A Brief History of Ottoman Reforms

It was a time of great change during the late 1800’s. European powers were expanding, colonizing areas of Asia and creating protectorates in other countries. The Ottoman Empire, one of the last Middle Eastern empires still standing, was threatened by Europe’s hungry gaze upon its lands. Ottoman officials knew that their government was weak against this threat, so they devised a set of reforms in the 1830’s, called the Tanzimat, to increase Ottoman power[1].  This response is called “defense developmentalism” and officials’ “goal was to strengthen their states in the face of internal and external threats and to make their governments more proficient in managing their populations and their resources”[2]. Although the reforms were used to create unity among the empire’s citizens, it did not turn out as Ottoman officials hoped.

The Hatt-I-Serif decree started the Tanzimat reform by promising its citizens “perfect security for life, honor, and property”, “a regular system of assessing taxes”, and “an equally regular system for the conscription of requisite troops and the duration of their service”[3]. In order for the Ottoman Empire to have a functioning, modern army to face the threat of European powers, they had to tax their people[4].  They also had to disassemble tax-farming, which left middle man landlords to collect taxes for the state, and often they pocketed a great deal of the taxes for themselves[5]. By eliminating tax-farmers, the Ottoman government could reestablish its authority and centralize its power in the empire[6].

Muslims Ottomans, as well as Christians and Jews within the empire, were subjected to the new reforms[7]. The Ottoman Empire tried “to promote a notion of Ottoman identity” but it was difficult to implement it[8]. Muslim citizens felt that the reforms were too European and did not like that Ottoman Christians could escape military conscription, which Muslims could not[9]. On the flipside, Christians resented the Tanzimat reforms because they were forced to join the military[10]. Some Christians also wanted “nationalist separation rather than equality within a predominantly Muslim empire”[11].

The Tanzimat reforms were created to help the Ottoman Empire centralize its power in the threat of European expansion. It was hoped that the people of the Ottoman world would feel like they were citizens, now that the government was involved in their everyday lives.  If the people feel like citizens of the empire, they will be less likely to pursue separate national identities and be passive rather than rebellious. The relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its citizens after the reforms was one of control.  The taxes and the mandatory military service did not however make Ottoman citizens loyal to the empire. In fact, it was the very thing that pushed them away.

Ottoman citizens were used to their autonomy and the Tanzimat reforms took away their independence.  The peasants did not want to pay more taxes; they began to resent the Ottoman government as it interfered with their way of life.  As a result of the reforms, separate national movements rose in opposition to the involvement of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately for the Ottoman Empire, it was difficult for it to unify its power due to how large the land was and the different ethnic and religious people that lived in its borders[12]. It may have worked in the past, but with the absence of an absolute monarchy, the Ottoman Empire was destined to fall into pieces.

Bibliography:

James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Akram Fouad Khater, “The Hatt-I-Serif Degree Initiates the Tanzimat, or Reform, Period in the Ottoman Empire, November 3, 1839” in Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011).

[1] Akram Fouad Khater, “The Hatt-I-Serif Degree Initiates the Tanzimat, or Reform, Period in the Ottoman Empire, November 3, 1839” in Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011), 10.

[2] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 72.

[3] Akram Fouad Khater, “The Hatt-I-Serif Degree Initiates the Tanzimat, or Reform, Period in the Ottoman Empire, November 3, 1839”, 12.

[4] Akram Fouad Khater, “The Hatt-I-Serif Degree Initiates the Tanzimat, or Reform, Period in the Ottoman Empire, November 3, 1839”, 13.

[5] Akram Fouad Khater, “The Hatt-I-Serif Degree Initiates the Tanzimat, or Reform, Period in the Ottoman Empire, November 3, 1839”, 13.

[6] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, 72.

[7] Akram Fouad Khater, “The Hatt-I-Serif Degree Initiates the Tanzimat, or Reform, Period in the Ottoman Empire, November 3, 1839”, 13.

[8] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, 80.

[9] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, 80.

[10] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, 80.

[11] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, 80-81.

[12] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History, 79.

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