Logo de Turquie Européenne
Accueil > Articles > Articles 2007 > Europe - Turkey : a matter of coherence (2)

Europe - Turkey : a matter of coherence (2)

mercredi 12 juillet 2006, par Hans-Peter Geissen

Discussions about European identity and the accession of Turkey to the EU are frequently based on selected traits of historical and/or ideological developments. And so it is with respect to the precarious self-definition of Turkey as a nation-state, too. But both may be based on material grounds as well, which in turn may shift the arrangement of ideas about the meaning of specific historical events.
Hans-Peter Geissen offers to TE’s readers a very specific reflection on the course of the Europe-Turkey relationship throughout centuries.
In order to better understand the fate of the Ottoman Empire in a European context, and to draw some conclusions about useful steps in the near future, he draws a sketch of European history ; very coarse for the deeper past and denser for recent history.

- Hans-Peter Geissen lives in Koblenz (Germany), at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.
Interested in all what concerns faunistics (data about animal species) of the Midrhine region, he is the author of many scientific publications on these issues. He bent on the Turkish issue with a very specific approach so as « to prevent a self-definition of Europe on the grounds of historical or religious mythologies. »


European empires had several advantages for the peoples that inhabited them, especially the Europeans. There was a large space in which to travel freely for trade or jobs. Ethnicity was of minor importance, as it had been in the Middle Ages and the Antique. The medieval revolution in what became Switzerland, too, retained their multi-ethnic nation with four official languages to the present day.

In parallel with geographical discoveries, developments took place in philosophy, empirical sciences, and technologies, arts, as well as economy and administration. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the superior logistics, training and organization of the Ottoman army was copied in much of Europe, even including military music, which had a major role in European military success. The living together of different religions in the Ottoman state influenced the English Deists and German Enlightenment and secularism, among others, so shaping to some degree the development of ideas. All those developments were accompagnied by serious power struggles, but also frequent exchange of knowledge between European states and peoples - thanks to the intermarriage and mingling of the ruling classes, artisan and other travel and migrations, and printing technologies.

At that time, however, the Ottoman elites largely followed an Islamic tradition in that developments in the « infidel » parts of the world couldn’t be worth the interest of true believers. In fact, informal exchange with the west and north of Europe, due to wandering mercenaries, seems to have been more intense up to the late 15th ct. So it seems that the classical period was also laying the ground for later decline. It’s an irony of sort that the only dignitaries of the Ottoman household of the classical period (16th/17th ct.) who held intense diplomatic contacts with European states, namely sultan wifes/mothers who originally had been Kul of western origin, were held responsible for the decline that more probably traditionalism had caused.

Whatsoever, the resulting defeats of the Ottoman armies from the 17th ct. onwards increased interest in « the West » enormously and led to many reforms as well as diplomatic contacts. They did however ultimately not lead to sufficient results. As is nearly always the case, so in the Ottoman sphere reforms were accompagnied by conservative counter movements. There is a difficulty with that : the past, generally, was in fact quite pragmatic, the Ottomans and their brand of Sunnism being no exception. However, conservative ideologies interpret it as something « pure » or « orthodox », and try to « return » to this sheer imagination. In the end, it can and indeed does never happen, but may be destructive by simply slowing down necessary adaptations.


One of the results of economic and technological developments in western Europe was a class of traders and industrial producers, in French called the bourgeoisy. As they became more numerous and powerful, they challenged the ruling aristocracies. Another development, in the context of Enlightenment, was the discovery of ancient and contemporanous languages as study objects, and of the community of speakers of a language as a social community sharing a communication, historical, and thus political space - the (ethnic) nation. Both led to further power struggles in Europe, the fights for independence or unification of ethnicities, democracy and freedoms including several revolutions which may be called national-democratic or national-liberal.

Turning to the Ottomans, a system of extraordinary taxes and confiscations prevented the development of an Ottoman bourgeoisy. Following major military defeats, and economic weakness (due to a variety of reasons), Ottoman citizens under protection of a European power (due to a « capitulation » privilege) could escape the confiscations, and so an Ottoman bourgeoisy emerged. However, this was only allowed for non-Muslims, and thus the bourgeoisy was exclusively non-Muslim (mainly Greek and mixed « Levantine »). There was one field in which some Muslims had an advantage (local administrative functions and/or landownership), and became entrepreneurs mainly in agrarian production and trade - the ayan. However, their prospects were limited due to the confiscations. Meanwhile, traditional Turkish artisans, craftmanship, and (caravan) trade were declining due to western industrial and trade competition and lack of financial capital on the part of the Muslims/Turks. As marriage of Muslim women with Christians was forbidden by Sharia law, whereas Christian bourgeois could not convert to Islam due to the impending confiscations, family ties (a method of acquisition, fusion and political arrangements of prime importance in early capitalism) could be developed neither with Muslim merchants nor with the western-type Muslim bureaucracy (« state bourgeoisy » in F.M. Göcek’s innovative terminology), nor with traditional ruling households. The Muslim entrepreneurs of former times were more or less proletarianized, accordingly.


Meanwhile, there was a rift in Greek perceptions. On one hand we have the « national » bourgeoisy and its allies, not least western-type scholars in the tradition of European Enlightenment. They chose to build their own ethnic nation.

The traditional way, on the other hand, saw the Greeks as a religious community (or millet) - the Orthodox. Their leaders were opposed to Enlightenment and its derivatives, including Greek nationalism. Many of the common members of this « Greek » religious community only spoke Turkish, Romanian, Albanian, or a Slavic language, whereas the liturgic language of the church was indeed Greek. So any ethnic nationalism would, obviously, lead to a division of the church. And indeed, finally it did, starting ironically with the secession (autocephaly) of the ethnically Greek church, with a Turkish-Orthodox micro-church being the last to secede in the 1920ies.

It must be stated that most Greeks (as well as Turks) tend to ignore that inner-Greek rift, as it doesn’t meet the needs of current national mythologies.


It seems that the leaders of the Phanar community of leading Greek families and the Orthodox patriarchate did not consider the Ottoman Empire as merely a Turkish or a Muslim empire, but the Muslim/Turkish (Ottoman)-led continuation of the Roman (« Byzantine ») Empire. There seems to be some evidence that even Mehmet the Conqueror saw it this way. In this logic it would have been possible to save the empire by simply changing the leadership from Ottoman-(Turkish)-Muslim to « Greek »-(multiethnic)-Orthodox. Unfortunately, however, the imperial ideology, especially since Selim I., was strongly based on Islamishness (Sunnite dominance) of the empire - in theory even more than in practice. The Ottoman elites could not even imagine a non-Muslim rule, so the support of the empire by the Orthodox and Armenian churches could not work and ultimately was in vain.

At the same time those elites (and the non-Turkish bourgeosies) could not easily accept an emancipation of the Turkish ethnicity (of the Turkish commoners or raya) either, which in fact would have included an emancipation of the Alevite sect(s), as well as the emergence of a powerful Turkish bourgeoisy, and even some socialist labour movement. Each might have threatened traditional rule. And if so, the only option left, consequently, was Islamism - as indeed was the course followed by Abdülhamit II. This was a rather liberal or pragmatic Islamism unlike the Salafi/Vahabite brand. But there was only one net gain for the empire in this, the mobilization of some Kurdish tribal militia in the name of Islam (finally a double-edged sword, too), whereas the Christian financial bourgeoisies, and the western-type Turkish state-bourgeoisy alike, were further alienated from Ottoman rule. A possible link of several Anatolian and Balkan populations, the Bektasiye, was already forbidden and expropriated in 1826, and largely remained underground (the main exception was their Albanian stonghold until the communists came to power).

Télécharger au format PDFTélécharger le texte de l'article au format PDF

SPIP | squelette | | Plan du site | Suivre la vie du site RSS 2.0