Young Ottomans

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Ottoman intellectuals and bureaucrats who constituted the first organized opposition to the pro-West modernizing elite of the Tanzimat.

Members of the group called themselves New Ottomans, while contemporary European observers referred to them as Young Turks. The latter term came to be used more specifically in reference to the next generation of liberal opponents of Sultan Abdülhamit as distinct from Young Ottomans, which has become the synonym of New Ottomans.

The Young Ottomans began their activities in Constantinople (now Istanbul). They faced repression and were forced into exile in Europe and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Prominent Young Ottoman leaders were Namik Kemal (18401888), İbrahim Şinasi (18241871), Agha Efendi (18321885), Abdülhamit Ziya Paşa (18251880), and Ali Suavi (18381878). The group received important financial and moral support from a disaffected member of the Egyptian khedival family who had entered the Ottoman service, Mustafa Fazil Paşa (18291875). While these leaders were united in their opposition to the Tanzimat elite, and to the autocratic ministry of Paşas Fu'ad and Ali, they had hardly been bystanders to the Tanzimat. They had matured intellectually and professionally during the Tanzimat period. Many had served in the Translation Bureau, a breeding ground for Tanzimat bureaucrats. Some were stimulated by the frustration of their career ambitions under the Tanzimat regime.

The Young Ottomans differed in social and professional background. Ziya Paşa, the oldest in the group, was a writer and poet and had served as third secretary to Sultan Abdülmecit II. Namik Kemal, also poet and writer, came from a distinguished bureaucratic family. Şinasi, an army captain's son who held a post in the imperial arsenal before he was sent to Paris to study finance, was the most innovative and versatile from a literary point of view. Ali Suavi was a middle-school teacher and a religious-minded writer, even agitator.

The forerunner of the group was the Alliance of Fidelity or Patriotic Alliance, a loose group consisting of literary men and functionaries, which first met in Constantinople in June 1865. Organization was secret and conspiratorial, apparently modeled along the Carbonari of Italy, Spain, and France and led by a French-educated agitator, Mehmet Bey. The group did not publicize a program. The members were motivated by recent Ottoman setbacks in the Balkans and Lebanon and fear of disintegration. They felt constitutional government was necessary to preserve the empire and to ward off Europe's economic domination and diplomatic interventions. The group's expanding membership included bureaucrats, ulama (Islamic clergy), and army officers.

In 1866/67 Namik Kemal and Ali Suavi published newspapers (Tasvir-i Efkar and Muhbir) in which they vehemently criticized the government's policy regarding the insurrection in Crete and the impending surrender of Serbia. They published an open letter from Mustafa Fazil, who had left the empire over issues pertaining to his political ambitions in Egypt, which addressed the sultan and amounted to a liberal manifesto. The government ordered Namik Kemal, Ziya, and Ali Suavi to domestic exile and closed their newspapers. Instead, they accepted an invitation from Mustafa Fazil Paşa and fled to Paris. At this time, the government also uncovered the group's contacts with top security officials in preparation for a coup against Abdülaziz that was organized by Mehmet Bey.

The regrouping of the liberal-minded elements of the Patriotic Alliance as New Ottomans occurred in exile at the end of May 1867. In Paris and later London, they published the newspaper Hürriyet, edited by Namik Kemal and Ziya Paşa with financial support from Mustafa Fazil. They promoted liberal political principles and demanded a parliament. At the same time, they denounced liberal economic policies and advocated measures to buttress indigenous trade and to promote industry.

Despite considerable variation in their outlook on politics, society, and religion, the Young Ottomans projected an Islamic modernist synthesis. They opposed Western political and economic interference and wholesale adoption of Western thought and culture. Nevertheless, they were sympathetic to Western political institutions. Their thought was premised on the existence in Islamic political traditions of the concepts and institutions fundamental to a liberal political system based on representative principles. The Young Ottomans reinterpreted and popularized the concept of watan (homeland) to advance a political allegiance to the Ottoman state. They sought a contractual relationship between the subjects and the ruler, based on the Islamic principles of shura (consultation) and ijma (consensus), within the framework of an Ottoman watan. These views represented the first systematic expression of Islamic modernist ideas in the Muslim world.

The Young Ottoman movement was not the first expression of political protest against the Tanzimat. As early as 1859, a group of ulama and army officers had led a coup d'état aimed at Abdülmecit in resentment of Tanzimat policies that enhanced the status of the non-Muslim minorities vis-à-vis the Muslims, andperhaps more importantlyhad left the payment of officers in arrears (the Küleli Incident). The Young Ottomans constituted the first opposition group that attempted to offer alternative programs, inspired by Western thought but consistent with Islamic political ideals.

The movement signifies the beginnings of a campaign for social mobilization and the forging of a public opinion in the Ottoman Empire, even though the group's propaganda remained restricted to a literate Turkish-speaking intelligentsia. Their ideas appealed to disfranchised Westernized groups, students, Muslim commercial associations, and religious conservative opponents of the Tanzimat. They propagated their views through newspapers and literature utilizing a simplified Ottoman-Turkish. They were influenced by contemporary Turkish discoveries, which reinforced the Islamist and anti-imperialist outlook, especially in the pen of Ali Suavi.

The Young Ottomans pioneered journalism and introduced new genres and themes to Ottoman literature. Indeed, future members of the group began their oppositional activity in the first privately published Ottoman journals that appeared in the early 1860s (such as Tercüman-i Ahval and Tasvir-i Efkar ). They introduced the genres of the novel and the drama to Ottoman literature, popularized them, and effectively used them as vehicles of political propaganda. The pioneer in this journalistic and literary activity was Şinasi. The Young Ottomans also translated into Turkish the works of European Enlightenment philosophers and authors such as Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Molière, and Lamartine.

The Young Ottomans did not constitute a party organization despite their espousal of political propaganda and promotion of political agendas. After the early 1870s, the group lost its cohesion. Ideological and personal differences led to estrangement in European exile. Several leaders, including the benefactor Mustafa Fazil Paşa, accepted Abdülaziz's amnesty offer to return to Constantinople. Following the death of their nemesis, Ali Paşa, in 1871 the movement went into disarray in the capital. However, under the duress of the political and financial crises of the 1870s, progressive Ottoman statesmen started to look with favor upon Young Ottoman ideas about constitutional government. Midhat Paşa, known as the architect of the Ottoman constitution and parliament, emerged as the leading proponent of change and set out to give concrete expression to Young Ottoman ideas on constitutional government, drawing also on the services of Young Ottoman leaders. Namik Kemal and Ziya Paşa were members of the committee that drafted the Ottoman constitution of 1876. Namik Kemal's long struggle to promote the Young Ottoman cause, his refusal to compromise, his passionately patriotic poetry and drama, and his lucid political writings stressing the notion of popular sovereignty gave him a reputation as the most influential Young Ottoman activist and author, as well as making him a source of inspiration for later constitutionalists.

Due to the absence of a party organization and their dependence on literary forms for the propagation of their ideas, the Young Ottomans had no direct impact on non-Turkish-speaking parts of the empire. For instance, their Islamic modernist ideas did not have an appreciable influence on later and similar currents in the Arab-populated areas. The Young Ottoman movement, however, was the ideological forerunner and inspiration of the later and more broadly based Young Turk movement. The Young Ottomans may not have offered a coherent political philosophy, but they were the precursors of most modern intellectual and political movements in the Middle East.

see also ali suavi; mustafa fazil; namik kemal;Şinasi, İbrahim; tanzimat; young turks; ziya, abdülhamit.


Davison, Roderic H. Reform in the Ottoman Empire, 18561876. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Mardin, Serif. The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.

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