Historical Context of the Tanzimat
The philosophy behind the Ottoman Tanzimat in the 19th century was based on the notion of modernization, understood by Ottoman local elites throughout the Empire as the adoption of European political modernity within Ottoman institutions and bureaucracy. The military establishment was the Tanzimat's first priority. At the time, traditional Ottoman armies-the Janissaries and the Sipahi-had fallen from their glory and their weakness contrasted highly with European armies, which, since the 18th century, began displaying a high level of organization, training, and skill.
The second priority was the empire's administrative apparatus, which was the main focus of Ottoman reformers from 1839 onwards, which is also the year the first Tanzimat edict, Hatt-i-Sharif of the Gulhane, was issued. The edict's main objective was the abolishment of the traditional land-tenure regime (iltizam). A number of measures, decrees, and organizational and legal edicts were subsequently issued, most notably Hatt-I Humayun (1856), which focused on equality between different communities and classes, followed by the new Wilayat law (provincial law) in 1864, which decreed that administrative councils should be elected, from the district level to that of the provinces (wilayat). These were followed by a succession of laws regulating the status of "Ottoman affiliation" (meaning citizenship) in 1869, and the reorganization of the judiciary, which was divided between Islamic, communitarian, and secular courts. Additional laws were also issued to organize the matters of trade, official transactions, the registration of land, and municipalities and their powers.
In that same context, the 1876 constitution was issued under the name "the Fundamental Law of the Sultanate," though during that period, the term constitution generally referred to the entirety of the Tanzimat, not only the fundamental law. There is no doubt that a multitude of historical factors led to the decision to adopt the Tanzimat. At the time, pressure was mounting with regards to Europe's expanding and competing capitalism, which found European countries seeking new markets and zones of influence, and required reforms necessary for such capitalist expansion, such as commercial laws. The Ottoman Empire's local elites, including ambassadors, ministers, and intellectuals, were becoming more aware of the necessity of reform as the entryway to salvaging and strengthening the state, by adopting what they believed to be the ingredients of the West's prosperity and power.
At the time, tensions were also mounting among the different ethnicities comprising Ottoman society-a complex mix of social, cultural, and religious communities. The crisis of the Millet system was a sign of this tension, particularly when set against the emerging system of foreign privileges, immunity, and interventions. This question was further complicated by the growth of new forms of national awareness and "identities," which found a large audience among the different elites in Ottoman territories.
The reforms that came with the Tanzimat, along with its notion of modernization, meant different things to different stakeholders in the Ottoman Empire. For European capitalist powers, these reforms represented a facilitation of commercial exchange, an expansion of the capitalist market, and the ability to protect foreign communities and their local trade representatives. For Ottoman elites, especially those who were enlightened, modernization was understood as a way to neutralize any potential justification for intervention through the enactment of popular representation and the provision of the rights of Ottoman citizenship. For the Ottoman communities (millets), particularly those that were non-Muslim, these measures were understood as an application of the right to equality, while non-Turkish ethnicities and nationalities saw them as an opportunity to achieve a measure of participation. This was true even before secessionist demands began to crystallize within the Ottoman Empire.
Trying to understand the cultural and social dimensions of the Ottoman Tanzimat can prove challenging, especially when it comes to popular representation and the repercussions of the transformation of Ottoman "subjects" into "citizens". The differences between the notion of popular representation, as part of the rights of citizenship in a nation-state (inspired by Ottoman reformers motivated by European democratic experiences), and the culture of political "subjects," which was well-entrenched in the culture and the empire's political mentality, as well as part of an old lifestyle and political communities that continued to exist under the Tanzimat-strained relations in the empire.
Representation through subjects alludes to those social units on the sectarian, communal, tribal, and familial, and professional levels who had acquired a "power system" Ibn Khaldoun termed asabiya (social solidarity), which is characterized by mechanisms that are based on a balance of forces and a constant struggle between "conquering asabiyas," "defensive asabiyas," and "affiliated asabiyas". The same concept states that loyalty or affiliation has conditions related to the extent of one's ability to dominate in order to impose submission, or their ability to "unify the hearts" and gain people's loyalty by offering services, distributing benefits, protection, or even intermarriage.
The Tanzimat, in contrast, spoke of a new form of popular representation through new channels, such as administrative councils that were formed by the Wilayat Law, starting at the district level up to the general councils at the provincial level (in 1864), the municipal councils (1871), and the fundamental law (the constitution), which was announced in 1876. The fundamental law decreed the formation of two councils: an appointed council of notables and an elected council of delegates. In principle, this representation was based on "Ottoman affiliation," a law from 1869 that attempted to transform "subjects" into "citizens".
* This study was originally published in the third Edition of tabayyun (Winter 2013, pp. 7-22). Tabayyun, published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, is a peer-reviewed academic quarterly journal devoted to philosophical and cultural studies.
It was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.
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 Tanzimat, (Turkish: "Reorganization"), series of reforms promulgated in the Ottoman Empire between 1839 and 1876 under the reigns of the sultans Abdulmecid I and Abdulaziz. These reforms, heavily influenced by European ideas, were intended to effectuate a fundamental change of the empire from the old system based on theocratic principles to that of a modern state.