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Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics and Gender during WW1

August 26, 2021 at 1:37 pm

Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics and Gender during WW1
  • Book Author(s): Cigdem Oguz
  • Published Date: May 2021
  • Publisher: I.B. Tauris 
  • Hardback: 248 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1838607111

This new book by Cigdem Oguz, who teaches history at Bologna University, reveals the growing concern in Ottoman society during the First World War about the decline in public morality. From the late 19th century onwards, she writes in Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire: Society, Politics, and Gender during WW1, it was clear to everyone that the empire was faltering, and the ways in which intellectuals, journalists and politicians dealt with this issue included closer scrutiny of the way people lived and behaved.

Gender played a key role in the attacks on the new morality with women faced particular scrutiny. Oguz argues that the notion of moral crisis reflects the anxieties in the late Ottoman world, as well as the emerging ideological competition between nationalists, Islamists and others at that time.

Ottoman intellectuals from the 1840s onwards believed that economic, political and military setbacks could be attributed to the fall of the Muslim population in the empire, which was possibly caused by higher abortion rates and Muslim men doing military service. This led many to launch into moral campaigns to change people’s behaviour, which was increasingly linked to the welfare of the state.

Examining the works of key thinkers, Oguz finds distinctions being made between old and new morality. Some Ottoman thinkers wanted to change public morals in the empire; the old or traditional morality was seen as corrupting and harmful to the country. Ahmed Besim Atalay was one of them. “The old morality was originated from a mixture of several sources,” Oguz observes in Atalay’s work. In his article “Morality and Religion”, he argued that up to then all the moralists in the Muslim world adopted the morals of ancient Greek and Indian philosophy. He said that Muslim scholars reproduced this “archaic perspective” in their so-called Islamic and religious works. Atalay was disparaging about these “foreign influences” on Islamic scholarship, and the lay people were little better as they relied on what he regarded as false traditions and superstition.

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“Therefore, he claimed that Muslims never developed an independent thought on morality,” writes the author. Atalay blamed this for causing the corruption around him. Indeed, he saw himself as the defender of true Islam and argued that the Islam of the Prophet and his companions was highly moral, which was the key to Islam’s initial successes.

Other thinkers went down a similar road, but what is intriguing about these intellectual interventions is the way that they shifted important religious concepts. Morality was seen less as a personal choice between the human being and the divine, and more of a public order problem; being “good” wasn’t about pleasing God, but about preventing the disintegration of the state. Such interventions also led to the secularisation of certain concepts like justice and the family, as the authority of Muslim scholars over these topics was increasingly marginalised.

These discussions would lead to changes in state policy and the First World War would see increasing state intervention in private life. “Offences violating public morality became part of growing national security concerns,” Oguz points out. The military became heavily involved in moral policing with new laws brought in that gave both the administrative and martial authorities new powers.

Gender relations shifted during the war as more women went into the factories and other workplaces while the men went to fight. Although they gained certain economic freedom, women found that their behaviour was under close scrutiny.

Another group who were targeted by the authorities were prostitutes. Sex work had traditionally been legal in the Ottoman Empire, but concerns about the spread of venereal disease and the impact on the troops came to dominate the discussion. Prostitution was a moral problem for another reason: “[Its existence] eroded the so-called reason for the war as a defence of honour,” says the author. In other words, prostitution undermined the Ottoman government’s claim to be upholding morality as well as law and order. Clamping down on prostitution was not unique to the Ottoman Empire; other countries involved in the war, such as Britain, Germany and France, did the same thing for the same reasons. Interestingly enough, as Oguz notes, Ottoman moralists did not see prostitution as the cause of the decline in moral standards, but as a symptom of it, hence the importance of tackling it. The new powers granted to Ottoman administrators included the deportation of prostitutes from major urban centres, a policy also used against people accused of adultery and other moral crimes.

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Moral Crisis in the Ottoman Empire… discusses other areas of concern to First World War moralists including the theatre, art, gambling and the family. The way in which the outbreak of war ushered in a sense of moral crisis might be of use when studying other conflicts around the world.

Oguz comes back to moral concerns throughout the book, which reflect ideological stances; competing ideologies would often attack the opposition on moral grounds. According to Oguz, we still see this playing out in Turkish politics today; the debates have roots in their First World War equivalents.

While books have been published on the social and moral reactions during the Great War in Britain, Germany and elsewhere, this one sheds light on the Ottoman situation. I would be interested in seeing how similar they are, or not, as the case may be. While more work needs to be done on Ottoman reactions to other social issues and crime, Moral Crisis… provides a useful framework and contribution in this field of study, and will certainly prompt discussions and further research.