Historically, a point to grasp at the outset is that centuries of growing Ottoman power and expansion weren't a result of the Sultanate and Caliphate, just the opposite: the Sultan-Ruler and Islamic Caliphate were part-and-parcel of aggressive, Ottoman imperial expansion that included the conquest of a huge Christian and Arab empire by a highly militarized Asiatic people after they overran the remnants of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century. (For a good brief historical survey, see this link. The Ottoman Sultans claimed to be the successors of both Caesar and the Prophet, a universal king for Muslims and all other subjects under Ottoman rule.)
As with all long-lived empires, the Turkish conquerors were able to find collaborating local elites to serve as their privileged auxiliaries. They included elite military-administrative forces like Janissaries, Christian in origin, then reared as Muslims, or Mamelukes in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa.
More fundamentally, as with Arab and Tatar and Mogul imperial expansion --- all Islamic in nature --- Ottoman conquests paralleled that of the Christian empire-makers:
- Colonies were conquered by soldiers and sailors thanks to superior technology or fighting prowess.
- They were then administered by either collaborating elites or by military and administrative elites from the home country: usually a combination of each.
- Most of the conquered native peoples were converted to the religion of the conquerors by priests and the sword. (The big exception was British rule in Hindu and Muslim India from the 18th century on.)
[A Sidebar Clarification, especially on the latter count. Economically speaking, the British empire in North America and Australia evolved far differently from either the Ottoman or the other European empires: in particular, large numbers of British and Irish moved as settlers out of the British Isles and came quickly to dominate the local economies in North America and Australia. Several momentous consequences followed for North American economic and political development, especially compared to Latin America or European and Islamic empires in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. One such consequence: these British settlers brought British law and parliamentary traditions to bear on themselves as the initial colonizers. A second one: the arrival of large numbers of family farmers also led to a far more egalitarian distribution of land in North America than anywhere under Spanish or Portuguese rule. There's a third consequence that also needs to be stressed: family farming carried out by millions of colonials and later immigrants after 1789 created far greater incentives to innovate technologically and develop agriculture for the markets. In turn, such traditions of innovation and openness to change later transferred quickly in the 19th century to manufacturing industries. (Not surprisingly, plantation agriculture in the Antebellum South using slaves languished by contrast; and the southern plantation owners were essentially a militarized gentry. The South never fully industrialized until after 1945.)
- And, as with the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French empires, Ottoman expansion was linked to the home country by tiny groups of business and financial interests from both the home country and among the local elites.
Note the term a moment ago in italics: on themselves.
The British settlers treated the indigenous peoples with the same contempt and use of force that the Spanish and Portuguese applied in Latin America, even though in the latter continent far larger, more urbanized Indian populations were either exterminated or enslaved than was the case in North America. Nobody knows the exact size of the indigenous Indian peoples in North America in the early 16th century: the estimated figures run from 3 million up to 16 million, the latter probably way over-stated. In Latin America, there were 30-40 million Indians, some living in small clan or tribal areas, most, however, urbanized or ruled over by urban imperial peoples like the Aztecs or Incas.
Initially, too, in North America, the armed conflict between Indian warriors and isolated farming families and small settler villages --- who had to form militias to defend themselves --- was far fairer. Both sides engaged in attacking one another's settlements. In the French and Indian wars of the mid-18th century, the heavily armed Indian allies of France attacked colonial farms and villages with potent ferocity. When, over time, a professional military and far greater organization and firepower were developed after 1789 by the US government at all levels, local and national, these tactics would prove devastating to the Indians: either they were decimated or moved off their homelands to reservations.]
Back to the Ottoman Empire, "The Sick Man of Europe"
Ottoman expansion reached its peak in the late 17th century. As late as the 1680s, the Ottomans were besieging Vienna in the very heart of Central Europe, only to be repelled in the end by an alliance of European peoples and thrust back into the Balkans. The Ottoman defeat was symbolic. By then, even parts of the Austrian empire were modernizing --- never mind the European countries further to the west. Not the Ottoman core. It never modernized with any success before the 1920s.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was widely known as the Sick Man of Europe, the Ottoman Turks were handicapped by built-in rigidities, culturally and politically, their social structures antiquated and impervious to change. In particular, the Turks
- Never effectively industrialized;
- Never managed to upgrade their educational levels and literacy, trailing further and further behind the Europeans in science and technology;
- Never developed a modern merit-oriented civil service either;
- Never managed to find talented, risk-taking leaders who appreciated the need for sweeping political, administrative, and economic changes --- cultural too, at any rate until Ataturk and his nationalist followers in the WWI era and aftermath.
- Never, come to that, fostered an effective secular national identity for the various ethnic groups on Turkish or wider Ottoman territories;
The Military, Remember, Was No Exception to Failure
- And never, to top it off --- despite repeated efforts --- succeeded even in modernizing its military to good effect.
The failure to modernize and upgrade the Ottoman military symbolized all the other bungling deficiencies and setbacks in haphazard Turkish efforts to modernize . . . part-and-parcel of a ramshackle imperial system shot through with backwardness and political and cultural obstacles to change. In the words of an Ottoman observer in the 1880s,
"The fallacy that everything seen in Europe can be imitated here has become a political tradition. For example --- by simultaneously introducing Russian uniforms, Belgian rifles, Turkish headgear, Hungarian saddles, English swords, and French drill --- we have created an army that is a grotesque parody of Europe." [Quoted in C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World: 1870-1914 (Blackwell, 2004), p. 17 . . . an impressive British study, rigorously thematic and analytical and full of insight. Powerfully written too, a pleasure to read; and for that matter, genuinely global in its sweep rather than focusing mainly on Europe.]
The Failure To Modernize Clarified.
The botches and failure to modernize were built deep into the fabric of Ottoman imperial rule, as it was earlier in Arab rule over the Egyptians, Persians, and other peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, not to forget those in Spain and Portugal . . . at any rate, from the 11th century on.
For one thing
, rule was absolute and despotic even when, as in the Ottoman empire, subject peoples were carefully sub-divided into local communities (millets), with limited trade, credit flows, migration, or even communication across these ethnic and religious communal areas. The aim was to offset any effectively organized threat on a wide geographical basis to the Ottoman power-holders at the center. In such circumstances, the economic basis of the Ottoman empire in Europe or the Middle East was badly fragmented, and for centuries at a time.
For another thing
, the major source of revenue in the Middle East --- whether Persian, Arab, or later Ottoman ---was heavy, arbitrary taxes on land, with the capital raised mainly going for military and imperial expansion. There was nothing comparable to the rule of law that existed in most of West Europe, even in feudal times, that protected private property and offset monarchical despotism by requiring parliamentary approval of tax measures. Britain with its common law was especially successful in curbing arbitrary taxation or the confiscation of private property. The result? As noted in a very good book on comparative economic development by John P. Powelson, Centuries of Economic Endeavor (University of Michigan Press, 1997: pp. 382-83), In the Middle East under Arab or Ottoman rule, "taxes were so heavy that few people outside the elite could accumulate capital; and the elite squandered their capital on luxuries and war rather than devoting it to economic development."
For a third thing
, the class gulfs between the masses of people, whether peasants or small merchants, and the landowners and administrative rulers in the Arab and Ottoman empires were far greater than anywhere in West Europe. Upward mobility hardly existed unless certain slave groups like janissaries, Christians trained for military elite positions, seized power in coups, deposed the Sultan, and put one of their own on the throne, at which point the positions at the very top of the hierarchy changed, but nothing else. Power-wielding remained heavily hierarchical and unresponsive to the masses of subject populations. The outcome was predictable: further reductions in stimulating new industries and business, let alone technological advance.
The Wider Outcome?
Thoroughgoing backwardness, compared with West Europe . . . that's what, especially by the 18th century.
Little surprise. With private property not clearly protected by law, with taxation arbitrary and burdensome, and with Arab and Ottoman subject peoples rigorously separated by ethnic, religious, and communal lines --- these divisions further underscored by a rigid social hierarchy in class terms --- neither the Ottoman nor for that matter the earlier Arab empires ever modernized effectively in line with the technologies that were either
being imported from China and Asia into Europe from the 11th century on or
pioneered by them . . . starting with agricultural improvements of a marked sort, then in various kinds of finance and industry in the late Middle Ages and into the early modern era. Then, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the modern industrial revolution pounded into existence in Britain and in parts of West Europe on the Continent, as it quickly did in the northern states of the new USA. The culmination of centuries of modernizing forces, this new industrial revolution was spurred on by major breakthroughs in science, technology, and new energy systems like the steam engine in the 17th and 18th centuries --- plus unusual entrepreneurial talent of new, upwardly mobile men in Britain and along the Belgian border on the Continent. New forms of finance --- stock markets, investment banks (often state-created on the Continent), and the modern corporation --- then sustained these initial industrial breakthroughs, with long-term economic growth then guaranteed by constant technological innovation and diffusion as well as competitive forces that drove private firms and governments to implement them as quickly as possible.
That, at any rate, was the case in West Europe and North America by the mid- and late-19th centuries. Not so in the Ottoman Empire. Dominated by luxury-loving elites and administrators and inept, confused Sultans at the top, it remained backward, rigid, and largely illiterate in all its areas of rule, whether European or Arab, and was unable to stave off first the losses of its periphery, then its major European and Arab colonies in armed struggles even with the use of increasingly brutal and lethal force against the rebellious peoples under Ottoman rule.
The Sick Man of Europe Dies Off
Small wonder, against this background of all-pervading backwardness, that the Ottoman's relative power-base and influence plunged with head-spinning force from the 1780s on. It soon lost its first European colony with the Greek rebellion of the 1820s; over the next 70 years, it would lose the rest of its European possessions in the Balkans --- Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Bulgaria, though not without blood-soaked massacres of Bulgarians and Armenians . . . the latter slaughtered in vast number during WWI in genocidal ways, a horrible spate of violence, mass-murder and ethnic cleaning , it needs to be stressed, the Turks continue to deny ever occurred. In that war, the Ottoman Empire's ineffectual rulers capped two centuries of decrepit stagnation by siding with the losers, Germany and the Austro-Hungarians. That decision also spelled the end of its Arab empire in the Middle East, the British instigating the Arab rebellion in the last two years of the war.
Reduced to a small rump state by 1919, the Greeks now threatening to take Turkey's home-territory on the European side of the Dardanelles, more and more Turks were ripe by the end of the war for some sort of radical change.
WITH IMPERIAL DECLINE TOTAL AND COMPLETED BY 1920, THE ATATURK
REVOLUTION FROM ABOVE ENSUED
Comparisons with Germany and Japan in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries
Note the key term capitalized just now, a revolution from above
. . . carried out by the nationalist right in Turkey after the collapse of the empire in 1918, defeat in war, and the Greek invasion.
A right-wing revolution of this sort isn't unique to Turkey. The pioneers of right-wing militarist revolutions --- essentially, breaks with an imperial, tradition-bound system of rule that left their countries increasingly backward, economically and militarily, compared to the advanced industrialized West of France, Britain, and America --- were part of the Prussian Junkers led by Bismarck who united Germany by conquest and example in 1871 and part of the analogous Samurai militarist elites in Japan who carried out a westernization of their country after the growing penetration and influence in the 1850s and 1860s of the US and Britain. Both forward-looking militarized elites fostered a strong state-guided form of industrialization and technological advance, in the process having to overcome the resistance of much of the traditional landlord and administrative elites.
The German and Japanese successes here, of course, are legendary. Their form of state-led industrialization in order to enhance military power and state influence vis-à-vis the advanced western countries also had a huge, violent drawback: the basis of eventual militarized fascism was laid in both countries, especially when the modernizing changes unleashed by the new military and administrative elites --- which were inevitable --- led to new classes, a growing middle class and working classes, in both countries that couldn't be easily controlled by the elites, only won over by a combination of extreme nationalism, a sharing of promised loot, and eventually radical efforts --- undertaken by bold, reckless racist leaders in both Germany and Japan --- to conquer their parts of the world in total war with the Western countries in WWII, plus of course the Soviet Union once Hitler attacked it in June 1940.
The Specific Ataturk Strategy vs. Germany's and Japan's
It was Ataturk, a military officer, who sought to institute a similar revolution from above in Turkey. Rallying the nationalists after their defeat in WWI, he led a coup that swept aside the rickety Sulphanate, and then, with stubborn determination in a disguised authoritarian state, oversaw the radical modernizing changes that created the basis of contemporary Turkey, including its strict constitutional secular separation of politics and religion and its eventual pro-western orientation.
Note the latter qualification. Though Ataturk was attracted to Italian fascism and Hitlerian Nazism, he had come to appreciate the strength and staying-power of the British and Americans, and despite Berlin's and Rome's attempts to entice him into alliance in the 1930s, he not only rejected their overtures but counseled his successor, on his death bed, to avoid repeating the disaster of WWI and end up on the losing side. It was smart advice. The Turkish government stayed neutral in WWII, then --- faced with growing Soviet pressures in the Balkans and on its borders with Iran, it opted for its full western-orientation in foreign policy.
Back to the 1920s and 1930s.
As with the modernizing Samurai and Junkers in their countries a generation earlier, Ataturk's aim was to transform Turkey into a modern western-like country. Like them too, Ataturk and his fellow officers --- even as they abolished Muslim garb, Romanized the alphabet, fostered industrial activity with state ownership, and sought to develop a more modern military and civil service --- never really challenged the political basis of Turkey's traditional economic elite, the land-owning class. That proved a disaster. Prussia and the rest of Germany were far more advanced technologically and industrially when Bismarck unified the country in 1871 than Ataturk's Turkish Republic was in the early 1920s; there was a prospect of forging an alliance for national power and glory between the big industrial giants and the Prussian and other landlord aristocracies in Germany.
Japan, initially, was even more technologically backward than Turkey when the Meiji revolution erupted in 1868, but the Japanese level of literacy was already higher, and the Japanese people proved remarkably good at adapting western-style education, administrative structures, technologies, and military prowess . . . though not British, American, or French democratic traditions and institutions, even less so than in Imperial Germany. (As with the ill-fated and short-lived Weimar Republic that emerged out of defeat in WWI, only to be destroyed by maneuvering traditional elites that brought Hitler to power in 1933, so in Japan during the 1920s democratic openings and parliamentary influence were on the upsurge. They were halted, then destroyed when radical officers in the Japanese army and navy in effect carried out a series of right-wing extremist measures that led to the strategy of national mobilization at home in fascist-like ways during the 1930s, along with imperial expansion abroad, first in Manchuria, then in China, then against all the western power after Pearl Harbor).
The Ataturk Legacy
The revolutions from above in Japan and Germany left aristocratic militarists and huge industrial giants in alliance with them in power, eventually culminating in two new great powers . . . also, however, militarist and fantically nationalist legacies that quickly evolved in the 1930s into outright racist imperialism and then disastrous total war with the Western powers and the Soviet Union in WWII.
The nationalists led by Ataturk in Turkey produced a different outcome, economic and political. To his credit and that of his followers, racist militarism and fascism never took control of Turkish life as they did in Germany and Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s. On the debit side, though, two big mistakes marked the Ataturk revolution with enduring consequences to this day:
- Its biggest mistake, recall, was the failure to challenge the more backward, tradition-encrusted landlord classes in the countryside, who continued to control, accordingly, most of the economy.
- Ataturk and his top advisers compounded that mistake --- even as they were abolishing the Caliphate and insisted on secularism in political life --- by shying away from a vigorous challenge to the prestige and influence of the Muslim clerics in the villages and small cities.
The developmental drawbacks that followed are still visible in Turkish life today.
For one thing,
for several decades after the Ataturk revolution was ignited, the bulk of Turkey's population lived in villages and small cities, largely under both clerical and landlord influence. In the upshot, the Turkish economy trammeled by an unusually large, backward agricultural sector --- roughly encompassing 40% of the work force, with scarcely any cultural or economic incentives to modernize it effectively . . . or, alternatively, to let it run down and free labor and capital for industrial development. It has been a big obstacle to further Turkish economic development. All this, mind you, a good 8 decades after the proclaimed goal of turning Turkey into a modern industrial country.
For another thing,
Turkey itself never fully modernized culturally and in education, remaining stuck 8 decades later in a condition of half-modern development and half-backwardness full of crusty traditions . . . in effect a cleft-country, cleaved into modern and traditional societies at odds with one another. On the one side of the social and cultural cleavage are the big urban areas, largely modern and cosmopolitan --- not that much different from, say, Greek cities in spirit and tempo. On the other side, the smaller cities and countryside where nearly half the population lives remain at best half-modern in outlook and behavior, resistant to the modernizing changes that mark the lives of the urban middle classes in Istanbul and other big Turkish cities.
Small wonder that this cultural and social gap interacts with the economic cleavage in perverse ways. The biggest developmental drawback that follows? Still at work nearly a century after the Ataturk revolution began, these perverse, mutually reinforcing trends keep Turkey from being a more dynamic, vigorously industrializing country than it is. In consequence, its developmental prospects remain more problematic than that of its European neighbors to the north: whether post-Communist Bulgaria or the five new countries that once composed Communist Yugoslavia until the last decade.
TURKEY SINCE ATATURK
Ataturk died in 1938. His successors, as we noted, adhered to neutrality in WWII and joined NATO after 1949; then --- to consolidate their western-oriented model --- they introduced a second, more democratic constitution in 1961. As it turned out, solidifying an institutional electoral democracy --- where major office-holders are chosen by the electorate in fair and free elections --- proved to be a hard haul over the next decades. Internal terrorism caused by Islamist groups and pro-Soviet Marxists brought the military back into power in off-and-on emergency periods; eventually, in the 1990s, a brutal war with Kurdish separatists kept the military either at center-stage of politics or just in the wings off-stage. As late as 1998, the high military command had the governing fundamentalist party (the Welfare Party) banned for pursuing a limited religious agenda.
Since then, democratic prospects have markedly improved. Turkey now looks like continuing to evolve into a solid electoral democracy: moderate fundamentalists hold power while carefully respecting the secular constitution, the war with the Kurds has ended, and the status of civil and legal rights has improved noticeably even if the country is still a long way from never mind the West European liberal democracies . . . never mind those newer democracies in East Europe that just joined the European Union this month.
A Final Word or Two about the Turkish Economy.
Yes, just to complete this fast top-skimming survey that should, despite its rapid pace, give you some idea of why Turkey is exceptional in the Middle East as a Muslim country. Its growth rate is fairly impressive at times, but --- like lots of Latin American countries --- its legal framework, administrative red-tape, corruption, and protected or subsidized industries lead it to experience periodical financial crises and steep ups-and-downs in its overall GDP growth rate. Even so, compared to all the Arab countries, it has a fairly modern industrial base. Its major exports are in textiles and clothing, almost the entire industry now in private hands. Basic industry, by contrast, is still state-owned or dominated, and is plagued by inefficiencies --- much like Turkey's traditional agriculture, which employs a surprisingly high 40% of the work force still.
Still, to round off our perspective, keep in mind that with a per capita income of $7300 (measured in terms of purchasing power parity), it is richer than the Arab countries without large petroleum reserves. Only Tunisia, a country of about 10 million --- a seventh its size --- compares with it on this score.