Evolution of Ottoman Devshirme into Republican White Turk


Since Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the Great Conqueror of Istanbul, Turkey is run by “Devshirme” system. ...

Historical Background
Since Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the Great Conqueror of Istanbul, Turkey is run by “Devshirme“ system.
As the Ottoman State attained the status of Empire after conquering Istanbul in 1453, the State decided to eradicate Turkish aristocracy from bureaucracy. Sultan Mehmed decided to use the Christian converts from Balkans, mainly employed as Janissaries in the Ottoman Army since 14th Century, also as bureaucrats in governance.
This was a serious revolution, because the authentic Turkish state tradition was being replaced by the culture of a new ruling class, the Devshirmes (Christian convert recruits) revealed by Arnold Toynbee as akin to Plato’s ideal governance.
We may safely say that until Fatih, the ruling class had roots in the people, in nomadic traditions hailing from the steppes of Central Asia. The state and the people, the rulers and the ruled had common roots and were united by a common culture.
The Devshirme system simply broke the cultural bond between the rulers and the ruled. By time, the ruling class which was educated at the imperial colleges “Enderun“ (for convert boys), and “Harem“ (college for convert girls) developed its own manners, literature and classical music, broken from folk music and literature. Gradually the culture of the rulers was alienated from that of the ruled. Still yet, common bond was Islam, the rulers were the devoted protectors of the Islamic realm against Christian Europe.
With decline of the Empire after the failure of second siege of Vienna in 1699, self-confidence of the rulers started fading, further, poor Turkish families, seeing the returns, started pushing their sons into Devshirme system. With military defeats, collapse of the state budget in 19th Century, and with the winds of French Revolution, the inferiority complex of the ruling class evolved into a mentality scolding anything Turkish and Islamic, and praising and deifying anything Western and secular.
Hence emerged the Young Turks movement. Young Turks mentality further evolved into Ittihat ve Terakki (Union and Progress) movement which tested radical nationalism, lead the Empire into W.W. I, putting the last nail into the coffin of the Ottoman Empire.
Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic After World War I, and tried to get rid of Devshirme system. Yet Ottoman bureaucrats re-took power after his death with second President Ismet Inonu. Deeply inspired by positivist enlightenment and “deism“ of modernity, CHP (Republican Peoples Party founded by Ataturk) blamed Islam for backwardness and ruled until 1950, the year “Demokrat Parti“, representing rural peasants, won the elections.
An exact 500 years later, Sultan Mehmet’s Platonic rulers were to bow to the ruled. It took only ten years for the experienced Devshirmes to topple the government in 1960 and hang its Prime Minister. (a tradition hailing from Ottoman times)
Military Junta, making a new Constitution, made sure that the civilian governments were controlled by a new constitutional court, a new Senate composed of junta members, and historical high administrative court.
The historical Devshirmes, namely the Army (continuation of Janissaries in the tradition of toppling nearly half of the Sultans to their dislike), Justice (Continuation of Qadis, the archaic legal system), and University (Continuation of Madrassah Ulema who reacted to anything novel with the words “istemezuk-we reject“) were happy with the new control on democratically elected parliaments.
Ensuing softer coups in Ottoman tradition toppled many republican governments. Only generals or loyal bureaucrats of the establishment were eligible to be Presidents. Army controlled the Parliament through a few timid party leaders who were threatened behind closed doors not to elect any Presidential candidate the military and foreign interests rejected.

Economic Power
In Ottoman times, rural taxes mainly supported Istanbul, the salaries of army and bureaucracy. Prosperous bureaucrat tradition continued with the new republic, but a core of new small capitalists quickly learned robbing the young Republic in collaboration with corrupt bureaucracy. This was the emergence of the big bourgeoisie in Turkey, a triangle of capitalists, corrupt civilian bureaucracy and generals leading to an opportunistic capitalist base in Turkey.
With the so-called “postmodern soft coup“ of some corrupt generals of the military in 1997, roughly 300 billion dollars were robbed by Istanbul barons from national economy. Private banks collecting people’s money, siphoned 65 billion dollars during military rule and transferred it abroad to Western banks.
The junta, blaming them as “Islamic Green Capital“, made sure the emerging little merchant class of the rural towns were blocked in business, garrisons were instructed to boycott their goods. This great robbery operation of corrupt generals and Istanbul barons was presented to Western world as protecting “Western Values“ against Radical Islamists.
Yet the emerging class coined as “Anatolian Tigers“ pushed AK Party of Erdogan up front in 2002 elections and started gaining economic and political power with it.

End of Alienated Devshirmes
In early years of AK Party, military and civilian bureaucracy was still in the hands of the old establishment. Naturally by time, they were eliminated and replaced by AK Party bureaucracy which was inexperienced in the beginning. After 13 years in power, AK Party replaced the alienated Devshirmes by its own conservative bureaucrats. This is a millennial revolution in Turkish governance. It is the first time since Sultan Mehmet that civil servants were “of the people“, of “rural cultural values“, with self confidence of their rural identity.
Old establishment and big capital despised these newcomers in the beginning. They still were the best Western educated class, thought they had the monopoly to knowledge and global manners. But the newcomers quickly learned the value of sophisticated Ivy League education (like protestant merchants of Weber) and started sending their kids abroad, especially to the USA.
Today, the Anatolian Tigers have a highly educated global merchant class, sons and daughters replacing their modest parents in global business.

Turkish Self-Hatred
As we said in the beginning, civil servants started losing self-confidence in 19th Century. Then got Westernized, and completely alienated from the culture and traditions of their families which they were recruited from. Hence they became Western replicas, but still Turks and Muslims, rejected by the West. This created a rupture in their psychology, a double personality in crisis, leading to “Self-hating Turk“.
Let us elaborate on this phenomenon of “Turkish Self-Hatred“. Just as Ottoman Devshirmes, early Republican civil servants were collected from rural peasant families. They were “of the people“. But not “for the people“. Early Republic had a just merit system of giving a chance to smart village kids all the way up to college, even sending them to Europe, then employing them as bureaucrats, as in Ottoman tradition. These kids, due to strictly Westernized education, were broken from their families, alienated from them.
The Anatolian peasant frustration against their alienated children, conveyed by Ahmed Vefik Pasha, “Make Turk lord, and first thing he does is to kill his father“ was in the works, the modern Republican education was still effective alienating village kids to their families and values, even hostile to them.
Today, the castles of early Republican Devshirme system, Mulkiye, Harbiye and Law school lost monopoly to knowledge, whereas the despised rural capital has surpassed them in knowledge and horizons, especially as active members of the global village.

Republican White Turk
This is the gate into the second part of our discussion, the “White Turk“. In early Republic of 1920s, 90% was rural population with 10% literacy. So we can say that the fathers or grandfathers of 90% of Istanbul’s big capital were illiterate peasants migrating to the metropol since the last fifty years. (“Porter’s backpad“ of an early doyen capitalist who started life as a porter still hangs proudly in the office of his successors.)
Here again we should delve into socio-psychology. Thinking aloud, we may say that this “fresh money“, in the euphoria of joining high bureaucrat rulers in modernity and Westernization, imitated them in swiftly rejecting their rural culture. It was such a lucrative social trend that soon, many minor civil servants and lumpen proletariat in metropols also imitated the bureaucracy and big capital in the vain hope of joining Westernized high-society of Turkey, namely the “White Turks“.
Before ending up in metropols, they or their parents were so oppressed in villages by ruthless bureaucracy that they hated those days, wanted to forget their past, and jump on board the elite now, perhaps taking revenge of their ancestors? But from whom? Especially some of the Alewites and Kurds had psychological breakdown joining forces with their once oppressors.
For the modernists, just as it was for Ottoman Devshirmes, whatever bad in Turkey was because of religion and Anatolian traditions. In the famous despisal of one columnist (himself of humble rural origin), his emerging fellow Anatolians “scratching their fat bellies“, were incapable of democracy.
Today, the memorized rhetoric of this minority of about 20% is “Peasant Kemalism“ a dogma of deifying Ataturk, tailored for the feudal peasants of 1930s, and an extremist “Laicism“ gone out of original French context.

Now we come to the education base leading to the mentality, rather conviction of White Turks.
Kemalist curriculum of 1930s, still covers Turkish education today from kindergarten up to the end of university. This lumpen peasant ideology has no concern for ethics, nor aesthetics. It is purely based on materialist philosophy with no room for spiritual needs. Yet (like religious education it despises) it is also based on memorization of the golden age (1930s) of Ataturk. This curriculum does not accept critical thinking, requires students to memorize and repeat what is said, kills creative thinking and innovation.
Students graduating from high schools and universities, although getting language lessons all through, cannot even ask addresses in a foreign language. Worst yet, their Turkish language skills and knowledge of Turkish history is also in shambles. Taking shower in the morning, traditional religious duty, is alien to many of these moderns. And this feudal Kemalist curriculum, in last rows of OECD studies, is what produces the arrogant “White Turk“ who despises the emerging rural merchant class for ignorance, dirtiness and lack of manners.

Political Reflection of the Classes
CHP (Republican People’s Party) is indeed the historical class party of Devshirme bureaucrats. But today, no high-level alienated bureaucrats are left to defend. Hence it can be said that this party is missionless, but not. Although declaring to be a European style leftist party, it now has evolved to represent the White Turks rather than the rural and the poor.
Depending on the same alienating curriculum based on late Ottoman inferiority complex, we have a cliff between educated Westernized elite, and under-educated rural people who still live their original, traditional culture. This rift is what creates a severe hostility among the lifestyles of the two classes of people.
If Turkish education curriculum cannot find a middle way between modernity and the millennial values of the Anatolian people, the psychological rupture between the modernists and traditionalists may turn into a severe clash ending with the victory of the traditionalists. Why so?
The Westernist elite did represent Turkey before. And were supported by a powerful and influential West. Today Turkish elite lost its power, went into a reverse identity crisis. We may say, up to 1980s, metropols could absorb and assimilate the rural impact from villages. With industrialization, the influx was too overwhelming to be assimilated, even by Istanbul.
As the old elite had the “mission civilisatrice“ on behalf of Europe, to civilize the rural people coming to cities, now they lost their monopoly of knowledge and power to look down upon the Anatolian people.
Emerging rural bourgeoisie started sending their children to European and American colleges, even Ivy League schools and surpassed the knowledge of once mighty civil servants whose modest salaries today are in no way competitive with new capital’s prosperity.
Here we come to the second most important factor in Turkish transition. If knowledge is power, it would be naïve to expect competition of feudal, memorized Kemalist dogma of 1930s with the “instincts of Anatolian civilization blended with global horizon“ of the emerging rural bourgeoisie.
This new blend will soon re-assimilate its lost children, the Self-Hating Devshirmes left idle in between Western and Anatolian civilizations, to their origins. Yet, not all. At the end of nearly two century identity crisis, a small, highly alienated minority incapable of returning to their roots, shall be lost and assimilated into Western religion and communities. This will especially be so for some of the Turkish Diaspora in Europe, the USA and Australia.

Now, the Republican Presidential system:
Ottoman Imperial governance was like the modern Presidential system. The Sultan, educated by Enderun professors, was of the same culture with his Viziers and bureaucrats, ruling the realm through his viziers (like US President and his Secretaries). This tradition roughly continued into the Republic until 1950 parliamentary elections. After the military coup of 1960, age of coalitions, an alien regime to Turkish tradition started, and pulled Turkey to the vortex of instability, economic failures and repetitive military coups.
Parties were closed, same parties born with different names, chaotic coalitions, and the ubiquitous bureaucracy, the devshirmes actually ruling the country as the real owners of the state.
Yes Devshirmes were ruling, yet they did not have a head anymore. Taking advantage of this “headless“ bureaucracy, Istanbul capital was very happy to fill the void. Taking corrupt generals behind, and having the power and connections, it started to manipulate, make and break feeble governments. This situation ended with Recep Tayyip Erdogan of AK Party.
Elections of 2002 brought AK Party, a real class party of emerging rural capital with a sturdy majority especially as a reaction to corrupt capital and its supporters the corrupt generals. Erdogan with the strongest charisma since Ataturk, gradually put leash on civilian and military bureaucracy.

Now the historical question!
Is the era of millennial Devshirme system, inherent in which is also the Seljuk and Byzantine bureaucratic tradition ending? NO!! Only the alienated are being eradicated. Finding its omnipotent “head“ in Erdogan, the Neo-Devshirmes, this time “of the values of the people“ are taking over after two Centuries of chaotic governance. For the historical devshirme system to work, Turkey needs the powerful Presidential system as against parliamentary governmental system. Seeing this necessity, President Erdogan is campaigning to get enough majority in parliament to change the constitution accordingly.
In summary we may say that Devshirme system of the people’s culture is natural for Turkey, provided it is reined in by charismatic, towering Presidents like Erdogan. Interesting to note; CHP, the historical representative of devshirme system, aimlessly rejects the presidential system, a must for devshirme system to survive..

Western Reaction to Turks returning to their roots?
Western Civilization at its apex, until recent economic troubles, was too sure of its grandeur, and had full self-confidence like the Ottomans of sixteenth century. As global economic center moves East (rather “Extreme West“ jumping from California to Western Pacific) in 21st Century, the West shows signs of thinning self-confidence reflecting in the psychologies of its clones in developing world.
Here we should remember the historical “other“ of the crusader Europe. First Seljuk Turks, then the Ottomans. With collapse of the Ottoman Empire and submission of Turkish Devshirmes to Western Civilization, the “Eastern Problem“ seemed solved.
Yet today, Turks are rising from their ashes. And force their way to become regional and European power. Western re-action is; “Sultan“ Erdogan is trying to bring “archaic Muslim Ottomans“ back. This re-action has two misleading arguments. One, if Turkey is going back into weakness, it cannot challenge the West, why worry? Two, if Turkey is emerging as a global power, why not unite with a powerful ally? Welcome it into the European Union?
Here again we have the “exclusive“ character of Western civilization looking down upon other civilizations as inferior. Until recently, Devshirmes or their successors White Turks losing their economic and bureaucratic control to emerging Anatolian merchant class, used to tell their Western mentors that the emerging Anatolians are radical Muslims hostile to the West, and the Westerners used to believe them.
What the West should see today is that the late Ottomans did not have modern industry, nor division of capitalist and labour classes leading to Marxist warfare among them. The Ottomans had a different class separation, Plato’s rulers and the ruled. What happens in Turkey today is the severe clash between the alienated rulers and emerging rural capital, perhaps similar to European bourgeoisie replacing aristocracy. Making parallels, as Ottomans never had aristocrats after devshirme system, perhaps we may say emerging Turkish Bourgeoisie did not have aristocracy to topple, but quasi-aristocrats, the alienated bureaucrats of Ottoman system. (status of the family ended with the death of the bureaucrat, not to continue with heredity)
To sum up, it is class warfare between the millenial alienated rulers and the ruled, rather than the unethical rhetoric of radical Islam threatening Turkey and Europe.

What would the unity bring?
With reform, renaissance and enlightenment, Europe lost the spiritual aspect of life. Taking its civilisation as universal, and assuming the role of mission civilisatrice; changed names, religions and languages of “other“s in its colonies, eradicated other cultures. With firepower, still having the monopoly, subdued all other civilizations on earth, still trying to assimilate them.
Simply, with supremacist arrogance, the West does not have the ability to co-survive with “others“. And a new Turkey confident of its powerful identity hailing from millenial roots, wants to join it…
Turkish entry into European Union may offer the civilization of “inclusivity“ and “co-survival in harmony“ to Christian Europe…
An offer to neglect?

Aydin Nurhan Aydin Kabul, 23 April 2015

Aydin Nurhan is a retired Turkish Ambassador
He can be reached at aydin.nurhan@yahoo.com
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