The country that we now call Turkey was the central part of the huge Ottoman Empire that had controlled huge territories stretching from Eastern Europe in the West, to North Africa in the South, and far into Asia in the North and East…
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In 1800 the Empire had a population of about 20 million. The capital of this empire was the present day capital of Turkey, Istanbul and it was renowned throughout the nineteenth century for its wealth and sophistication, and also for the cosmopolitan mix of different nationalities, cultures and religions that gathered there. The dominant religion was Islam, and this rested on a long tradition of Islamic rulers called Caliphs and Sultans, supported by generally Islamic state laws. There were other religions that flourished in this empire too: “about three fourths Muslim and the rest divided between Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian and Coptic Christians as well as a prosperous Jewish community."
The nineteenth century was a period of reform and renewal in the Ottoman Empire. Historians have recorded the achievements of a number of Islamic leaders who worked towards the twin goal of modernizing the government and institutions of the Empire and maintaining a moderate Islamic society. The rulers took on a personal responsibility for the welfare of their subjects, in accordance with Islamic tradition and this meant that many benefits such as transport, education, health and all kinds of government services were provided by the ruling Sultans. iii This moral obligation was a very important aspect in Turkey at the time, because without it, the people would have suffered under a despotic rule, with few rights, and at risk of exploitation. Thanks to Islamic values, which stipulate that patriarchs are responsible for others less powerful than themselves, there was a desire to do good works and take care of peoples’ needs. A notable feature of the society in Turkey during the every early part of the nineteenth century is that the Muslim community had many privileges in comparison with the other religious groups. The political reforms of the nineteenth century, called Tanzimat, aimed to reduce these differences by creating a more neutral legal and social framework, which was applicable to all religions equally. This resulted in a separation between Islam and the state, and it has helped to produce the modern Turkey that we see today – broadly Islamic, but at the same time able to operate on a secular system that is quite close to European norms. It could be said that the late Ottoman Empire period in Turkey was an “attempt to integrate the Western system with moral content appropriate to the Islamic and Ottoman context.”iv There were a number of rebellions and especially attempts by fundamentalist Muslims to retain a more conservative and religious style of state administration, but these were squashed. Reflection Turkey, and the connected countries that formed the Ottoman Empire, is a very interesting region of the world because it sits at the margin between East and West, and at the meeting point between three of the great world religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Given that location, its history is bound to be greatly influenced by religious ideas. In studying this topic I have become aware of the long and glorious history that Islam has had, and the way that people in Turkey tried to construct a broadly Islamic society, but one which tolerated other religions and tried to make space for a neutral state system, rather than an overtly Islamic one. For this reason I think that the moderate form of Islam that became the norm in Turkey was very, very important not only for the way that modern Turkey was created, but also for the whole Eastern European region. When one looks at the harsh regimes that exist in Saudi Arabia, or in an even more extreme form in Afghanistan, for example,
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