Reforming the Ottoman State: Competing Political Theologies in the Struggle for Modern Legitimacy (1789-1826)

Toprak, Vasfiye Betul, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Reed, Isaac, Sociology, University of Virginia

How does a modernizing state carry out reform? Considering that modernizing states are states-in-transition from one system of rule to another, due to internal and external pressures; how do they consolidate such power as to transform state structures, to innovate and legitimate new state practices, with minimal or no resistance? In the early 19th century, the military structure of the modernizing Ottoman state was successfully transformed through a reform initiative. Significantly, this was a time of crisis for the Empire amidst loss of territory, nationalist uprisings, and increasing corruption in the administration. Mahmud II and his state elite, initiated a reform movement, destroyed the traditional army of the Empire, and established a new army that lasted well until the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic. What explains the ability of the Ottoman state actors to successfully transform the structures of the state amidst crises? This dissertation provides an account of the transformation of a modernizing state, through the empirical case of the modernizing Ottoman state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Focusing specifically on the years between 1789 and 1826, it investigates two reform movements during the reigns of Selim III (1789-1807) and Mahmud II (1808-1826), respectively. The reform movement of Selim III failed after a rebellion and ended in the dethronement of Selim himself; while the reform movement of Mahmud II ultimately succeeded despite a similar rebellion, allowing Mahmud and the state actors to destroy the traditional standing army of the state, the Janissaries. Through this comparison, this dissertation traces the processes through which reforming the state became a legitimate state practice that the state could engage in with ease, including the destruction of the traditional military structure of the Ottoman state by Mahmud and his state elite. It finds that to successfully enact reform as a legitimate state practice, state actors must first transform the basis for legitimacy of the modernizing state. This is crucial, for a modernizing state first and foremost suffers from contending interpretations of what the state is, what it does, and what its purpose is. This dissertation demonstrates that Ottoman state actors transformed the basis of legitimacy, through actively engaging in a process of cultural resignification. This resignification process took place through the cultural processes of citation, scapegoating, performance, and metanarrative in which a new, coherent interpretation of the state was built and officially secured. Empirically, this meant that Ottoman state actors had to transform the deep structures of legitimacy from that of the deeply rooted notion of bid’at (wrongful innovation) to that of reform as farz (religious duty). Selim and his elite struggled to overcome resistance to the New Order that insisted their reform movement was bid’at, leading to suspicion and distrust of the Selimian elite. The Mahmudian state actors, on the other hand, consolidated a state narrative of renewal that provided a ground for the transformation of the Ottoman state.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
state transformation, modernizing states, authority, symbolic power, Ottoman Empire, reform, modernization
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