Legitimation Structures of the Hamidian Era

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Amid a period of decline in the power and extent of the Ottoman Empire, Abdülhamid II ascended the throne in 1876.[1] As sultan, he witnessed insurrection in the Balkans, the Russo-Ottoman War of 1978, the loss of massive amounts of territory, and the end of the Tanzimât period of reform. These points set the stage for a consolidation of imperial power and the utilization of the role of caliph as a legitimation tool in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century. Beginning in 1517, Ottoman sultans had claimed the position of caliph of all Muslims.[2] Abdülhamid II recognized the authority that came with that title and used to it fill a certain void in the Ottoman world. Specifically, a decline in real power in the Ottoman Empire in the face of ever-powerful European states required attention and necessitated the reinvention of the Ottoman power structure. Growing hostilities between European states and the Ottoman Empire and the exit of much of the empire's Christian population made Abdülhamid II's use of Islam as a legitimation structure possible. In the initial stages of Abdülhamid II's reign, he required the adoption of a constitution and the election of a parliament by a universal male electorate.[3] These requirements in their theoretical space could help to realize a liberal transition with Islamic arguments, which could balance the Tanzimât's imitation of western norms. The political structure of western norms did not work with the centuries-old Ottoman political culture, even if the pressure from the Western world was enormous to adapt western ways of political decision.[4] Abdülhamid II eventually suspended the constitution and closed parliament, effectively consolidating power within the throne.[5] Amidst these internal tensions, however, brewed international conflicts. Beginning with the 1875 insurrection of Bosnia and Herzegovina and ending with the Congress of Berlin in 1881, the Ottoman Empire was faced with the prospect of disintegration and takeover by foreign powers. The state of Ottoman administration in the Balkans deteriorated throughout the 19th century, with the central government occasionally losing control over whole provinces. Simply put, uprisings in Bosnia and Herzegovina led to unrest among Christian populations in other Ottoman provinces in the Balkans. These relatively small revolts led to independence movements among Christians in the Balkans.[6] The Ottoman army attempted to put down these upstarts in response to attacks against Muslims. Reports of attacks against Christians in the Ottoman Empire provided an impetus for European powers to become involved. The Russo-Ottoman War of 1878 gave Christians in the Ottoman Empire an opportunity to ally themselves with the Russian Empire.[7] Additionally, the conflict afforded the Russians the occasion to recover territory lost in the Crimean War and re-establish themselves as a naval power with access to the Black Sea. The British intervened, recognizing that Ottoman territory was more useful to them as a weakened state rather than as a Russian province.[8] Indeed, Russian access to warm water ports must be kept to a minimum and the Ottoman Empire was still financially indebted to Britain. Hence, the Treaty of San Stefano brought an end to the war and the Congress of Berlin of 1881 both reorganized Balkan countries slowly and outlined territorial losses for the Ottoman Empire.[9] The reasoning behind the slow reorganization was to ensure the maintenance of power structures within both the emerging states and the Ottoman Empire. However, the exodus of Muslims from the Balkans to Anatolia led to a different conclusion. At the conclusion of the Congress of Berlin, the Ottoman Empire lost approximately 30% of its territory and 25% of it's population.[10] Hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled the Balkans seeking refuge in Anatolia.[11] These refugees saw the Ottoman Empire as a protective motherland. This migration and the appearance of an...
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