Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909), commonly regarded as an authoritarian ruler, supported Europeanization (e.g., a vibrant media, publications, and intellectual discourse) as long as such activities did not threaten either him or his government. Fully aware of what western-style nationalism was capable of achieving, he also developed a policy of Pan-Islam and emphasized his status as leader of the Muslim world. Thus armed, he sought to get the best deals he could from his more powerful neighbors.
When the Young Turks came to power in 1908, they intended to pursue an agenda based on their envisioned “Turkish world,” which included Muslim Turkic Central Asia. Upon realizing the unrealistic nature of this view, they adopted Pan-Ottomanism to ensure the continued existence of a unified empire under their control. The Balkan wars of 1910-12 made this rather difficult, for most of the European lands were lost due to foreign intervention in the form of external support for minority communities and the growth of internal nationalistic sentiments. Such feelings spread only slowly among the Muslim subjects, for they did not share the minority communities’ perceived need for an “alternative state.” After all, they were living in a Muslim empire ruled by the sultan and thus experienced no “identity crisis.”
This was not the case in Russian Central Asia, however. Jadadism, a late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century movement, was launched by indigenous Muslim reformers who used the print media to promote their ideas and advocate a “new method” of understanding Islam and applying it in one’s life. After mentioning this, Gökçek remarked that the Muslim communities of both empires were fully aware of what was going on with their counterparts and in the larger Muslim world. However, the Soviets caused most of this common history to be forgotten when they sealed off Central Asia.
Interestingly, the Central Asians’ concept of nationalism was markedly different. Faced with Russia’s official pan-Slavic ideology and living within a Christian empire, their “Muslim” and “Turkic” identities eventually fused. This gave rise to Jadidism, a movement that sought to modernize education by establishing thousands of new schools and accused the existing religious leaders and elites of being corrupt, self-interested, and out of touch with the general Muslim community. This position was made clear in the motto of the “Review of Islam” journal edited by an Istanbul-based Tatar Muslim: “Religion with Life, Life with Religion.” In other words, religion has to be alive, developing, and in touch with real life in order to remain relevant. The Ottomans were naturally aware of this movement and its ideas, for many Central Asian Muslims were active participants in Istanbul’s intellectual and social spheres.
After mentioning some of the reforms called for by the Young Turks, Gökçek detailed how they developed an Islamic discourse that justified the nation-state and secularism. Their argument was as follows: Social customs are neither universal nor eternal. After all, Umar had abolished the Prophet’s practice of giving some of the zakat funds to those “whose hearts were to be reconciled to Islam” on the grounds that doing so had become unnecessary. In other words, a new situation gave rise to the need to reinterpret traditional understandings of texts. Therefore, each society is entitled to its own interpretation and legislation based upon its customs (nationalism) and Islamic law applies only to matters to worship (secularism). Their first assertion was based on the fact that customary law had always been a prominent element of Islamic law. The religious scholars saw this approach as a threat and rejected it.
According to the speaker, this discourse should not be seen as an outright rejection of Islam, but rather as a “let’s find a medium where Islam and nationalism and politics can come together” attitude based on two realities: (1) the Ottoman Empire was still in place and the Muslims had not yet envisaged a new state and (2) the powerful Shaykh ul-Islam office controlled the empire’s charitable foundations, educational and judicial systems, and many other spheres of public life. In fact, the prevailing discourse remained Islam-friendly until the posts of caliph and Sahykh ul-Islam were abolished in 1924.
He closed by noting that many of the issues addressed during the Ottoman Empire’s “long century” (1800-1923) are still being discussed today.
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