Why do you think Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism Failed?

Mariam Als, thank you for your A2As. I truly am not qualified to answer this, and I hope Dimitris Almyrantis will. Irene Avetyan, I’m looking at you too. This is more to provoke an answer out of them, and it’s not rooted in any great understanding of Ottoman or Turkish history.

(That, and I’m cleaning out my A2A queue today.)

There are various forces historically that give cohesion to States. We have seen a change in the relative strength of those forces in the last couple of centuries; and that has undermined both Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism, in favour of Nationalism.

I’m not familiar with the term Ottomanism, but I’ll assume it’s the whole notion of a multi-ethnic empire, with a dominant ethnicity and/or religion and/or culture. Europe was doing the same thing with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And the Ottoman Empire collapsed for the same reason as the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Nationalism was a more compelling cause for the non-dominant peoples within the empire.

I recently had an exchange with Erdi Küçük about footage of Greek POWs discussing their encounter with Atatürk.


Greek with Turkish subtitles, no English unfortunately. The gist is, Atatürk had won, and had done away with the Ottoman Empire in the process; but he was still complaining to the Greek POWs of how disloyal they had been to the Empire, and how the Empire had indulged their theatrical performances of Greek nationalist plays with no recrimination. (“The stage was white with kilts and swords!”)

Erdi said something that blew me away with how perceptive it was:

You sort of realize that at that point, he’s still a bitter Ottoman officer who couldn’t get over the fact that empire is gone (and his viewpoint is exactly the reason why it’s gone), and he’s unhappy even at victory.

Atatürk’s viewpoint was still Ottomanist. It could not cope with the Greeks’ Nationalism.

Nationalism, admittedly, has been a poor fit for the Arabic-Speaking world. But it’s worked a treat for Turkey, which has embraced it whole-heartedly (even if it is launching its own Pan-Turkic system of alliances now). And, in a way I haven’t quite worked out, nationalism (or at least, a Shi’a-centric focus) has worked fine for Iran too.

If Ottomanism was frustrated by European Nationalism, Pan-Islamism failed even earlier: the Ummah had already stopped paying attention to a single caliph when the Fatimids and the Ummayads set up their own caliphates in the tenth century: Caliphate. Pan-Islamism was frustrated by the emergence of rival centres of power within the Arabic speaking Sunni world, long before the Turks were part of the picture: Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, Fez, Cordoba; and there was no possibility that India, let alone Indonesia, would ever be yoked into the same political entity as the Arabs.

Any notion of Pan-Islamism is anachronistic; the Rashidun (the first caliphate of Islam) is not coming back, and the Rashidun was never going to stay united with it covering the amount of ground it did so quickly. The Ottoman Sultan was the nominal caliph; but I just can’t buy it that the Sultan’s caliphate meant all that much in terms of keeping the empire together. It didn’t make Morocco or Iran rush to join up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *