The Neglected Ottomanism of Ali Suavi Effendi

By Aaron Scott Johnson
Submitted to Session P3958 (Ottoman, Iranian, and Arab Intellectual Currents, 2014 Annual Meeting
Europe; Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
Ali Suavi was a journalist and a member of the Young Ottoman opposition group that was active in the late 1860s. He is best known for his failed attempt to rescue the deposed Sultan Murat V from captivity in 1878, presumably with the intention of restoring him to the throne. Most of Suavi’s career as a writer was spent not in Istanbul but in London and Paris. While the Turkish newspaper work that Suavi produced both in Istanbul and in Europe has received considerable scholarly attention, the books and pamphlets he published in Europe between 1871 and 1876 - many of which are in French or English - have been either understudied or completely neglected. The Turkish historians who have studied Ali Suavi in the last century have with very few exceptions argued either that he was a trailblazing Turkish nationalist, or that he was an erratic, incompetent zealot. However, a study of Suavi’s previously neglected European publications reveals that he was a patriotic Ottomanist who advocated pan-Islamic solidarity in the face of Russian expansionism and European interference. His most significant publications from this period are concerned with the threat from Russia and with responding to anti-Ottoman Eastern Question propaganda. A recurring theme is the double standards that were applied to the Ottoman Empire on issues such as the treatment of religious minorities. Suavi argues that the Ottoman Empire should stand up to Russia, stop bowing to foreign pressure and stop imitating Europe. He accurately perceives the Ottoman foreign debt as a threat to the independence of the Ottoman Empire. Suavi argues that there is an Ottoman nationality, independent of race or religion, though the centrality of Islam for this Ottoman nation is never in doubt. In these works Suavi sounds very much like a nationalist, but not of the Turkish variety. The neglect of these works can be explained by the fact that they contain almost nothing that could be used to portray Suavi as a Turkish nationalist, and much that would serve to contradict such views. The fact that Turkish nationalist historians were not interested in Ottomanism or pan-Islam has not only left us with a distorted and often incomprehensible image of Ali Suavi and the Young Ottoman movement, but has led to the general neglect of Ottomanist works and of the important role that Ottomanism played in the events of the 1860s and 1870s.