The ‘double consciousness’ of Turkish modernity

On the 4th of November 1872, a newspaper in Istanbul featured a rather poetic editorial claiming that “if all the improvements in the world were photographed in a picture, the whole civilised world could only show as much as London”. Signifying somewhat of an internalised orientalism, literary depictions of the ‘civilised’ West were common in late-19th century Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, there is more to this than meets the eye.

By Constantinos Onesilou

On the 4th of November 1872, a newspaper in Istanbul featured a rather poetic editorial claiming that “if all the improvements in the world were photographed in a picture, the whole civilised world could only show as much as London” [i]. Signifying somewhat of an internalised orientalism, literary depictions of the ‘civilised’ West were common in late-19th century Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, there is more to this than meets the eye.

In 1903, American sociologist W.E.B DuBois coined the term ‘double consciousness’ to describe the idea that social groups situated at the margins of their communities are forced to see themselves through the eyes of the dominant group and to evaluate their condition according to the standards that place them in an inferior position[ii]. If we transpose DuBois’ concept of double consciousness from the domestic to the international, Turkey’s marginal position in the European continent is put into perspective; what characterises the advent of Turkish modernity is the tension between the dominant objective of Europeanisation and the desire to retain an ‘Eastern’ exceptionalism by holding onto the religious character of the Empire. Elites in the late Ottoman Empire and the early republic came to see the process of modernisation through “European eyes”—in need of Westernisation[iii].

This contradiction became evident during the ‘Reorganisation’ (Tanẓīmāt) period, which commenced in 1839 as an attempt to bring about modernisation and to neutralise nationalism within the Empire by elevating the status of non-Muslim subjects. For instance, even though the ‘Edict of Gülhane’ introduced military conscription based on Prussian and French military structures, draft for non-Muslims was not introduced until 1856[iv]. Even then, non-Muslims could make an exception payment in return for not enlisting. This meant that while thousands of Ottoman Muslims were killed defending the Ottoman Empire against Russia during the Crimean War, non-Muslims were able to pursue more creative activities at home, with some even taking the opportunity to revolt against Ottoman rule. The fact that the Ottoman Army had a religious character discouraged non-Muslims from serving and acted against the desired diffusion of nationalist movements. Clearly, despite attempts to modernise according to European institutional structures, the Ottoman Empire continued to hierarchise its population based on religion, thereby curtailing the development of a broader sense of belonging.

CO 2
Namik Kemal, prominent writer and member of the Young Ottomans. Best known for popularising the concepts of vatan (fatherland) and hürriyet (freedom).

The Young Ottomans, a secret society of Muslim intellectuals, attempted to reconcile the tension between Westernisation and the Islamic political structure of the Empire by advocating the introduction of constitutional rule. For them, the Tanẓīmāt era signified a blind emulation of Western materialism; Ottoman backwardness was not perceived as an inherent condition but as the result of uncritically imposing Western practices. They believed that granting equal status to both Muslims and non-Muslims was possible through the introduction of representative institutions grounded in Islamic principles. The concept of an ideal Muslim community governed by the meşveret (consultation), icma (consensus), and şura (assemply) was merged with liberalism to legitimise parliamentary rule[v]. Notably, the Young Ottomans hoped that democratic representation could transcend ethnic or religious commitments by promoting a civic notion of identity coupled with a pan-Ottoman spiritual allegiance to the territorial notion of the ‘Fatherland’. It is clear, however, that inasmuch as this new configuration of Ottoman identity was based on Islamic principles, it could not appeal to non-Muslim citizens of the Empire[vi]. Even when a constitution drafted by the Young Ottomans was adopted in 1876, eventually creating an indirectly elected General Assembly which included non-Muslim representatives, the Sultan was entitled to veto all decisions. Once again, the oscillating dynamic between the objective of Europeanisation and the theocratic political character of the Empire exemplified the impossibility of an Ottoman identity capable of sustaining modern institutional structures. 

Indeed, when Sultan Abdülhamit II suspended both the constitution and the General Assembly in 1878, he embarked on an authoritarian pursuit to entrench pan-Islamism as the glue holding together his disintegrating Empire. Having lost effective control over Cyprus, Tunisia, Egypt, and most of Rumelia, Abdülhamit promoted pan-Islamic identity to legitimise his absolute authority and to counter the proliferation of ethnic nationalism within the Empire. In a sense, he attempted to escape the double consciousness of Ottoman modernity by rejecting Westernisation altogether. He did not, however, retreat from modernity. In fact, he rapidly expanded the educational system, reformed the military, and developed public infrastructure. Notably, to project his role as the Sultan-Caliph of the Islamic world, he initiated the construction of the Hejaz railway to connect Istanbul with the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and supervised the worldwide distribution of the Quran.

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey.

Nevertheless, by the time, the first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal, abolished the Sultanate in 1922, pan-Islamic or Ottoman identity had lost all significance. The dilemma between ‘East’ and ‘West’, between modernity and tradition, was resolved through radical secularism and Turkish nationalism. Following the ethnic cleansing of Armenians and Greeks, the Turkish nation was reborn as a purified transcendental entity attached to the sacred land of Anatolia. In a sense, the nation was transformed into a new “religion” relegated to the public realm. Kemal not only became the ‘father of the Turks’ (Atatürk) but he was the nation. He personified the unification of the Turkish people and, as commander-in-chief, he became the protector of the nation’s living space against Western encroachment. Both temporal and spiritual, Kemalism attempted to reconcile the double consciousness of Turkish modernity; the nascent Republic pursued sweeping reforms towards cultural Westernisation, but away from democratic transformation. Signifying the ubiquitous control of the Kemalist establishment, when the 1925 ‘Hat Law’ required traditional Ottoman headgear to be replaced by the western-style hat, 57 people were executed for rebelling against it. In a sense, the head of the individual became, quite literally, the site of identity construction imposed from above[vii].

Today, almost a century after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the oscillating dynamic between Westernisation and Islamisation continues to favour the forceful delineation of Turkish identity through authoritative social engineering. Regrettably, unless democratic pluralism is restored, Turkey will remain hostage to modernity’s competing interpretations.


[i] Namik Kemal. “Progress”, editorial in Ibret (Istanbul, Nov. 1872), trans. In Wells, Charles. The Literature of the Turks: A Turkish Chrestomathy. London: Bernard Quatrich, 1891, 156.

[ii] B., Du Bois W. E. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Auckland: The Floating Press, 1903.

[iii] Zarakol, Ayse. After Defeat How the East Learned to Live with the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[iv] Zürcher, Erik Jan. “The Ottoman Conscription System, 1844–1914.” International Review of Social History 43, no. 3 (1998): 437-49.

[v] Berkes, Niyazi, and Feroz Ahmad. The development of secularism in Turkey. London: Hurst, 1998.

[vi] Karpat, Kemal H. “The Transformation of the Ottoman State, 1789-1908.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 3, no. 03 (1972): 243-81.

[vii] Nereid, C. T. “Kemalism on the Catwalk: The Turkish Hat Law of 1925.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 3 (2011): 707-28.



Born and raised in Cyprus, Constantinos is an International Relations student at KCL. His research interests include 19th & 20th-century continental philosophy, political Islam, and European politics.


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