Ottoman cartoon
“A member of the Young Turks leads old clerks and members of the Ottoman Empire’s security apparatus away by a leash.” “Enough!” he tells them. “You’ve ruled us for 32 years.”


June 9-27, 2014
The George Washington University
Application Deadline: March 4, 2014
Notification Date: March 31, 2014

Seminar Schedule

The Ottoman Constitution (1908)
Ottoman Constitution (1908) Source: Wikicommons


    We will have three substantive weekly meetings, with an additional introductory meeting in the first week and a concluding meeting in the final week of the seminar. Those participants with works-in-progress to present will have the opportunity to do so to their co-horts and to the visiting lecturer of the week. We will attempt to group the participants’ presentations thematically to allow for comparative and interdisciplinary approaches to the theme of the week.

    The half-day meetings are structured around readings of primary sources in translation, monographs or articles in each area of study that have defined the field of inquiry. Presentations by visiting scholars are meant to push our participants to engage in larger debates on the topics of citizenship, difference and political activism.

    The co-directors will be ready at hand to manage discussions, ensure an environment in which participants can develop their ideas and intellectual connections with others working outside their field, an altogether facilitate the research of the participants. They will schedule meetings with individual NEH scholars to discuss their work. We  ask participants to write a 1500-word essay reflecting on the kind of questions, connections and possible avenues of further research and collaboration that the seminar had generated. These essays will serve as the basis for an open discussion in the concluding meeting of the seminar. Our aim in this last meeting is to foster a collective assessment of the state of the fields, the new possibility of forging a common language through which we can research, write and teach about the particularities and universalities of the Russian and Ottoman experiences.


Week I: Meanings of Citizenship and Belonging (June 9-13)

   The first week will be devoted to exploring ideas of citizenship and belonging in the Ottoman and Russian empires. What were the implications of the differences in the historical development of notions of citizenship to the first movements to establish constitutional forms of rule? A number of intellectuals and bureaucrats began debating ideas of equal citizenship and representation in the nineteenth century Russian and Ottoman empires. The Ottoman government initiated a number of laws that radically altered the legal and political underpinnings that had thus far governed the relationship of its subjects to one another and to their government. These laws declared the equality of Muslims to non-Muslims, introduced universal conscription and created administrative provincial councils based on a form of representation. An 1869 nationality law defined the rights of Ottoman citizens and delineated those within imperial territories deemed worthy of Ottoman citizenship from those who were not. By 1876, a small number of Ottoman bureaucratic elite was successful in pushing Sultan Abdul Hamid II to promulgate a constitution and establish a parliament. Ideas of constitutionalism, liberal and social citizenship continued to part of the vocabulary of the political elite as well as the politics of contestation that culminated in the 1908 Young Turk Revolution.

    Despite its self-representation as a European empire, Russia did not acquire a parliament until the revolution of 1905. Recent scholarship suggests that the primary reason for the delay of political modernization of the Empire was the extraordinary diversity of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and social groups that sought representation and the complexity of the laws and administrative structures in the newly acquired imperial territories. Beginning in the 1880s, intellectuals and political activists raised public debates about whether certain groups, particularly Muslims and mountain Cossacks, should have full rights as citizens. These debates informed the parliamentary order established in the wake of the 1905 revolution.



Week II: Changing Communities and Modernizing Civilizing Projects: Sects, Tribes and Ethnicities (June 16-20)

   The seminar participants will turn their attention in the second week to two interrelated questions: What were the intellectual tools that Russian and Ottoman bureaucrats and intellectuals used to introduce new forms of rule to modernize and control their diverse subjects? What was the impact of these new tools and understandings on the various communities? The nineteenth century brought a marked shift in the kind of knowledge that imperial states, intellectuals and bureaucrats created about imperial subjects. The census, the police file and the land registry, are perhaps the best and most studied examples. Equally important, at least in the case of Russia, was the development of ethnographic and medical research organizations and periodicals that purported to map out the diverse populations of these empires. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, intellectuals and bureaucrats developed modern notions of “civilization” that described tribes as “barbaric” or “uncivilized” if they did not conform or accept the modernization projects of the state to settle and tax them. Communal allegiances were now re-framed by both citizens and by the state in politically sectarian terms. Missionary and conversion projects among “heterodox sects” initiated by the state and private organizations purported to create upstanding and orthodox citizens of these imperial states.

    Parallel processes took place in the Russian empire, although the forms of inquiry were quite different. In the Russian empire, intellectuals and bureaucrats configured imperial spaces as made up of ethnic, national or/and social estates. Even as they agreed on the importance of “civilizing” and modernizing their various populations, Russian intellectuals and bureaucrats did not hold similar views as to how to define the nature of groups they were attempting to study and change. Our conversations will focus on the significance and impact of this new kind of knowledge on Russian and Ottoman modernization projects and on the citizens and subjects that these bureaucrats and intellectuals purported to define and transform.



Week III:  Regional, imperial and transnational networks of intellectuals and the shaping of political activism. (June 23-27)

   Expansion of communication networks, the dissemination of print technologies, the multiplication of diasporic communities across regions, all served in the circulation goods, ideas and peoples. They also led to the development of transnational and trans-imperial networks of intellectuals and activists. A firebrand like the Muslim intellectual Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a Persian and Shi’i, was part of a network of reformers and revolutionaries that spanned Egypt, British India, Persia, central Asia and Istanbul. He and other helped shape the debates on political activism and on a new global order, whether a pan-Islamic, pan-Eurasian, anti-imperialist or liberal. The anti-imperialist al-Afghani helped a foment revolution in Egypt, a rebellion in Iran and attempted to convince Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s of the importance of Muslim unity. Networks of anarcho-syndicalists linked the eastern Mediterranean with the Americas and shaped radical politics in cities like Alexandria, Beirut and Istanbul. There has been new and important scholarship in the past decade that has sought to situate these global trends within local, regional and imperial forms of political and artistic activism. Our purpose is not to locate networks that link Russian and Ottoman intellectuals and activist directly, although we do not completely preclude discussions of these networks. They do exist and have been the subject of study among scholars interested in Armenian nationalism and Islamic reformism. Rather our interest is to compare how these networks worked in the two empires with a view to understanding the different trajectories of their eventual end. Why, for example, did networks of radical and socialist politics take a different trajectory in the Ottoman Empire than they did in Russia? Why did the global Islamic reformist networks work differently in Russia and the Ottoman Empire?