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Late Ottoman Politics

If al-Afghani was the father of pan-Islamist thought, Ottoman sultans were the first to implement pan-Islamism as official state policy, a policy with imperialist, not nationalist, goals. As early as the 1860s, the then-sultan, Abdul Aziz (r. 1861–1876), tried to extend his political authority beyond the Ottoman Empire by casting himself as the caliph, the designated ruler of all Muslims and the defender of the faith. His successor, Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876–1909), adopted the same mantle of authority. This pan-Islamic appeal was tied to the growing Western influence in the Muslim world that the Ottomans themselves had facilitated through their efforts to reform. The need to reform had become apparent as European peoples began to win back territory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that had been lost to the Ottoman expansion into Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The same rising tide of technological advancement that had allowed European nations to defeat the Ottomans in Europe also permitted them to project their power abroad. This new political reality was made clear to the Ottomans when, in 1798, one of their autonomous possessions, Egypt, was invaded and occupied by the French under Napoléon Bonaparte.

Conscious of their declining power, the Ottomans embarked on a series of military, educational, social, and governmental reforms throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, and they sought technical assistance and advice from the very European nations that threatened the empire's territorial sovereignty. While dramatic and far-reaching, the reforms came too late to prevent the Ottomans from becoming known as the Sick Man of Europe, an inefficient and weakened empire whose lands in the Middle East and Central Asia looked ripe for the picking. The competition to take control of Ottoman possessions was widespread in Europe in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but it was played out on a grand scale—referred to as the Great Game—by two imperialist powers bent on world domination, Great Britain and Russia. For the Ottomans, pan-Islamic propaganda seemed a viable means of reasserting its sway over Muslim subjects whose loyalty was being tested by new ideas like nationalism and undermining the progress of European influence among Muslim peoples in places such as India. Ultimately unsuccessful as an imperialist ideology, pan-Islamism did serve the nationalist desires of Muslim peoples trying to break free from both Ottoman and European rule. It failed, however, to take hold in modern Turkey, the nation that arose out of the heartland of the defeated and dismembered Ottoman Empire.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Overdamped to PeatPan-Islamism - Jamal Al-din Al-afghani, Late Ottoman Politics, The Khilafat Movement, A World Of Nation-states