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Ottoman Intellectuals on the Empire Question During the Long 19th Century|Intellectuals & Empire

Thursday, May 6, 2021, 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm

The history of the long 19th-century Ottoman struggle for sovereignty, and its desire for inclusion into the Eurocentric imperial world order as an equal member, is often narrated as a defensive posture by a Muslim dynasty without any new imperial imagination or visions to remake the world order. Yet, from the 1839 declaration of Tanzimat proclamation to the 1919 memorandum of the Ottoman government to the Paris Peace Conference, a diverse set of Ottoman intellectuals proposed competing imaginations of what principles the new Ottoman Empire should rely on. This paper will present an overview of different imperial projects from inclusive and ecumenical ones to nationalizing versions that saw Sunni Muslims or Turks as the core of the self-strengthening Ottoman polity. With this overview, the paper will try to make sense of why and how an imperial vision promising the elimination of distinctions among the religiously and ethnically plural Ottoman subjects in the mid-19th century evolved into a depiction of an Ottoman empire that promoted Muslim internationalism via Caliphate’s spiritual sovereignty during and in the aftermath of WWI.  It will also discuss the long lasting intellectual legacies of this reformulation of the Ottoman imperial identity for the post-Ottoman nation states.

Cemil Aydin is professor of international/global history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Department of History. He studied at Boğaziçi University, İstanbul University, and the University of Tokyo before receiving his Ph.D. degree at Harvard University in 2002.  Cemil Aydin’s publications include his book on the Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2007), “Regions and Empires in Political History of the World, 1750-1924” in An Emerging Modern World, 1750-1870 (A History of the World, Book 4) Ed. by Jurgen Osterhammel and Sebastian Conrad (Harvard University Press, May 2018), pp: 33-277, and The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press, Spring 2017). 

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The lecture is a part of the CEMS "Intellectuals and Empire" lecture series. The series asks what role intellectuals played in formulating notions of empire and spreading imperial policy, on the one hand, and, on the other, how they criticized emperors and challenged imperial ideology or practices. How did intellectuals navigate power structures and their asymmetrical relationship with relevant powers? What strategies did they use to maintain a critical distance from those on whom they often depended for their livelihood? How did they shape their personas to carve out a place for themselves within – or outside – the machinery of imperial administration? By looking at the intellectual production and socio-political roles of different kinds of intellectuals in various historical periods, the series invites meditation of the complex yet constant tension between power and intellectual life.