The Young Turks

The Young Turks emerged prior to the 1908 Revolution as an opposition movement against the autocratic leadership of Sultan Abdulhamid II (d. 1918), and which subsequently governed the Ottoman Empire between 1908 and 1918. The moniker “Young Turks” was given by European onlookers, and elided the true diversity of opposition to Abdulhamid, which included Jews, Albanians, Arabs, and in its early period, Greeks and Armenians. Notably, it was not a nationalist movement; rather, the Young Turks sought to preserve the Empire and the institution of the sultanate, though to institute significant reform. They emphasized a positivist program of scientific advancement, the need for a modern state, and elite rule.

In 1878, Abdulhamid II dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution proposed two years earlier and initiated thirty years of autocratic rule. In 1889, a group of medical school students formed the Association for the Union of Ottomans, later the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP). In 1907, an association of military officers and government officials under the auspices of the Ottoman Freedom Society joined the CUP and quickly became the ruling faction. The following year, the CUP’s military members renounced loyalty to the sultan and engaged in guerilla warfare in nearby mountains. To appease the political opposition, Abdulhamid reinstituted the 1876 constitution.

With the reinstatement of the Ottoman parliament, two factions emerged within the CPU: unionists and liberals. Unionists, supported by Islamic nationalists, supported a strong central state that would institute modernizing reforms. Liberals leaned towards decentralization and autonomous rule that would benefit non-Muslim and non-Turkish Ottomans. Multireligious and multinational Ottomanism was pursued as a compromise, but following a 1912 military coup, liberals ascended to power. Notably, any opposition to their reforms was characterized as “religious fanaticism,” which was later picked up by nationalists as a means of silencing and sometimes criminalizing opposition.

As Muslims fled from the Balkans during the wars of independence, demographic changes shifted the character of the Empire and unionists took over, eliminating their liberal opposition. Unionists promoted population homogenization policies known as Turkification, which undergirded episodes of massacre and forced migration of Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, and others, and promoted Turkish linguistic and cultural identity as a means of unifying and streamlining Ottoman governmental, religious, education, and other institutions. At the same time, unionists promoted pan-Islamism as an appeal to Arab Muslims to the south. With the 1916 Arab Revolt, Arab nations began to fall away from the Empire and were distributed between the British and French after the First World War.

The Young Turk era ended in 1918 with the war of independence. The subsequent Republic of Turkey inherited the political and social infrastructure of the Young Turk government.

Sources:

Hasan Kayali, Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

Murat C. Menguujj, "Young Turks," Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, ed. Richard C. Martin (New York: Thomson Gale, 2004), p. 739-740.

M. Hakan Yavuz, “Islam in the Public Sphere,” Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gulen Movement, eds. M. Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), pp. 1-18.

See also: Turkey