Selim Deringil’s book, The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire 1876-1909, is an attempt to find a more balanced and realistic interpretation of the reign of Abdulhamid II than that proposed by either the Turkish left, which demonizes the period, or that of the Turkish right, which places Abdulhamid II on a pedestal. He accomplishes this by stepping outside of the modern argument and presenting Abdulhamid II’s reign and the Ottoman state in the context of the larger world, as perceived by the Ottoman elite in Istanbul. According to Deringil, the main problem facing the Ottoman Empire during this period was one of legitimation, a problem faced by all autocratic empires during that time period, and Abdulhamid II’s reign was an extended period of contest with other Great Powers to legitimate and protect the image of his Well Protected Domains.
To legitimate his rule of the multiethnic Ottoman state in a period that showed increasing signs of national consciousness and hostility from outside powers, Abdulhamid II had to manage his government’s image on two fronts: internally and externally. He had to ensure loyalty from his diverse citizenry and manage the empire’s public image abroad. Essentially, he was focusing on maintaining the three pillars of the Ottoman Empire as posited by Reşid Paşa: the Islamic nature of the state, Ottoman rule, and the continuity of Istanbul as the capital of the empire.
Within the empire, Abdulhamid II focused on efforts at reforming the sharia and the educational systems, both for the purposes of maintaining the Islamic character of the state and both as a response to Western influences. Western legal codes had become codified, so the Ottomans felt compelled to codify the sharia as well, to justify its image as a modern state. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of codifying the sharia was that it removed a lot of the leeway individual jurists previously had when interpreting the law and applying it to cases. Also, the appearance of missionary schools created a problem for the Ottomans. Part of the state’s legitimacy was based on the Islamic character of the majority of the Ottoman’s subjects. Abdulhamid II feared that missionary schools would lead to large conversions of Muslims to Christianity, both removing his base of legitimacy and creating a situation where Ottoman subjects might feel greater loyalty to a foreign government.
One of the examples used, to justify this belief, was when the Maronite community bodily supported the French state during a war, but did not volunteer to enlist during the Ottoman’s war with Russia. To prevent this from happening, the Ottomans monitored, regulated and attempted to prevent missionary schools from being opened, utilizing many resources and man-hours on what ultimately proved to be a waste of time. The Ottomans realized the only way to compete with foreign education was to provide better local, Muslim services. Perhaps they could have done that if they hadn’t invested so much time, effort and resources into trying to prevent missionary schools from opening?
In a related push for domestic legitimacy, Abdulhamid II’s pushed for Islamic orthodoxy through education and forced conversion. A carrot-and-stick method was used to gain a conversion and then education facilities were established and teachers were posted to the areas to ensure the locals followed state Hanafi Islam. Deringil discusses the case of the Yezidi Kurds at length, showing how this policy of ensuring the conversion or correction of local Muslims could result in unintended consequences. In the case of the Kurds, mixed signals led to junior Ottoman officers engaging in violent behavior that only solidified resistance to central authority among Kurds. This also resulted in a loss of image in the international community.
International image management was also an important part of maintaining political legitimacy for the Ottomans. International press was closely monitored with the Sublime Porte frequently instructing local consulates and ambassador’s to issue rebuttals. The Ottomans also ensured that they were represented in any event that other Great Powers were participating in, such as World Fairs and Expos. The Ottomans often used their influence to shut down productions that they felt would insult the national honor and integrity of the Ottoman Empire. There was a Western tendency to make exotic the normal life of the Ottoman Empire, and to some degree the Ottomans internalized those images while fighting against them, as shown by their willingness to name their horses in World Fair exhibitions. The Ottoman’s preoccupation with ensuring a positive image in the world press was an effort to present themselves as a modern state, with just as much right to exist as a Great Power as Germany or Russia.
Selim Deringil’s book is a valuable and interesting resource that sheds light on how the Ottoman Empire interacted with other world powers in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, how it was similar to other world powers and how it guarded its political legitimacy both domestically and abroad. His attempt to humanize and normalize the Ottomans is an important step in breaking the stereotype of the Oriental ‘other’, so that we can better understand the development of the modern Middle East.