Young Ottomans and Constitutionalism

The Young Ottomans, also known as the New Ottomans, were 19th-century reformers. The members, some of whom were in the royal family, sought to continue the Tanzimat reforms. They wanted to liberalize the Ottoman Empire in order to ensure its survival. They applied the concept of Osmanlilik, Ottoman nationality, to a sweeping program of constitutional change.

Osmanlilik meant the attachment to freedom and fatherland with the equality of all citizens. The Young Ottomans supported civil secular rule with a separation of religious participation in government; they also stressed the importance of human rights for all the diverse religious and ethnic peoples of the empire.

The Young Ottoman program was outlined in Mustafa Fazil Pasha’s letter to Sultan Abdul Aziz in which a statement of loyalty to the empire was coupled with demands for reforms. Other Young Ottomans included Ali Suavi, a teacher from a merchant family, who was in charge of the first Young Ottoman publication, and Sadik Rifat Pasha, who urged reforms of the authoritarian Ottoman regime.

Using journalism to disseminate Young Ottoman ideals, Sadik wrote on the need for constitutionalism and urged the Ottomans to work hard to regenerate their society. Sadik Rifat Pasha had been educated in the Palace School and worked in the Ottoman civil service. He traveled through much of Europe and while in Austria wrote public letters urging reforms.

Another Young Ottoman, Ibrahim Sinasi, studied in France and was a friend of Samuel de Sacy, the son of the noted Orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy. He also knew the poet Alphonse de Lamartine. Sinasi served on the education committee in Istanbul and published poems, pamphlets, and journal articles.

Ziya Pasha, an experienced administrator, focused on the necessity of bureaucratic reforms. Namik Kemal, whose father was the court astronomer, was the most famous Young Ottoman. Kemal’s poems, especially “On Liberty,” and other publications are still studied in present-day Turkey. The Young Ottomans were influenced by western European approaches to government and society.

They attempted to use language acceptable to a Muslim society in order to fuse Muslim traditional government with essentially Western approaches to parliamentary systems. They translated European works into Ottoman Turkish; in intellectual salons in Istanbul and elsewhere, they engaged in lively debates about French philosophy and political theory.

A leading Young Ottoman supporter, Midhat Pasha, framed a constitution whereby the sultan would become a constitutional monarch. This constitution awaited the signature of Abdul Hamid II when he became sultan in 1876. Although Abdul Hamid was not committed to parliamentary government he was forced to implement the constitution as a provision of becoming sultan.

The constitution provided for a bicameral legislature, along the European model, with a statement regarding the rights of man. The first Ottoman parliament opened in 1877; it consisted of 25 officially nominated senators and 120 deputies elected with official pressure and general indifference among most of the population. The first parliament was composed of a wide mixture of representatives.

It met for two sessions over the course of five months. Sultan Abdul Hamid II used the excuse of war with Russia to dissolve the parliament in 1878. The short-lived constitution remained suspended for the next 30 years. Abdul Hamid’s suspension of the constitution marked the end of the Young Ottomans. Future reformers were censored and repressed under Abdul Hamid’s rule.