Turkey’s Hidden Past

The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876å?1909

by Selim Deringil
London: Tauris, 260 pp., $22.50 (paper; distributed in the US by Palgrave)

AtatÌ?rk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey

by Andrew Mango
Overlook, 666 pp., $40.00

A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History

selected and presented by Bernard Lewis
Random House, 469 pp., $35.00

Kemal Ataturk
Kemal Ataturk; drawing by David Levine

Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, citizens of the new state have been encouraged to accept a highly selective version of history. According to this version, the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic are mutually antagonistic—the first is a military feudal system run on reactionary, Islamic lines, the other is a secular republic inspired by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment. The empire is unlamented and the republic glorified. Any connection between the two is coincidental.

On no subject is Turkish historiography more inflexible than the comparative merits of Abdülhamid II, the preeminent sultan of the empire’s final half-century, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founder. Turkish historians like to describe Abdülhamid as a bloody dictator—murderous, paranoid, reactionary. It is true that he probably had the empire’s most prominent early constitutionalist done away with, and under his rule thousands of Anatolian Armenians died while rioting against Ottoman Muslims during the 1890s. Atatürk called Abdülhamid “a hateful figure, addicted to pleasure and autocracy,” and he rejoiced when the Sultan was deposed and sent into exile in 1909.

Ever since, republican Turks—“Kemalists,” for whom Atatürk is the founding father—have taken the same view of the Sultan. They make much, for example, of the failure of Abdülhamid’s attempts to promote pan-Islamic unity. He built the Hijaz Railway, which took pilgrims from Istanbul to the Ottoman-controlled Arabian holy places, but this did nothing to bring Muslims together politically. On the other hand, Atatürk had contempt for his Arab coreligionists and took a disdainful view of religion in general. While the Sultan is accused of diverting revenue from excise taxes to the empire’s foreign creditors, Atatürk is praised for having installed an efficient system of accounting. Under Abdülhamid, the empire clearly deserved the epithet “the sick man of Europe,” which is generally, but incorrectly, attributed to Tsar Nicholas I earlier in the century.1 Atatürk’s republic, on the other hand, could plausibly claim to be a sturdy and fast-growing young country.

Naturally, few people are more despised by the Kemalists than apologists for Abdülhamid. Defending this backward ruler, the Kemalists say, amounts to attacking Atatürk himself. It was therefore to be expected that when the historian Necip Fazil Kisakurek published Ulu Hakan II: Abdülhamid Han, his hagiographical biography of Abdülhamid, he would provoke bilious attacks from Kemalist journalists.2 The Islamist newspaper columnist Abdülrahman Dilipak—who is facing many years in jail if convicted on charges concerning his Islamist journalism—described Abdülhamid as “one of the cleverest of sultans.”

In his recent book The Well-Protected Domains, Selim Deringil has gone further in upsetting the conventional Kemalist wisdom. Deringil, a professor of history at Bogazici, Turkey’s most prestigious public university, is not an Islamist. He enjoys a glass of raki, the local anise-flavored spirit. And he hopes that Turkey will join the European Union after having been given candidate status…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.