reformer Midhat Paşa (then the governor of the Danube province), he moved to Rusçuk (Ruse, present-day Bulgaria) as a clerk, where he took Arabic and Persian lessons, learned French, and became acquainted with European literature. By 1868 he was publishing articles in the officially sponsored newspaper Tuna (The Danube). In 1869, following Midhat Paşa, he moved to Baghdad, and two years later, returned to Istanbul. Without any form of regular income from the state (which was unusual for an Ottoman intellectual at the time) he supported his family by running a private print shop where he printed and distributed his own books. In 1873, due to his loose affiliation with some members of the Young Ottoman group, he was sent to Rhodes in exile, only to return after the enthronement of Abdülhamid II in 1876. Essentially an apolitical figure, Ahmed Midhat took no further risks and became an avid supporter and publicist of the Hamidian regime. For many years, under the strict censorial measures of Hamidian absolutism, he was able to continue publishing his popular newspaper Tercüman-ı Hakikat (Interpreter of Truth). In 1889, he was sent to Stockholm as the Ottoman representative to the Eighth Congress of Orientalists. Devoid of any credibility during the Young Turk era, Ahmed Midhat spent his last years in almost complete obscurity. Ahmed Midhat was indisputably the most prolific writer of his age. Duly nicknamed “the forty horse-power writing machine,” he produced more than a hundred books on almost every genre, from science fiction novels to etiquette manuals to critical essays on history, gender and religion. The passionate writer’s primary agenda was to educate the ordinary Ottoman public and to familiarize them with the fruits (and perils) of modern civilization. Considered to be among the founders of the novel in the Ottoman context, Ahmed Midhat appropriated the Western genre in a highly idiosyncratic fashion, blending it creatively with traditional narrative forms and popular techniques of story-telling. His works generally address the dilemmas and complexities of the process of cultural Westernization brought about by the Tanzimat. Troubled by the prospect of over-Westernization, he argued for a balanced reconciliation between the material benefits of Western civilization and the moral values of Ottoman-Islamic society. It is impossible to label Ahmet Midhat solely as a conservative or progressive. Often attuned to the prevailing conformist mood of the Hamidian era, he was still well ahead of his age when it came to certain sensitive issues such as gender equality.

6Main works: Felsefe-i Zenan [Philosophy of women] (1870); Yeniçeriler [The janissaries] (1871); Eyvah [Alas] (1871); Felatun Bey ile Rakım Efendi [Felatun Bey and Rakım Efendi] (1875); Menfa [Exile] (1876); Üss-i İnkılab [The basis of reform], 2 vols., (1877–78); Karnaval [Carnival] (1881); Henüz On Yedi Yaşında [Still only seventeen] (1881); Mufassal Tarih-i Kurun-ı Cedide [A detailed history of the Middle Ages], 3 vols., (1886–88); Avrupa’da Bir Cevelan [A tour in Europe] (1889– 90); Fatma Aliye Hanım yahut Bir Muharrire-i Osmaniyyenin Neş’eti [Fatma Aliye Hanım, or The birth of a female Ottoman writer] (1893–94); Avrupa Adab-ı Muaşereti yahut Alafranga [European etiquette or ‘Alla Franca’] (1894–95); Jön Türk [Young Turk] (1910).


7The Üss-i İnkilab consists of two volumes. The first volume, from which the translated passages are taken, was published during the second year of Sultan Abdülhamid’s reign. Starting with a fascinating historical overview about the emergence of the Ottoman polity, the bulk of this volume comprises a detailed account of the political events of the Tanzimat years. The second volume, published in 1878, entirely recounts the events of the Hamidian era, publicizing the accomplishments of the new sultan in a celebratory tone. The years in which these two volumes were published mark a critical turning point in late Ottoman history. The first years of Abdülhamid’s rule, from the promulgation of the first Ottoman constitution in 1876 to its abrogation by the same sultan in 1878, constitute the culmination, and perhaps the swan song, of the Tanzimat era. The 1876 constitution, largely crafted by Ahmed Midhat’s mentor Midhat Paşa, was the most articulate legal manifestation of the Tanzimat principle of Ottomanism. By declaring that all subjects of the empire, without distinction of ethnicity or creed, are to be recognized as ‘Osmanlı’ (Ottoman), the document consummated Tanzimat’s ideal of egalitarian citizenship and enhanced its secular concept of the state. In these years Abdülhamid was careful to act as an avid supporter of the constitution and the new parliamentary system. Thus, in the Üss-i İnkilab, he is portrayed by Ahmed Midhat as a magnanimous patron of freedom and equality—as a ruler with the political acumen to finally fulfill the promises of the Tanzimat.

8Ahmed Midhat begins his first volume with an introductory chapter on the founding years of the Ottoman state. A prelude to the distant medieval past may appear out of place in a book devoted to the period of Late Ottoman reforms, but Ahmed Midhat’s strategy resonates well with the Late Tanzimat mission of creating a new historical awareness about the period of Ottoman ‘origins’ as the cradle of a shared and continuous Ottoman identity. For the Ottomans of the nineteenth century who looked back at the founding years of their dynasty, a re-appraisal of the highly syncretic nature of Early Ottoman culture promised to be a pertinent ideological instrument for providing historical legitimacy to the modern ideal of cultural and political syncretism instilled by the Tanzimat. A new layer of meaning was added to the reading of Early Ottoman history by the proponents of Late Ottoman reform, which was propelled by their quest for inventing and representing a suitable dynastic-national past. Laced with romanticized overtones and political innuendos, this revised and recharged version of the distant dynastic past helped authenticate and eternalize the Tanzimat’s newly contrived models of collective identity and nationality. This revisionist mood oriented towards the past was a necessary step in the process of fabricating a modern Ottoman identity (along European lines) with a historical basis of legitimation. Thus, seeking to rediscover what was viable in the past in order to meet the exigencies of the present, the Late Tanzimat elite set out to ascertain the compatibility of traditional Ottoman values with the liberal and ‘progressive’ ideals upheld by modern Europeans. The most adulated authors, poets and scholars of the second half of the nineteenth century, Namık Kemal in particular, helped instill in the public memory a paradigmatic image of early Ottoman society as virtuous, humane, rational, egalitarian—in sum, ‘innately modern’ in every respect.

9Ahmed Midhat’s idealized rendition of Early Ottoman society is one of the most articulate efforts to locate historically the Ottoman national “genera.” For him, the formative period is significant as it reveals the fundamental tenets of the Ottoman polity in their embryonic and most immaculate form, hence constituting the essential model, or the “basis,” for Late Ottoman reform. In the historical outline, Ahmed Midhat identifies the cosmopolitan and egalitarian ideals of Tanzimat Ottomanism as the primal and indefatigable constituents of the “Ottoman imperial edifice,” keeping it intact since the very first days of its foundation. He describes the emergence of the Ottoman state as the dawn of “a new civilization,” brought forth through the unification of various ethnic/religious elements around the ideals of “freedom” and “political fraternity.” In Ahmed Midhat’s text, “Ottomanness” (which, in fact, comprised an elusive identity associated with the ruling elite throughout the centuries prior to the Tanzimat) was projected back to encompass the entire history of the Ottoman state. For him, it was a common marker of ‘national identity’ that was wholeheartedly embraced by Muslim and Christian subjects alike since the dawning of the Ottoman age (interestingly Ahmed Midhat fails to mention the Jews in this context, possibly because they did not pose an imminent nationalist threat to the unity of the empire). Defining “compatriotism” as the most vital attribute of the Ottoman past, Ahmed Midhat even intimates that the Christian populations appear to have been the more loyal subjects, in view of the level of Muslim insurgence and duplicity observed through the ages. Mentioning the “seeds of malice” that have been sown among the Christian subjects in the preceding decades, Ahmed Midhat contends that the very threat of nationalist insurgence can only be avoided in the empire by reconfirming the fundamental tenets of Ottoman nationhood; that is, by implementing, to their fullest extent, the principles of freedom and equality. Following the numerous failures of the Tanzimat regime, he concludes, this was what Sultan Abdülhamid was about to achieve.


The basis of reform

11[Even a cursory overview of the events of Ottoman history would reveal some fundamental tenets of the Ottoman polity:] Firstly, had Ottomanness not been a politically constituted fraternity and nationhood, and all classes of people comprising this assemblage not been content with their political standing, would it have been possible for a tribe of four hundred tents to build a magnificent state in a matter of few years?

12Secondly, had the primary mission of the Ottoman state not been to protect and enhance the freedom of the people brought under its rule, and if it were conceived, like many other states that preceded it, to engulf and annihilate the subjected peoples, then would the Ottomans, as the victors and masters of the land, dare to establish the Janissary corps [out of converts] and supply the dominated nations with arms?

13[… furthermore], had Ottomanness not been cherished, esteemed and venerated by the Christians as much as the Muslims that belonged to the community, would the Christian Rumelian troops fighting against Timur the Terrible [in 1402] have remained steadfast and displayed such devotion and self-sacrifice, while many Anatolian Muslim soldiers defected to the enemy lines.

14[These and many other evidences confirm that], for the civilization of humankind, Ottomanness presents a novel and progressive mode of government and fraternity that has the capacity to satisfy every member of society. Those who join the community, either of their own will or through subjugation, wholeheartedly embrace and recognize Ottomanness as their own political identity, similar to their former religious and communal identities, and do not differ in any way from their fellow Muslim citizens in defending this fraternity under all circumstances. […]

15Today, as in the past, there exist cynics who cast doubt on the beneficial unifying goals and the lofty egalitarian ideals championed by the Sublime [Ottoman] State since the earliest stages of its existence. But certainly all history, to the most mundane events of everyday life, would testify to the fact that we regarded and acknowledged all classes of people comprising the Ottoman community as genuine “Ottomans,” and that in turn, they regarded us in exactly the same terms. Anyone in their right mind would concede that the enlightened objective of modelling our future upon our past would bestow absolute happiness on all Ottoman classes. […]

16To some extent, the seeds of malice that were planted [in the past] to corrupt the non-Muslim subjects have taken root. The efforts of certain harborers of greed and avarice, who nourished these seeds with the water of intrigue, have resulted today in a great catastrophe witnessed by everyone with tears of sorrow. Still, today and in the future, these circumstances are bound to remain too frail to prevail over the firm basis of unity upon which the edifice of Ottomanness rests. Every friend and foe would agree that when, with the help of the Almighty, our period of reform bears its fruits, the initial unity and concord of the Ottoman classes will be fully restored. […]

17[The declaration of the Tanzimat] reconfirmed the condition of equality that constitutes the founding basis of the Ottoman state: All classes of people living under the Ottoman flag, regardless of their religious and denominational affiliations and their communal and racial identities, constitute a unified political nation and are equal beneficiaries of the common law. […]

18Disorder and unruliness, the makers of our contemporary predicament, were engendered by a general disrespect for the laws. The Muslim class, which has always worked hard collectively for the supremacy of the state, deigned to commit many ungainly acts in order to ravage our imperial edifice. Soon after, instigated by conspiracies, some Christian groups contributed to the devastation of our laudable political fraternity and our blissful nation with the intention to revolt. […]

19[The laws instituted between the reigns of Mahmud II (1808–1839) and Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) do not rest upon a firm basis.] Today, carrying the sincere and progressive intention of regenerating and supporting the Ottoman nation under his rule through the blessings of freedom and equality, Sultan Abdülahmid II granted, with his majestic grace and favor, a constitution that provides a solid base for public laws. With this marvellous law, he laid the foundations of a total process of change, transformation and renovation in the direction of the initial order of our state. […]

20[In the Late Middle Ages], the essential prerequisite for establishing and confirming an imperial edifice possessing the necessary firmness and tenacity—such as the one founded by the House of Osman—was a governing body which would have the capability of bringing various [ethnic/religious] elements together and merging them as an indivisible whole. At that point in history, the institution of such a consolidated polity by any dynasty of Muslim, Turkish or Christian origin, save the Ottomans, remained a distant possibility. The complete and permanent unification of these diverse components, that unprecedented feat of remarkable aptitude and subtlety, was realized, with the grace of God, by the Ottoman House alone. The tangible remains of their rule bear testimony to the inimitable level of this dynasty’s conciliatory achievement.


Ahmet Ersoy (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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