Davutoğlu’s Ottomanism: Millet System with non-Muslim Societies or the Creation of ‘Ummah’(Ümmet)?

*Source: Hürriyet ©

Davutoğlu’s Ottomanism:
Millet System with non-Muslim Societies or the Creation of ‘Ummah’(Ümmet)?


Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu offers some critics to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilisations” in his well-known article, “Medeniyetlerin Ben İdraki” (Self Perception of Civilisations). This paper tries to make a critical analysis of Davutoğlu’s article in light of the debates of Ottomanism. Davutoğlu claims that modern orientalism was characterised by a reinforced, expanded and increasingly secure Eurocentric perspective and he criticised this orientalist approach during his article. Second, he believes that the notion of Ottomanism is a very good case for retransforming civilizations in non-Western states. This paper criticises this view of Davutoğlu’s article. It claims that; Davutoğlu’s Ottomanism ideas, depended on the creation of a new ummah (ümmet) in the Turkish state and Davutoğlu’s model cannot become an alternative response of Western orientalist approaches about the creation of civilisations.


I don’t have to prove my Armenian identity. Although I’m Armenian, I feel more like an Ottoman. We have lived in this territory and have developed our culture since the Ottoman era and even since the Byzantine era. I think that’s the important thing.”[1]These sentences were declared by Etyen Mahçupyan, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’s (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) leader and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s advisor, during a roundtable meeting at the UK Parliament on March 2015.

This speech was reminded us that Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Ottomanist perspective; put forth in his article, ‘Self Perceptions of the Civilisations (“Medeniyetlerin Ben-İdraki”). He offers two important criticisms to Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and orientalist thesis. According to Davutoğlu, modern orientalism was characterised by a reinforced, expanded and increasingly secure Eurocentric perspective, and it is precisely this perspective Davutoğlu critiques in his article. His second important point; asserts that the notion of Ottomanism is a very good case for retransforming civilisations in non-Western states. I agree with the first claim of Davutoğlu’s article, however the second hypothesis has some problems which will be critiqued in this article.

Samuel Huntington, the now infamous author of the “Clash of Civilisations”, focuses on the conflict between West and East to explain the rise of Islamic fundamentalism or the rise of Political Islam in the world. He claims that there are cultural distinctions between the West and the Islamic world that lend credence to the perception that there is incompatibility between democratic values and belief in Islam (Huntington, 1996). I think that this explanation could be so cultural and universal. Democracy must have universal principles and Islamic countries in the Middle East have many differences between each other with regards to the universal democratic principles. For instance, some Muslim countries are managed by Shari’a law, such as Iran. On the other hand, some of them are secularised and protected in their law and regulations from Islamic values, like Turkey. So, although I agree with Davutoğlu’s anti-orientalist critiques of Huntington’s thesis, the main problem of Davutoğlu’s article is that its response to orientalist approaches entails using the case of Ottomanism.

Huntington’s book says that some countries, such as Turkey, may be identified as ‘torn countries’ due to the clash of Western values and Eastern civilisation. According to Huntington, in order for a country to successfully redefine what he calls its “civilisational identity”, it must meet three criteria. First, the political and economic elite must want the shift; second, the public must be willing “to acquiesce” to such a redefinition; and third, the dominant elements in the “host civilisation” (in this case, the West –or more specifically Europe– have to be willing to embrace the “convert”) (Huntington, 1996: 137). In the case of Turkey, he writes: The obstacles to Turkey’s becoming fully European, the limits on its ability to play a dominant role with respect to the Turkic former Soviet republics, and the rise of Islamic tendencies eroding the Ataturk legacy, all seem to insure that Turkey will remain a torn country. (Huntington, 1996, p.149). Davutoğlu (1997:12) does not agree with this classification due to the country’s Ottoman heritage; the concept of the ümmet (ummah) and the establishment of millet system in Ottoman Empire. Davutoğlu claims that the Ottoman Empire had a multicultural society including non-Muslim people. The Ottomans developed a system called “Millet”, which depended upon the self-management of non-Muslim ethnic societies. Indeed, this system included tolerance for non-Muslim societies during the Ottoman Empire but lost its strength in the 16th century, with the rise of Orthodox Sunni theory in Ottoman politics and society. Davutoğlu’s agenda does not focus on this period.  Davutoğlu’s Ottomanist perspective is very similar to that of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) (RP)/Milli Görüş’s[2] perspective about Ottoman heritage. During his article, Davutoğlu does not mention the period of Ottoman Empire between 13th century and 16th century when had not been affected by Orthodox Sunni theory. The main issue for Davutoğlu is the influence of Sunni Islam in former Ottoman lands.

The Milli Görüş’s main aim was to engage the Turkish nation state with these forms of Ottoman heritage under the umbrella of Islam. Some authors, like Çolak (2006) claim that Erbakan aimed at establishing a “millet” system which was based on the Ottoman multicultural society structure. However, I think that the tolerance of non-Muslim societies during the early Ottoman period could not be possible in the RP’s agenda. Although the RP’s foreign policy focused on some Balkan countries and former Ottoman lands; which is mentioned in the Davutoğlu’s article (Davutoğlu, 1997: 35-36), this was not equal to the peaceful “Gaza”[3] theory in the early Ottoman period, because Erbakan aimed to only defend Muslims and also to expand Islam in these areas in anon-peaceful or tolerant way. Atasoy (2009) indicates that; Erbakan’s perspective had classic orthodox Islamic values as compared to early Ottoman periods; it became more like Abdulhamit II’s Pan-Ottomanism.

The RP wanted to recover the glorious position of Muslims, and Turkish-Muslims (e.g. the Ottomans) in history. This could only be achieved by an ummah (ümmet) in the Turkish State, which must “straighten” itself up by attaining its lost virtues. For example, a MP of the RP,Kazım Arslan (he is AKP’s mayor of Yozgat Municipality now) stated:

Yes, what a nation we were […] which said to the Caliph Umar that ‘first explain the shirt you are wearing before giving your sermon.’ A nation who warned the World Sultans by chanting ‘Do not be too proud our sultan, God is greater than thou,’ a nation who did not fear from the rulers but feared only from God. And now, [there is] an unconscious ignorant nation […]. A nation which does not listen to the order [in a hadith] ‘he who remains silent against injustice is a mute Satan,’but follows the motto ‘may the snake which does not bite me live a thousand years.’ (Dinc, 2006, p.9)

Overall, the RP’s and Davutoğlu’s Ottomanism ideas depended on the creation of a new ummah in the Turkish state. Yavuz (1998, p.32) states that; “Milli Görüş’s main aim was pivotal in the re-examination of the Republican legacy and in the construction of a new Ottoman-Islamic identity”. Although some scholars like Çolak focused on the Ottoman heritage perspective of the RP and AKP, it is clear that this perspective of Ottomanism is totally different from the peaceful Ottoman “millet” system or “Gaza” theory. Indeed, Davutoğlu’s perspective in his article cannot become an alternative response of Western orientalist approaches about the creation of civilisations.

Çağlar Ezikoğlu, PhD Candidate, Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics

Please cite this publication as follows:

Ezikoğlu, Ç. (February, 2016), “Davutoğlu’s Ottomanism: Millet System with non-Muslim Societies or the Creation of ‘Ummah’(Ümmet)?”, Vol. V, Issue 2, pp.6-11, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=10701)


Atasoy, Y. (2009) Islam’s marriage with neoliberalism: state transformation in Turkey, Britain: Palgrave Macmillan

Çolak, Y. (2006) “Ottomanism vs. Kemalism: Collective memory and cultural pluralism in 1990s Turkey” Middle Eastern Studies, 42 (4), pp. 587-602.

Davutoğlu, A. (1997) “Medeniyetlerin Ben-İdraki,”Divan 3, pp. 1-52.

Dinç, C. (2006) “The Welfare Party, Turkish Nationalism and Its Vision of a New World Order” Turkish Journal of International Relations, 5 (3), pp. 1-17.

Huntington, S. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Yavuz, H. (1998) “Turkish identity and foreign policy in flux: The rise of Neo‐Ottomanism” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, 7 (12), pp. 19-41.


[1]Public meeting with Etyen Mahçupyan at UK Parliament on 27th March 2015. [Accessed Date on 5th January 2015], Available at:


[2] After 1980, the same social groups from Milli Görüş established the RP in 1983 and this party became one of the strongest Islamist Party in Turkish politics during the 1990’s.

[3] Gaza is an ideology of Holy War in the name of Islam, but had not been evaluated by the classical or orthodox Islamic values and it is related to the historical context of Gazis who aimed to expand Ottoman lands



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