From Ottomanism to New-Ottomanism: Strategic Depth as a new synthesis
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Presentation at the conference “Balkan Worlds: Ottoman past and Balkan Nationalisms” organized by The Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies, University of Macedonia in collaboration with the Association Internationale d'Etudes du Sud-Est Europeen, October 5-7, 2012 at the University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki.



From Ottomanism to New-Ottomanism:

Strategic Depth as a new synthesis


(By. Dr. H. Millas)






The national identity and its relation to the Ottoman past are issues that are widely discussed in contemporary Turkey. Ottomanism and/or New-Ottomanism are two terms often mentioned lately in relation to the observed efforts to reconstruct memories through new interpretations of the past. However, the two endeavors are a century apart and they differ substantially. The comparison of the two, i.e., of Ottomanism versus New-Ottomanism, is the main subject of this presentation. The objective of this comparative approach is to obtain a better understanding of the two movements and as a consequence of both the Ottoman and the present Turkey’s milieu.[1]


The movement known as Ottomanism is comparatively better studied and will be dealt shortly here. More will be said about the recent efforts to invent new national memories and identities, decades after the official and explicit rejection of Ottomanism at the beginning of the 20th century. The thesis advanced by Ahmet Davutoğlu in his  Strategic Depth  (2001) will be utilized to document the new reappearance of the Ottoman past as a unique 21st century interpretation and ideology.


The Ottoman Empire is a reality of the past and its legacy continues to be felt in some modern societies. In similar way nationalism and nation-states are phenomena that appeared a few centuries ago but not only are they still today with us but they are also presently very much vivid preserving their influence. The past is with us because human societies identify themselves with some real or imaginary ancestors and events. In other words, a historic past is kept alive and/or revived anew in a peculiar way within a context which is often called “identity”. In my presentation I will try to show how the Ottoman past and/or the Ottoman heritage is being variably perceived and expressed in modern Turkey nowadays.





The Ottoman Empire officially ended in 1923 but its reputation in the country that claims being its heir stays alive until today as two confronting poles: 

- As a scapegoat and even as an anathema to be blamed and rejected.  

- Or, especially the last few decades, as a glorious national past, a nostalgic and a romantic “lost paradise”.


The phases that the image of the Ottoman past passed the last decades do not tell us much about the Ottoman state and the Ottoman society per se, but the related perceptions demonstrate quite clearly how modern Turkey experiences and copes with the Ottoman heritage and its national identity. This identity issue – irrespective if it is expressed “for” or “against” the Ottoman past - is connected to other parameters which are directly and/or indirectly associated to “Ottomanism” of any kind. Whenever the Ottoman past is being discussed in Turkey some other domains, issues and approaches come to the agenda, too|; the Ottoman past is meant something more than an academic curiosity. Ottomanism is a complex phenomenon and its study will be incomplete without taking into consideration some issues of various academic disciplines and domains which constitute an indispensible part of such a study. The issues associated to Ottomanism and/or New-Ottomanism and some related viewpoints are the following:  


1- In historiography: The “classical period” of the Ottomans is usually praised by all. The controversy mostly is about the recent past of the Empire: Some criticize and denounce it and others praise it – or at least they do not condemn it and they do not express their disapproval.      

2- As an identity: According to the point that is intended to be made the past of the national “self”, i.e., of “Turkishness”, is perceived differently vis-à-vis the Ottomans: The pro-Ottomans perceive Ottomanism and Turkishness to be closely associated. Those who are against give a greater importance to the pre-Islamic history and/or highlight modern Turkey.

3- East-West axis: Comparisons with “west” which end in favor or against the Ottoman experience is part of the controversy. Those in favor of the Ottoman experience promote its culture; the opponents highlight the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution of the West. For the second group to look like “westerners” (westernization) means progress; for the first it means mimicry, pretention and loss of essential identity of the “self”.

4- Religion: Religious beliefs and especially Islam are mostly associated with the Ottoman past. For some this bond is favorable and for some others unfavorable. Those who oppose this past promote secularism/laicism; the others favor piety and Islam.

5- Philosophically: The pro-ottomans self identify themselves as “conservatives” (muhafazakar) whereas their opponents as “progressive” and “modern” (ilerici/çağdaş). The anti-Ottomanists are positivists exalting “science” and “reason”; whereas the Ottomanists are - rather surprisingly, since they are self-proclaimed conservatives – post modernists, in the sense that they attack positivism on the grounds of relativity and skepticism vis-à-vis “science”.

6- Symbols: The head figure of the anti-Ottomanism is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who personifies modern Turkey. The “Ottomanists”, on the other hand, like to exalt figures mostly blamed by their opponents, e.g., Sultan Abdülhamit. Each group has its own references and intellectuals (historians, authors etc) which they promote.   

7- Art and esthetics: Balée dancing, sculptures, western classical and popular music are preferred by “modernists” and “westerners”; Turkish classical music, abstract motifs in decoration are preferred by the “easterners”.

8- Life style: The difference between conservatism and progressiveness is readily noticed in everyday living and life-style such as outfits, following traditional rituals, etc. Family environment, ethics, traditional food is contested by the other side with traveling abroad, visiting beaches and swimming pools, mixed dancing parties, etc. Drinking juice or alcoholic drinks in a meeting immediately determines the two opposing camps. Even the language may reveal the sides: the conservatives use a more traditional Turkish whereas the “modern Turks” will normally use the refined language which has been “cleansed” from Arabic and Persian words.    

 9- Ideals and ideology: This arena is characterized by reciprocal criticism and stereotyping. The anti-Ottomanists accuse the other side as mystic, esoteric, distanced from worldly realities; the Ottomanists blame their opponents as intolerant, social engineers and nationalists. As for self image, one side is for ethical virtues and tranquility; the other side for progress and modernization. 

10- The type of the state and the “minorities”: The Ottomanists yearn for a multi-cultural state where the social groups would enjoy their freedoms; the “modernists” are for a “modern, centralized” and more monolithic society.


In other words a conclusive discussion on Ottomanism (or new-Ottomanism) is a very wide and complex enterprise. It should cover all the above domains. Each domain has its own history, discourse, argumentation and references. In each case there are arguments and counter-arguments. There are views clearly stated but alongside these there are also, positions, ideas and projects that are hinted or inferred. Not only is an exposition of these necessary but in many cases a deconstruction of the above will prove necessary for a thorough analysis.


The study of the contemporary “Ottomanism” as well as of the Ottomanism of the 19th and early 20th century faces similar difficulties. Impartiality is not easy to be attained because the object to be studied is not a “historical” one but still an active issue closely tied to politics and identities. Any assessment on the “Ottomanism” of the 19th century has repercussions and consequences on New-Ottomanism and vice versa.  Objective analysis rests as an aspiration rather than the practice.


Therefore due to these complexities my presentation will be limited in scope; it will cover some important aspects of Ottomanism and New-Ottomanism but not all of them. I will refer very briefly to the historical aspect of Ottomanism. I will then show the “anti-Ottomanist” movement which reached its peak with the new modern Turkey. The textbooks of the 1930s are good sources that show how Ottomanism was perceived at that time –at least by the founders of the Turkish Republic. The textbooks of 2011 will show in what way a new interpretation of the Ottomans appears presently in Turkey. Finally Strategic Depth will be used to show how an altogether new interpretation and synthesis related to national identity have been reached with unique references to the recent past, or rather, to a new interpretation of the Ottoman experience.





“Ottomanism” (Osmanlılık or Osmanlıcılık, in Turkish) does not mean “related to the Ottomans or to the Ottoman Empire”. The Ottoman entity lasted about six centuries but the word “Ottomanism” is recent and refers to a special historical period. Furthermore, the word Ottomanism possesses a meaning only as opposed to something else; and it became more popular as a means of negation: against Ottoman practice. 


“Ottomanism” first came to the agenda as a state policy and ideology with the  “Meşrutiyet” (Constitutional Monarcy) in 1876. In the article 8 of the new constitution it was mentioned that “all subjects of the Ottoman State irrespective of religion or sect and without exception are called Ottomans”. This act reflected the will of the state to secure the equality between all subjects of different religion and ethnicity. Irrespectively of what later happened in practice, the purpose was to create a new sense of belonging to a state that embraces all its citizens. As it was later evaluated, “Ottomanism” was proposed and propagated as a new identity which would unite the citizens under a new banner.


Ottomanism shortly faced three serious enemies. The conservative (traditional) Muslim Ottomans were not pleased with the idea of being equal to the non-Muslims. The nationalist Turks who tried to establish an ethnically defined nation state did not believe in this vision of an all-embracing cosmopolitan state. Finally a big section of the non-Muslim Ottoman subjects, under the influence of the rising wave of nationalism in the Balkans were not wholeheartedly committed to this multi-ethnic project. Eventually all three groups jointly in practice cancelled out Ottomanism.      


However, on paper the effort continued until the last day of the Ottoman state. A textbook of 1912 shows the tension between the officially supported Ottomanism and the dawn of nationalism. On one hand it states that the Turks are the greatest nation in the world and that Turks and Ottomans mean the same thing and on the other hand it repeats the official view that “the Ottoman nation is composed of the Turks and other ethnic groups that are subjects of the Turkish government… There is a great nation and that is the Ottomanism.”[2]   


Ottomanism was the last project to save the Ottoman Empire. It failed. And in our days it is remembered as an unsuccessful effort to build a non-ethnic (or multi-ethnic) identity. The Turkish nationalism is founded on the negation of Ottomanism. For example this is the case with Yusuf Akçura who in 1905 with his manifesto rejected as non-realistic both Islamism and Ottomanism (Osmanlılık), proposing Turkishness (Türkçülük) as the only solution to the problem; the “problem” being finding the way to save the declining state. 





The final victory and supremacy of the Turkish nationalism and the establishment of the Turkish nation-state naturally signaled the end of Ottomanism. However, what is of importance is how this short lived Ottomanism was imagined and reconstructed. The memory of the Ottoman past mostly identified and symbolized as “Ottomanism” was demonized by the new regime.  This can be best documented by the textbooks of 1930’s where the official views of the new state were most clearly and systematically stated.[3] The criticism was holistic; everything Ottoman was shown as decadent, harmful, unethical, against the nation, backward, etc.


As it was mentioned above, a number of “issues” which are usually associated to “Ottomanism” were discussed and criticized, too: Ottoman historiography, Islam and its practices, the sultans, the art and letters, the language used in the Ottoman period,  the multi-ethnic identity, the relations with the “west”, the educational system, the “eastern” life style, the relations with the non-Turkish ethnic groups and the state philosophy were all condemned. Criticizing Ottomanism presupposed the involvement of all these issues. The emotional language used to pass judgment on the Ottoman period is probably more illustrative than what actually was said. I present some passages from these books to give an idea of the discrediting discourse.[4]


“During the Ottoman period not only was national history neglected but also negated and distorted… The Turkishness before Islam was absent in the textbooks. They wanted to pass the message that the Turkish civilization, grandeur and nobleness were attained only after reaching Islam and the Ottoman rule… Only after 1929 national history in its true meaning started being taught in our schools” (4, 259).


Ottomanism, as a political project was declared a “dream”: “They thought and they hoped that by making the Christians equal to the Muslims the Christians would not seek secession from the Ottoman Empire. The Tanzimat period had the dream that irrespective of their religion, the subjects of the Sultan once they had equal legal rights and interests they would form an Ottoman nation”  (3, 122). “The Ottomanist movement which had the dream of creating a single nation out of different ethnic groups [unsurlar] did not even mention the name ‘Turk’ and thus opened the road to delete this name from the pages of history” (1, Preface) “They were naïve enough to believe … that with freedom and equality the Greeks (Rums), Bulgarians, Serbs will forget what they are and they will become Ottomans” (3, 128).


Islam is under fire in conjunction with Ottomanism, too. The Arabic aspect of Islam is specially criticized and Turks are shown as having lived independently and distanced from the Arabs. Islam is interpreted as a sociological and political system and not as a pious faith, let alone as a “true faith”. It is even inferred that the Koran is the result of the inspiration of the Prophet and not “the order of Allah”. The historical “facts” mentioned in the Koran are also challenged.  


“Before Islam there was no Arabic culture. It was other races and especially the Turks who created the culture during the period of Islam” (2, 164).  “[The prophet] Mohammed understood that the Arabs needed to reform their bad and primitive ethics and habits, he thought for years in seclusion about this and then the idea of ‘vahiy’ and inspiration occurred to him … Like all primitive societies the Arabs too, believed that the poets got their inspiration from powers which they could not understand. For the Arabs these powers were the Cin’s… Mohammed  presented the verses of Koran  which were the fruits of his long thinking according to the needs [of the society]” (2, 91).[5]  “As for the historical information presented in the Koran, this has been shaken from its foundations after the new scientific facts [hakikatler] and especially after the recent historical knowledge that came to light” (2, 92).    


Islam and its related practices are criticized in conjunction with the Ottoman policies and organization. In this respect, the opposition is to both Ottomanism and Islam (or, on a “positivist” basis, to religion in general). Actually, Islam and Ottomanism are perceived to form a unity. The textbooks explain that starting from the 15th century religious fanaticism caused the expulsion of “the European artists that were in the royal court… and they were replaced by the ones that came from the East” (3, 36). The message is clear: West is superior, East means backwardness. The Caliphate (a religious title of the Sultan) also proved harmful for the Empire: it held back all needed developments and improvements. (3, 38).


Islam, Islamism and Ottomanism are also condemned with references to the Sultan Abdulhamit. “When Ottomanism could not impose its legitimacy Islamism and the Unity of Muslims were seen as solutions. They mistakenly thought that they could protect the country by the support of some Muslim powers” (3, 139). In other words Islamism was a “dream” like Ottomanism.[6] “The authoritarian, disastrous, dishonest and gloomy reign of Abdulhamit” had caused unrest and resistance (3, 140). 


The East-West axis, their comparison and the denunciation of the East is met often and under different occasions.  “Europe started to change drastically from the 16th century onwards…the Renaissance and the Reform movements caused an important intellectual and spiritual revolution… [Whereas in the Ottoman Empire] the state faced economic difficulties since there were no more war trophies and the people were exploited” (3, 60). 


In other words Ottomanism operated as a treacherous mechanism against “Turkishness” and was worthless: “The Ottoman State that we have inherited was seen by the world as having no value or personality” (4, 129). Even the traditional clothing needed to be changed: “A civilized and international attire is proper to us” (4, 234). Science and positivist thinking should replace the old approaches: Superstition (hurafeler) will be abandoned and “the true way, the route to civilization” will be followed (4, 236). All these will be accomplished through education, whereas in the Ottoman Empire the educational system was almost non-existent. “There were even cases where students were punished because they talked about Darwin” (4, 244). The positivist philosophy is dominant in this discourse: “Religion has to be in harmony with common sense, logic and science in order to be natural” (4, 249).





The paradox with Ottomanism is that it has not been embraced by any party. The nationalists and officially the modern Turkish nation-state denounced it, even stigmatized it and presented its negation as the raison d’être of the new beginning. Actually the Turkish Republic presented its ideology as an antithesis to Ottomanism: The new nation-state set out to found a centralized, ethically homogenized, Turkish (and not cosmopolitan) state. As it is clearly seen from the textbooks referred above, the idea of a coexistence with “minorities” and ethnically or religiously “others” was perceived unrealistic and a “naïve dream”.


Ottomanism as an “ism” was not embraced and promoted during the Ottoman rule either. In Turkish, “Osmanlı-lık” or “Osmanlı-cılık” was not officially propagandized; it was not presented as a new perception of a state. Ottomanism did not appear as an ideology, as an “ism”/“lık”, but only as a new regulation which meant to perceive all subjects of the Ottoman state as constituting the Ottoman unity. As mentioned above “Ottomanism” appeared with various hesitant moves – i.e., with Tanzimat - but in a more pronounced way with the regulations of 1876. In fact the law did not mention “Ottomanism” or “Ottoman nation” but only that “all would be called Ottomans”.[7]


Even this regulation of “calling all subjects Ottomans” was not embraced by the state and the Muslim majority.  Almost from the start it met the reaction of the Muslim masses and shortly afterwards of the nationalists who were the rising ideological and political power. What remained was “calling-all-subjects-Ottomans” and that only on paper. The non-Muslim minority groups (the one-time “millets”) “gripped the idea” of Ottomanism and occasionally brought it into the political agenda but from a different perspective and for special purposes. This interesting side of the story will not be dealt here because here the Muslim/Turkish side of Ottomanism is the main subject.  


The paradox of Ottomanism can be explained if it is seen as a term that was used only to criticize, to condemn, to disgrace and to demonize a tendency. It is a term like so many others which refer to entities the existence of which is accepted by everybody but only as a characteristic of the “other”: prejudice, hypocrisy, double standard, disloyalty, fanaticism, ignorance.  No one will accept these characterizations for himself; likewise no one called or calls himself “Ottomanist”. 


The term “Ottomanism” is mostly a product of nationalist discourse. It fitted perfectly, for example, in the manifesto of Yusuf Akçura.  This generalization – Ottomanism - facilitated the task of the new nation-state and its criticism against the Ottoman legacy. Ottomanism is a construction that served and still serves a purpose: it defines the identity of modern Turkish nationalism inventing its opposite, its “other”.


Naturally the question “Is then Ottomanism only a ghost, a non-existent phantasm, a product of our whim?” comes to mind. This question can be answered by avoiding the traps of essentialism. It is difficult to determine what Ottomanism “is” but it is much easier to see how the term Ottomanism was and is being “used”. Actually this is what it has been done in this article until now. The concept of “Ottomanism” – that was and still is used so extensively – is a secured means to understand how the actors of history perceive their past and their present.


In our days, too, Ottomanism (Osmanlılık, Osmanlıcılık, Yeni-Osmanlıcılık) is avoided as a taboo. The opponents of Ahmet Davutoğlu, for example, “accuse” him for being a “New-Ottomanist” (or a crypto-Ottomanist) and he, on his part, feels the need quite often to denounce this “accusation”. The term Ottomanism has a pejorative meaning and brings to mind “anti-Turkish” projects. The Turkish nationalist discourse, if not dominant is definitely weighty within the academic and political environment. Under these circumstances it is highly unlikely to see Turkish citizens publicly identifying themselves as “Ottomanists”. In short, “Ottomanism” has been a movement that nobody openly embraced or “confessed” and was, and still is, used only to criticize the “other”.


Therefore present day “Ottomanism”, to the extent it exists, can be studied based on two axes: First, according to the “accusation” addressed to it, judging how legitimate this criticism is. And second, according to the expressed opposition to “anti-Ottomanism”. In fact, if the term “New-Ottomanism” is to have any meaning, this can only be detected in the reaction to “anti-Ottomanism”. Defining “New-Ottomanism” as a reaction is meaningful because it is concrete. It can be controlled comparing the new discourse with the anti-Ottomanist discourse of the 1930s which was shown above. This discourse is anti-anti-Ottomanist. If the discourse in the 1930s is seen as the condemnation of  “Ottomanism”, defying this discourse and reacting to it can be seen as “New-Ottomanism”.[8]





Compared with the textbooks of 1930s, the image of the Ottoman past in the present-day textbooks is strikingly different. It is almost the opposite. The condemned Ottoman past is exalted. The hell has changed almost to a lost paradise. The one-time abundant criticism is not found any more. It is clear that the Ottoman past has been re-evaluated. The differences between the textbooks of 1930s and of today’s signify the changes they occurred in constructed memories, in concepts of legacy, in identity, in Ottomanism, etc.[9]


In the 1930s the multi-ethnic Ottoman reality was shown as disastrous, now it is praised: “The Ottoman State was multi-ethnic in character… In Thessalonica Greeks (Rums), Bulgarians, Serbs, Jews and Armenians lived (along with the Turks). This multi-ethnic structure along with various languages, beliefs and traditions secured a great cultural richness in the country” (5, 16). The Sultan did not discriminate his subjects; he said “The Muslims go to the mosque, the Christians to church and the Jews to the synagogue. I notice no other difference among my subjects” (8, 115). So the various ethnic groups lived in peace for centuries in the Ottoman Empire (7, 62).


 Compared to the “west” the “east” is better and superior. Even Renaissance occurred because “Italy was in close relations with the Muslim cultures” and because the “Crusaders had learned the printing techniques from the Muslims” (7, 58). “When the Ottomans  were making important developments in science in Europe Copernicus (1473-1543) had to keep his findings related to the orbit of the earth as a secret  because of the Christian fanaticism. Galilei was facing the Inquisition. In Italy Bruno … was executed” (8, 189).


A greater importance is given now to the Ottoman period relative to other periods. In the textbook allocated to “the history of the Turks” the Ottoman period constitutes the 50% (107 pages) of the 214 page book. The ancient Turks, the Turkish/Islamic period and modern Turkey comprise 19% (42 pages), 19% (40p) and 12% (25p) (Book 8). What does not become apparent from the given references and the statistics is the fact that the derogatory language against the Ottomans and their legacy is absent in the new textbooks.


The Ottoman political and cultural aspects are exalted, too. The Parliamentary Monarchy of 1908 is “democratic”, “during the Ottoman period until 1913 there was a multi-party regime and later a single party one”. Then it is reminded that in the first years of the Turkish Republic efforts to start a multi-party parliament had failed (8, 53- 54). In these new textbooks the positive legacy of the Ottomans is also recognized: “The Ottoman State passed to the new Republic as inheritance establishments like the parliament, its political cadres, a press organization and its educational system… The constitutional system, the basic rights and liberties, the political parties, the free press were started in this (Ottoman) period” (8, 121).


Tens of Ottoman “scientists”, “artists”, “researchers” etc., are mentioned in these textbooks to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the Ottoman period. In some cases some of these exaggerated “accomplishments” are difficult to believe and sometimes they may cause hilarity. The harems for example are presented as schools where the girls: “with extensive study learned music, painting, literature, embroidering and religion… They passed their days by reading and especially learning history” (7, 54). One wonders when these women saved time to perform the duties for which they were summoned! (7, 54). The students in present-day schools read that all citizens could see the Sultan and ask for his intervention when they felt mistreated by the courts (7, 75). Piri Reis, an Ottoman sailor, drew maps as accurate as if they were photographs taken from a satellite in the beginning of the 16th century.  In these old times Ahmet Çelebi flied over the Bosphorus and Hasan Çelebi flied 300 meter high into the air in a rocket and then landed with the help of his wings! (8,190). But in any case, the books here are not being judged as for the validity of their theses but for the point of view vis-à-vis the Ottoman past.            


The notable aspect of these textbooks is the absolute transformation in the field of religion and faith. The pseudo-positivist and “sociological” interpretation of religion of the 1930s is replaced with Islam which is taught as the “true belief”. It is also worth noting that this view is supported by specially selected sayings of Mustafa Kemal, the symbol of the anti-Ottomanism and of a secularism which flirted with agnosticism.  He is quoted to have said that “our religion is the most normal religion and the one in harmony with reason; the most tolerant; everybody should be free to choose his belief… this is the requirement of secularism” (8. 160). M. Kemal also has said: “The Muslim of all the world should follow the way showed by the last prophet of Allah and should follow His orders” (6, 102).


Islam also appears as a different dynamic. In the 1930s the East-West comparison was on a historical and/or national basis. Now this comparison has turned to an Islam-Christianity relationship. For example, for the Spaniards in the Middle Ages we read: “the Christians saw that at issues like arts and philosophy they are at a lower level relative to the Muslims, so they imitated the Islamic way of living” (6, 124).


Contrary to offensive characterization of the 1930s now the textbooks exalt the Muslim Arabs who having chosen Islam as their religion “they turned to the vanguards in the fields of economy, arts, science and thinking” (6, 128). The various religious orders like Mevlevis, Bektashis were criticized by the textbooks of 1930s; now they are presented as useful to Turkishness: These orders helped in the Islamisation of Anatolia (6 ,185). “The orders facilitated Islamisation in the areas controlled by the Turks” (8, 76). Islam, contrary to the other religions, elevated the spiritual aspect of the Turks” (8, 72).   


In the first group of textbooks the expectation that the Muslim world would support Turkey was presented as a naïve hope. Cooperation between Muslims was presented as an erroneous expectation and this “wrong thinking” was specially attributed to  Sultan Abdulhamit. The new generation books mention that “Sultan Abdulhamit tried hard to find solutions in order to stop the weathering away of the Ottoman State” (8, 121). But it is also reminded that “on March 1, 1921 the Turkish parliament and Afghanistan signed an agreement”, in other words, showing that at a critical historical moment  Muslim solidarity is a realistic expectation (5,  68).     


Islam is shown as very important and as a means to preserve the identity of the Turks; i.e, religion secures national identity. “The Turks who chose Islam “preserved their Turkish identity… the Kıpçak Turks who chose Christianity lost their national identity” (6, 94-96).





The book of Ahmet Davutoğlu (hereafter A.D.) was first published in 2001, eight years prior to his becoming the foreign minister of Turkey.[10] It deals with the foreign policy of his country but it can be read as a new interpretation of the past of the Turkish nation and state and as a proposal of how the future could be better managed. It was much praised in Turkey but it was also criticized. Some characterized his theses as “new-Ottomanism” (in a negative sense)  but the author repeatedly denied this accusation.[11]  Here I will try to read the book as a special interpretation of the Ottoman past and of its legacy and as a proposal for a national identity – issues which are not detached from practical issues of politics. I will try to explore the connection between the latest textbooks and the Strategic Depth to have a clearer idea about the recent constructions of national memories. 


Apparently the main argument of A.D. is that Turkey is a “special country”, naturally meaning that there exist countries which are not. Many of his other theses are a corollary of this initial one. “Turkey is not any nation-country that came to existence due to conjectural circumstances. On the contrary it is the outcome of a historical legacy which was formed out of centuries-long lasting struggles against the dominant civilization which formed the international system... The Ottoman state was the political entity on the only cultural area where the opposite part of Europe was established and where it exercised its rule” (p. 66). This powerful Ottoman Empire is presented as just and ethical, too: “History teaches that the Ottoman-Turkish foreign policy was not imperialist or colonialist” (52).  When the Ottomans are compared with the “West” the latter looks backward and even barbarous:  “Each Ottoman city which had to be abandoned preserved its old characteristics until they were destroyed by the barbarous invading powers… The most recent example is Sarajevo. The direct destruction of the Ottoman cities by part of the representatives of western civilization meant also a process of withdrawal of the accumulated cultural richness of humanity from the scene of history” (195). 


The national self, exalted as representing “the cultural richness of humanity”, is thus defined in opposition to the negative foreign “other”, which in this case is the “West”. There is, however, a second “other”; this one being an “internal one”. There is a persistent criticism of the foreign policy of Turkey and this criticism is not extended to the Ottoman period. On the contrary the policy of Sultan Abdulhamit – whose policy was condemned in the textbooks of the 1930s but praised in the textbooks of 2011 -  is shown as wise and useful, even as an example to be followed today. Abdulhamit is presented  to have utilized his Muslim identity to secure the help of the Muslims who were under colonial rule (52-53). According to A.D. Abdulhamit is a unique leader who exercised a wise foreign policy.


This point of view is an indirect but explicit attack to the policy of modern Turkey and especially to Mustafa Kemal himself and to his legacy, which often is expressed as “Kemalism”. The Kemalist policy is best known – for some, euphemistically – with the dictum “peace in the country, peace in the world” and with the ideal of preserving the “national oath” – i.e., the intent of preserving the national borders without resorting to adventurous policies.  “The new Turkish state evaded all international responsibility and quitted all demands. Instead of trying to cover a strong place in the international system it was decided to protect the borders of ‘national oath’ …They preferred to be in the western bloc” (69).   


The Strategic Depth contests both the “West” which is presented as the “other” of Turkey;[12] and Kemalism, which is understood as the force and policy which “influenced in depth [negatively] the ideals, the actions, the culture and the structure of the Turkish society” (70).  However, A. Davutoğlu’s political vision is not distanced from nationalism, i.e., from the political ideology which is mostly characterized as Kemalism. National aspirations and nationalist ideology appear in Strategic Depth, too,  but as an approach with new references. The recent Ottoman past and the legacy of Islam are highlighted when new strategies are proposed. Kemalism, on the contrary based “national heritage” and “national memories” on pre-Islam Turkishness.


 According to A.D. “Turkey is the residue and the heir of the Ottoman State and as such it preserves its imperial structures in different forms… Therefore, it has the obligation to choose much different defense policies than, say Romania, which does not have an obligation of  that kind due to its different legacy” (38). He then goes on to claim that Turkey, due to its imperial past has the right to have a say in a zone around Turkey which he calls “hinderland” or “life area” (hayat sahası, hayat alanı or bölgesel etki alanları, in Turkish). He allocated many pages to define what “life area” is by references to “Lebensraum” of Nazi Germany, to social-Darwinism and to different researchers.  This “right” is not recognized to the neighbors of Turkey since they do not possess an imperial legacy (102-171). 


In this connection he stated that “Turkey has to maintain a Cyprus issue even if there were not a single Muslim Turk on the Island” (179). He blames the old Turkish policy makers for wavering to “get” the islands of the Aegean during the Second World War and he states that these islands presently “curtail seriously the life area of Turkey” (154). Similarly, according to Strategic Depth “Turkey’s basic political influence in the Balkans should be based on the Ottoman residues which are the Muslim communities” (123). In this sentence the Islamic tone and discourse are again encountered: “Ottoman” is only what is “Muslim” (123). The proclaimed multi-ethnic aspect of the Ottoman Empire is thus abandoned without any justification. But what is more interesting is the way he expects to make use of this “Ottoman residue”. “Turkey should try to obtain legal guaranties which will enable it to intervene in cases of the Muslim minorities in the Balkans. The legitimate intervention in Cyprus … became possible because of this kind of a legal status” (123).   





We have seen above two distinct uses of the term “Ottomanism”. In the 1930s, in the textbooks that were prepared by the modern Turkish state, Ottomanism was condemned as anti-Turkish and as a utopia. At the time other parameters which were perceived to be associated to Ottomanism – e.g., Islamism and religious practices, political symbols such as the sultans, the traditional and conservative life style, etc.  - were criticized and “rejected”, too.


In 2011 the textbooks advocate almost the opposite. The Ottoman sultans and culture are praised, Islam is presented as “helping Turkishness”, the multi-ethnic structure of the   Ottoman Empire is presented as “richness”, etc.  But in this second case, even though the Ottoman past is exalted, the effort to promote the “positive” aspect of the Ottoman past is not called “Ottomanist” by those who support this Ottoman past and legacy. Presently, the term “Ottomanism” is used only by the opponents of the “new understanding” and as a means of criticism.


In other words, “Ottomanism” as well as “new-Ottomanism” in the present-day Turkish discourses operate as key words heavily loaded with negative connotations. They are used to stigmatize policies and therefore are not endorsed by any side. These terms are not used in “self-identification”; they are only used to characterize the “other”.  In this respect their use is not productive. They operate in a vicious circle of “you are-no, I am not”.  Their uses in quotation – “Ottomanism” and “New-Ottomanism” might be tried, however, with the above reservations and explanations in mind.


On the other hand and irrespective of how the phenomena should be “named”, the great change in the way the Ottoman past is being perceived and how this legacy is being evaluated is a fact. The Ottoman past and the related memories have changed from negative to positive. This change is clearly seen in the textbooks which express, in general lines, the view of the “state”. The way “our past” is being perceived is a matter of structuring a national identity and the changes in this field should be treated as such. This change did not occur suddenly. There are intermediary stages. The effort, that first appeared in the 1980s and is known as “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” for example is such a case. In this short article these intermediary states are not discussed 


The Strategic Depth and the views of Ahmet Davutoğlu, on the other hand, bring to light to what extent the complexities of nation-building and the search of a national identity have reached. It appears as an endeavor to reconcile conflicting evaluations of “our past”, “our religion”, “our strategies vis-à-vis the Other”, in short, to make a new synthesis which will secure a national identity and a national consensus. Partly he refers to “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” by highlighting Islam, partly he makes his views attractive to the “conservatives” by criticizing Kemalism and partly satisfies the nationalists by propagating expectations for expanding to areas of the one-time Ottoman lands.


“Ottomanism”, in the sense of making use and constructing new Ottoman memories as in our case, is the means to accomplish a consensus on matters of identity and practical policies. References to a positive Ottoman past operate favorably. The Ottoman past secures a glorious past on which national identity may be based. A revived “Ottomanism” also reunites the popular religious beliefs with the state. There was a rupture in this domain with the start of nationalism of Young Turks and later with the young Turkish Republic. In other words, “Ottomanism” and the “Ottoman past” are constructions and means to attain an identity rather than historical realities.        First the ideals were decided and then the myths related to the past were constructed.


An additional reason that makes the views presented in the textbooks of 2011 and of A. Davutoğlu attractive - to their writers - is their romantic undertones. His theses spread out connotations of a “lost paradise” (the Ottoman Empire), of a grandeur granted by the chivalrous military power, of the pure, innocent and benevolent Ottoman past (especially toward the millets), of the sense of ecstatic adventures in search for the lost lands of “ours” (within our “living areas”) and of the “honor” that will be achieved as the end-result of the “deep strategy”. Nationalism too, is closely associated to the Romantic Movement. Both have been attractive.







[1] A clarification at the outset may prove useful to minimize the confusion that terms like “Ottomanism” and “New-Ottomanism” may cause. A political and ideological movement named “New-Ottomans” (“Yeni Osmanlılar”, in Turkish) first appeared in 1860/1865. This movement became known in West Europe as “Jeunes Turques”. There is a second “Young Turks” movement in the end of the 19th century which lasted until 1914. In Turkish the term “Jön Türkler” is often used for this group. (Some prefer the term “İttihatçılar” that is derived from the political party “İttihat ve Terakki” – Union and Progress Party). In this article “New-Ottomanism” refers to the term attributed to a recent tendency/understanding which is perceived to be closely associated with the “conservative/Islamist” political movement that appeared in Turkey after 1980. “Ottomanism”, on the other hand, as will be discussed below, is a term that characterizes the policy used during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. It is usually used as the opposite to “Modern Turkey” of “Turkish nationalism”.    


[2] The textbook titled Malumat-ı Medeniye ve Ahlakiye (İkinci Kısım) read as follows: “Dünyadaki bütün milletler içinde en saf, en temiz yürekli, en cesur ve en hamiyetli Türklerdir… Türkler altı yüz sene evvel bir hükümet tesis ettikleri zaman ilk müessisin namına ona Osmanlı demişlerdir. Şu halde Türklükle Osmanlı birdir. Yalnız Türkler arasında bulunan ve Türk hükümetine tabi olan diğer birtakım kavimler vardır ki, Osmanlılık namı bunlara kadar da şamildir; Türklerle beraber bunların hepsi Osmanlı milletini, Osmanlı Devletini teşkil ederler. Bu küçük milliyetlerden sonra hepsini tahdid eden büyük bir milliyet vardır ki o da Osmanlılıktır.” Mentioned by Füsun Üstel, “II. Meşrutiyet ve Vatandaşın İcad’ı”, in Modern Türkiye’de Siyasi Düşünce, Tanzimat ve Meşrutiyet’in Birikimi, Cilt 1, s.177, İletişim, İstanbul, 2001.


[3] The official views about the past of the “Turkish nation” were presented for the first time and in the most systematic way in these textbooks. Two main historical theses, The Turkish Historical Thesis and The Sun-Language Theory were presented in these textbooks of 1930s, too.

[4] Four textbooks were published in 1931-1933 and were prepared to be taught in the secondary education. I numbered them from 1 to 4 to give references to the pages. For example (4, 259) means the book no. 4, page 259.

1- Tarih 1, Tarihtenevelki Zamanlar ve Eski Zamanlar, T.T.T. Cemiyeti tarafından yazılmıştır. İstanbul, Devlet Matbaası, 1932, 380 pages.

2- Tarih 2, Orta Zamanlar ve Eski Zamanlar, T.T.T. Cemiyeti tarafından yazılmıştır. İstanbul, Devlet Matbaası, 1933, 400 pages. (First edition 1931)

3-Tarih 3, Yeni ve Yakın Zamanlarda Osmanlı-Türk Tarihi, İstanbul, Devlet Matbaası, 1933, 277 pages.

4- Tarih 4, Türkiye Cumhuriyeti. İstanbul, Devlet Matbaası, 1931, 506 pages.


[5] According to Islam `vahiy` is the wording of Allah that Prophet Mohammed received. The related passage in Turkish is as follows: “İslâm ananesinde ayetlerin Muhammede Cebrail adında bir melek vasıtasıyla Allah tarafından vahiy, yani ilham edildiği kabul olunur… [Muhammet] Arapların ahlak ve adetlerinin pek fena ve pek iptidai ve ıslaha muhtaç olduğunu anlamış, bunları ıslah için tenha yerlere çekilerek senelerce düşünmüş ve yıllarca tefekkürden sonra kedisinde vahiy ve ilham fikri doğmuştur… Bütün iptidai kavimler gibi, Araplar da, şairlerin, akıl erdiremedikleri kuvvetlerden ilham aldıklarına inanırlardı. Bu kuvvetler Araplar için cinlerdi. Cinler, güya kâhinlere kayıptan haber vermek kudretini ilham ederlerdi. Bu nevi itikatlar Arabistan’da her zaman o kadar canlı ve derin olmuştur ki Muhammet dahi cinlerin vücuduna samimi olarak inanmıştır… [Muhammed’in] gayesi, muhitinin ahlakını, dinini ve içtimai hayatını ıslah etmekti… Muhammet uzun bir devirdeki tefekkürlerin mahsulü olan ayetleri lüzum ve ihtiyaçlara göre takrir ediyordu… Bununla beraber kendisini tahrik eden kuvvetin tabiat fevkinde bir mevcudiyet olduğu samimi surette kani idi”.

[6] The name of Yusuf Akçura (Akçuraoğlu) – the initiator of the anti-Ottomanism and anti-Islamist movement - appears among the other authors of these textbooks.

[7] In fact the law that passed in 1876 read as follows: “Devlet-i Osmaniye tabiiyetinde bulunan efradın cümlesine herhangi din ve mezhepten olursa olsun bilâ istisna Osmanlı tabir olunur”. See: Füsun Üstel, “II. Meşrutiyet ve Vatandaşın İcad’ı”, Modern Türkiye’de Siyasi Düşünce, Tanzimat ve Meşrutiyet’in Birikimi, Cilt 1, s.177, İletişim, İstanbul, 2001. 

[8] It is clear that what a tendency will be “called” is of a secondary importance. What is essential is to define, explain and show its roots and logic of a movement or a tendency. The “name” should not be the issue in such a study. “New-Ottomanism” is tentatively used here to facilitate the argumentation by reminding a historical controversy that is still alive. Other more successful terms may be readily suggested to name ideological movements, especially if these “names” are welcomed by the actors of these movements. It is always more proper to comply with “self-identification”.     

[9] Four textbooks in use in 2011 prepared to be taught in the secondary education have been studied. I numbered them from 5 to 8 to give references to the pages. 

5- T.C. İnkılap Tarihi ve Atatükçülük, Ders Kitabı, İlköğretim 8, Samettin Başol, Devlet Kitapları, Ankara, 2011 (authorization for publication in 2008).

6- Ortaöğretim Tarih 9. Sınıf, Yasemin Okur vb. MEB, Devlet Kitapları, Ankara, 2011 (authorization for publication in 2008)

7- Ortaöğretim Tarih, 10. Sınıf, Vicdan Cangır vb. Devlet Kitapları Döner Sermaye İşletmesi Müdürlüğü, Ankara 2011(authorization for publication in 2009)

8- Ortaöğretim Tarih 11. Sınıf. Yasemin Okur vb., Devlet Kitapları, Ankara, 2011 (authorization for publication in 2010)


[10] Ahmet Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, Türkiye’nin Uluslararası Konumu, Küre publishing house, İstanbul, 2010 (2001). Here I refer to the 2010 edition of the book. 

[11] See for example newspaper Today’s Zaman dated 25.11.2009 where he states that he never used the term new-Ottomanism and that he never endorsed it. When these lines were written he repeated this denial of the alleged “new-Ottomanism” during a talk with reporters (see the Turkish papers of 25 August 2012).  Actually the term is met in his said book (p 85) and it refers to the policy of Turgut Özal (ex-prime minister and later the president of Turkey) in the years 1987-1993 which, according to A.D. has some common characteristics with the Ottomanism of the years of Tanzimat (1839).

[12] There are many references which present the “West” and “Europe” as “prejudiced, unfair and with double standards, racist against the ‘East’ and Turkey, islamophobic” due to “historical reasons”; there is not however, any sign of self-criticism on the part of Turkey as if history did not have any similar effect on Turkey (82, 542).    


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