Reforming the Ottoman State: State Narratives in the Struggle for Legitimacy

Vasfiye Toprak, University of Virginia

This paper investigates the transformation and modernization of the Ottoman state in the 19th century through a comparison of two reform movements, tracing the effects of modernization on the constitution of political authority. The two movements had similar objectives: the restructuring of the military apparatus of the state and the removal of the traditional army, the Janissaries. The inaugural reform movement, spearheaded by Sultan Selim III under the banner of Nizam-i Cedid (New Order), met a tragic end following a revolt by the Janissaries. New Order reforms were abolished, and Selim was dethroned. Almost two decades later, Sultan Mahmud II, initiated a similar reform movement to restructure the state and the military. Mahmud’s reforms succeeded. After what is called the Auspicious Incident, the Janissary army was abolished and replaced with a new army corps called “the Victorious Soldiers of Muhammed” (Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye).Through this comparison, this paper finds that even though both periods were similar in terms of the military and economic strength of the state, it was the state narratives that differed radically in both periods -- the interpretations provided by the state introducing the reforms. While the Selimian elite disrupted official, centuries-long established state narratives by interpreting state reforms as religious revival, due to their connections with the newly emerging Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi movement; the Mahmudian elite introduced the reforms as restoring tradition and Ottoman glory. This suggests that modernization efforts went beyond transformation of state structures and required more effort on transforming the deep cultural structures of political authority.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 26. Sovereignty as a Cultural Project