Illiberal Ottomanism: Ali Suavi’s Critique of Liberal Internationalism

By Madeleine Elfenbein
Submitted to Session P4898 (Sovereignty Reformed: Ottoman Authority between the International and the Islamic in the Tanzimat Era, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Ottoman constitution of 1876 has long been regarded as the apotheosis of nineteenth-century Ottomanism, an interpretation that places critics of constitutionalism outside the mainstream of Ottomanist thought. Among those critics is Ali Suavi (1839-1878), whose neglect by scholars owes in large part to his reputation as a “turbaned radical” aligned with an unlettered Muslim working class and propelled by a chauvinist Islamist politics of resentment.
This paper participates in a broader re-examination of the substance and legacy of nineteenth-century Ottomanism by taking a closer look at Ali Suavi’s political writings, particularly his reflections on the concept of sovereignty and his related critique of the Ottoman constitutionalist movement and its concessions to the emerging ideology of internationalism. I focus on a series of articles and pamphlets written by Suavi between 1869 and 1876, a period in which he remained in Europe following the break-up of the Young Ottoman Society. The writings he produced during this period include a series of meditations in his self-published journal Ulûm on sovereignty, as well as a number of pamphlets on international affairs that were published in French and English for a European audience. Both sets of writings reflect the influence of the Scottish conservative author David Urquhart (1805-1877), Suavi’s friend and close collaborator in this period.

My analysis focuses on the relationship between Suavi’s view of sovereignty and his argument against both constitutionalism and the internationalization of Ottoman governance. Against the prevailing reading of Suavi’s political agenda as narrowly sectarian and unsophisticated, I show how Suavi’s writings reflect a keen attention to the new geopolitical order that emerged in the wake of the Crimean War. The expansion of international institutions and enterprises that characterized this new geopolitical order was among the chief targets of Urquhart’s critique of British liberal policy, and it served as the fulcrum of the ideological alliance between the Islamist Suavi and his Scottish Presbyterian patron. Both men critiqued the emerging ideology of internationalism as an infringement on national sovereignty, while participating in cosmopolitan practices of international travel and exchange.

By highlighting the resonances between Suavi’s meditations on sovereignty and internationalism and those of Urquhart, this paper draws out underexplored parallels between Islamist and European conservative critiques of liberalism. In doing so, it underscores the ideological diversity of the Ottomanist movement and emphasizes the cosmopolitan origins of modern Islamist political thought from its nineteenth-century beginnings onward.