The requisites of civilization? Satirical critiques of “the West” in the later Ottoman Empire

Defining “the West” is a challenging proposition in the later Ottoman context. This paper proposes to consider Ottoman – almost exclusively elite and Istanbulite – attitudes towards “the West” through the notion of medeniyet, civilization, and the debate between alaturca and alafranga  – essentially Western and Eastern – cultures. The historian Ahmed Cevdet attributed one of the causes of the overthrow of Sultan Selim III in 1807 as the excessive adoption of European mores as ‘the requisites of civilization’. Such critiques would recur throughout later Ottoman history in a number of media. The notion of medeniyet had far older roots, and to begin with I will consider examples of comparisons between new European and older Islamic civilization, specifically Şemseddin Sami’s Medeniyet-i İslamiye (1296 / 1880) and Akyiğitzade Musa’s Avrupa Medeniyetinin Esasına Bir Nazar (1315 / 1887). The ideas and debates found in these publications were played out elsewhere in late Ottoman discourse, and I will consider an important source for understanding how the West and its ideas were viewed in the later Ottoman context, the satirical cartoons of magazines, newspapers and journals, with a particular focus on the difference in attitude between those from the 1870s and 1910s. Humour and satire became increasingly focused on the tensions between “Ottoman” and “Western” (alaturca and alafranga) culture and ideas within Ottoman society, but humour and satire itself became increasingly alafranga by the turn of the twentieth century. The irreverent and often grotesque and surreal critiques of the alafranga elite found in the 1870s transformed to more polished and accessible images by the 1910s, but critiques of some of the absurdities and excesses of the ‘requisites of civilization’ remained. The changing aesthetic and tone of satirical cartoons were indicative of shifting focus of wider debates in Ottoman culture over the degree to which “the West” should form ‘the requisites of civilization’.

Michael Talbot (Greenwich)