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he Ottoman constitution, 1876

Perhaps more significant than external changes were the internal

political developments that brought about the first Ottoman
constitution on December 23, 1876. The Tanzimat had produced
three types of criticism within the Muslim community. The first was
a simple traditionalist opposition. The second was a more
sophisticated critique elaborated by certain intellectuals, many of
whom had bureaucratic training and some knowledge of Western
ideas. The third expressed a determination to control, and if
necessary to depose, the sultan.
The intellectuals were known as the Young Ottomans. Although
some had taken part in a secret society (the “Patriotic Alliance”) in
1865 and had some similarity of background, the Young Ottomans
were not an organized political party; they are considered as a group
largely through the accident of their assembly
in Paris and London in 1867–71. Their political views ranged
from secular, cosmopolitan revolutionism to profoundly Islamic
traditionalism. Because his views occupied a middle ground among
those intellectuals and because of his lucidity of expression, Namık
Kemal (1840–88) has often been regarded as the representative
figure, although he is no more representative than the others. His
views, however, had the greatest effect on later reformers.
Kemal criticized the Tanzimat reformers for
their indiscriminate adoption of Western innovations. While
admiring much of Western civilization, he believed that the
principles underlying its best institutions were to be found in Islam.
In particular, he derived from early Islamic precept and practice the
idea of a representative assembly that could check the unbridled
power of the sultan and his ministers. He helped to form and
popularize the idea of a constitution and of loyalty to the Ottoman
fatherland. Like others, he was assisted by the development of an
Ottoman press, which had its origins in the 1830s but had begun to
express opinions—occasionally critical of the government—in the
1860s. During that decade two influential newspapers were
established, the Tercüman-i Ahval (1860) and the Tasvir-i
Efkâr (1862); along with later newspapers, those became the
vehicles for Young Ottoman ideas.
However, it was the third line of criticism, that which sought to
control the sultan, that was most important. Arising within the
higher Ottoman bureaucracy itself, it was led by Midhat Paşa.
Midhat and others became determined, because of their own
exclusion from power and because of the disastrous results of
Abdülaziz’s policies, to impose some check on the sultan’s power.
The traditional check was deposition, and that was accomplished
(May 30, 1876) following a riot by theological students and the
removal of the hated grand vizier Mahmud Nedim Paşa. A new
cabinet was formed, which included Midhat and other partisans of
reform. A new sultan with a reputation for liberalism, Murad
V (ruled 1876), was installed, but he quickly became insane and was
deposed, replaced by Abdülhamid II. The experience convinced
Midhat of the necessity of a permanent check upon the power of the
sultan, such as could be provided by a representative assembly that
would give ministers a basis of support independent of the sultan.
Accordingly, Abdülhamid was persuaded to agree to a constitution.
Although there had been constitutional implications in earlier
documents and although the development of councils—particularly
provincial councils with their elected elements—had included
parliamentary aspects, the December 23 document was the
first comprehensive Ottoman constitution and (except for a
Tunisian organic law of 1861) the first in any Islamic country. The
constitution was derived entirely from the will of the ruler, who
retained full executive power and to whom ministers were
individually responsible. In legislation the sultan was assisted by a
two-chamber Parliament, the lower house indirectly elected and the
upper house nominated by the ruler. Rights of ruler and ruled were
set out, but the system it established might best be described
as attenuated autocracy. Midhat has been criticized for accepting
certain amendments demanded by Abdülhamid, including the then-
notorious article 113, which gave the sultan the right to deport
persons harmful to the state; but it is clear that the majority of
Midhat’s colleagues were content with those amendments and that
the amendments made little difference, so great were the sultan’s
powers within and outside the constitution. The Parliament
summoned under the constitution in March 1877 was dissolved in
less than a year and was not recalled until 1908. The liberals were
exiled; some, including Midhat, were put to death.

Rule of Abdülhamid II

The reign of Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) is often regarded as having

been a reaction against the Tanzimat, but, insofar as the essence of
the Tanzimat reforms was centralization rather than liberalization,
Abdülhamid may be seen as its fulfiller rather than its destroyer.
The continued development of the army and administration, the
formation of a gendarmerie, the growth of communications—
especially the telegraph and railways—and the formation of an
elaborate spy system enabled the sultan to monopolize power and
crush opposition. His brutal repression of the Armenians in 1894–
96 earned him the European title “red sultan.” But Abdülhamid’s
reign also made positive advances in education (including the
renovation of Istanbul University in 1900); legal reform, led by his
grand vizier Mehmed Said Paşa; and economic development,
through the construction of railways in Asia Minor and Syria with
foreign capital and of the Hejaz
Railway from Damascus to Medina with the help of subscriptions
from Muslims in other countries.
Abdülhamid IIAbdülhamid II, c. 1890.George Grantham Bain
Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital File Number: cph

The Hejaz Railway constituted one element in Abdülhamid’s Pan-
Islamic policies. Political Pan-Islamism had made its first
appearance in Ottoman policy at the Treaty of Küçük
Kaynarca (1774) with Russia, when the Ottoman sultan had made
claims to religious jurisdiction over Muslims outside his territories,
particularly those in Crimea. Some years later the theory was
elaborated by the addition of the baseless legend that in 1517
the ʿAbbāsid caliphate had been transferred to the Ottoman sultan.
With the extinction of many independent Muslim states and their
absorption into the empires of European powers, that myth of the
caliphate became a useful weapon in the Ottoman diplomatic
armoury and was exploited by Abdülhamid as a means of deterring
European powers from pressing him too hard, lest he create
dissension within their own territories. In addition, stress on
popular Islam through the press and other publications and through
the sultan’s patronage of dervish orders served to rally Muslim
opinion within the empire behind him.

Preservation of the empire

Abdülhamid had reasonable success in preserving the empire after
1878. Apart from eastern Rumelia, no further territories were lost
until 1908 (Ottoman authority in Tunisia, occupied by France in
1881, and Egypt, occupied by Britain in 1882, was already
insignificant). In Crete the Ottomans suppressed revolts and
defeated Greece when it intervened in 1897 in support of the
Cretans. The European powers, however, forced Abdülhamid to
concede autonomy to Crete. He was more successful in obstructing
European efforts to force the introduction of substantial reforms in
Macedonia. In Arabia the Ottomans continued the expansion of
their power that had begun in the early 1870s.

The Young Turk Revolution of 1908

Several conspiracies took place against Abdülhamid. In 1889
a conspiracy in the military medical college spread to
other Istanbul colleges. The conspirators came to call themselves
the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP; İttihad ve Terakki
Cemiyeti) and were commonly known as the Young Turks. When the
plot was discovered, some of its leaders went abroad to reinforce
Ottoman exiles in Paris, Geneva, and Cairo, where they helped
prepare the ground for revolution by developing
a comprehensive critique of the Hamidian system. The most
noteworthy among those were Murad Bey, Ahmed Rıza, and
Prince Sabaheddin. As editor of Mizan (“Balance”), published first
in Istanbul (1886) and later in Cairo and Geneva, Murad Bey
preached liberal ideas combined with a strong Islamic feeling; that
may have contributed to his defection and return to Istanbul in
1897. Ahmed Rıza in Paris edited Meşveret (“Consultation”), in
which he set out ideas of reform, strongly flavoured by Auguste
Comte’s philosophy of positivism. His advocacy of a strong central
government within the Ottoman Empire and the exclusion of foreign
influence led to a major split within the Young Turk exiles at the
1902 Paris Congress; Ahmed Rıza clashed with Sabaheddin, who,
with Armenian support, favoured administrative decentralization
and European assistance to promote reform. Sabaheddin set up the
League of Private Initiative and Decentralization.
The émigrés could supply literary sustenance to dissidents, but
Abdülhamid could not be overthrown while the army remained
loyal. The real origin of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 lay in
the discontent within the Third Army Corps in Macedonia, where
officers acted independently of the CUP in Paris. It is still unclear if
a coordinated conspiracy existed in Macedonia or if a number of
separate centres of disaffection, linked haphazardly through
individuals, dervish orders, Freemason lodges, and other means,
coalesced in July 1908 under the banner of the CUP through the
pressure of events. On July 3, 1908, Major Ahmed Niyazi,
apparently fearing discovery by an investigatory committee,
decamped from Resne with 200 followers, including civilians,
leaving behind a demand for the restoration of the constitution. The
sultan’s attempt to suppress the uprising failed, and rebellion spread
rapidly. Abdülhamid was unable to rely on other troops, and on July
24 he announced the restoration of the constitution.
The young officers who had instigated the revolution, like their
civilian supporters, were primarily concerned with preserving the
Ottoman Empire; they feared that Hamidian policies and European
interventions were endangering its existence. Grievances concerning
personal matters such as salary and rank, however, also may have
played a part. Though some writers have argued that a new type of
officer, of lower social origin than officers from earlier generations,
influenced the discontent, there is little evidence to support such a
theory. It is clear, however, that the officers had not thought much
beyond their demand for the restoration of a constitution that had
proved ineffectual in 1877–78. They had no program of action and
were content to leave government to the established bureaucrats.
In April 1909, however, an army mutiny in Istanbul (known because
of the Julian calendar as the “31st March Incident”) exposed the
weakness of the CUP and at the same time gave it a new
opportunity. The mutiny resulted from the discontent of ordinary
soldiers over their conditions and their neglect by college-trained
and politically ambitious officers and from what they regarded as
infidel innovations. They were encouraged by a religious
organization known as the Mohammedan Union. The weakness of
the government allowed the mutiny to spread, and, although order
was eventually restored in Istanbul and more quickly elsewhere, a
force from Macedonia (the Action Army), led by Mahmud Şevket
Paşa, marched on Istanbul and occupied the city on April 24.