Akcasu (Ebru)

Ebru Akcasu (Anglo-American University in Prague), Reconsidering the Constituency: Immigrant Inclusivity in the late Empire’s Political Arena

This paper discusses the potentiality of foreign-born (naturalized) Ottomans as legitimate constituency members and decisionmakers in Ottoman society and its political arena, so far as this can be surmised from a theoretical and conceptual standpoint, according to the state’s laws and popular discourse. This presents a new lens onto the late Ottoman state’s vision for its nation, since historiography of the development and expansion of political participation in the period has hitherto focused on ethnocultural factors, or, to a lesser extent, gender, and class. This work addresses the fact that foreign-born Ottomans, facets of whose identities indeed cut across the categories we have become accustomed to reading about in the literature, have been overlooked as stake holding constituents in Ottoman civil society. Considering their role and place in discussions about democratizing processes will nuance our understanding of late Ottoman identities (and their various interests) that have escaped our attention. This is even more significant since the vocabulary of “foreign-ness” (e.g., ecnebi) carried definitions and connotations that were often in stark contrast with one another in late-Ottoman social and legal linguistic spaces.

It suffices here to say that in late Ottoman popular discourse “foreign” was predominantly perceived as a perpetually growing threat to the Ottoman nation’s interest over the course of the empire’s last century, so far as this can be discerned from anxieties expressed in literature and in the press. In the legal space and insofar as it pertained to individuals, on the other hand, “foreign” was merely the status of those who were not, but could become, Ottoman nationals. The clearest articulation of this is in the Ottoman Nationality Law of 1869.[1] The tension between different definitions of “foreign” becomes all the more significant when considering who made up the constituency in a politically liberalizing late-Ottoman framework where the gate of decision-making had, at least theoretically, widened to factor in the will of the masses.

From the declaration of the first Ottoman constitution (1876) and the passing of the first electoral law (1877) through the reign of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), the idea of representational government within the system of a constitutional monarchy was left in suspension before the minds and hearts of the Ottoman collectivity. Beyond the term’s practical application to the status of the Ottoman constitution over the course of the Hamidian years, the term “suspended” may also refer to the constituency’s state of being, between what was termed by contemporaries as despotism (istibdad) and the aspiration for some form of self-government, as well as in a terminological and conceptual sense.[2] The latter would encapsulate the non-static nature of how the “self” was defined so far as it pertained to stake holders and changemakers in “self-government.” Inevitably, notions of who was included and excluded in this “self” was subject to contestation and transformation over the course of the period in question.

The law on Ottoman nationality defined members in an inclusive yet vague manner, as Ottomans and non-Ottomans. The latter could become Ottomans through a non-restrictive process determined by physical presence, either at time of birth or according to the number of years spent in the dominions. While anyone either was or could become an Ottoman, complementary legislation defined the Ottoman “self” with an active political say according to an individual’s age, gender, allegiance, and fiscal relationship to the state. This can be observed in the particulars of the two-stage electoral process. The electoral law granted male taxpayers above the age of twenty-five the eligibility to vote for their representatives to the chamber of deputies (Heyet-i Mebusan), who would be males whose allegiances were to the Ottoman state, above the ages of thirty with (apparelty negotiable) knowledge of Turkish, who had not “accepted citizenship or employment in the service of a foreign government, was bankrupt or a domestic servant, or was stigmatized by ‘notoriety for ill deeds.’”[3] Those elected to the chamber would each represent 50,000 male residents, irrespective of age.[4]

According to regulations and relevant deliberations, concerns about an Ottoman’s foreign allegiances were considered as a factor that prompted the government to restrict certain members of the natural-born consitutency from becoming active participants in Ottoman politics with a say in determining the contours of the Ottoman self that would govern and be governed. This paper evaluates the flip side of that coin. It will analyze the extent to which those who were foreign-born but adopted Ottoman allegiances were accepted as active, political, members of the Ottoman “self.” Immigration, naturalization, and citizenship is, at least in theory and in law, an equalizing trajectory that results in elevating the privileges of a newcomer to a host state and levels these with his or her natural-born compatriots. In the modern era, one of these privileges is active participation in the political arena. Though political participation is not limited to the electoral process, eligibility criteria for voting in elections, studied in correlation with legislation and relevant discourse on immigration and naturalization, are revealing of a states’ vision for its non-static constituency’s demographic composition’s growth. This is especially important to study in the late Ottoman case because its constituency has overwhelmingly been represented as a patchwork of natural-born dominant and non-dominant ethnocultural clusters, often with conflicting interests. Understanding the political capacity with which the state incorporated foreigners into its national body will help further nuance our understanding of late Ottoman society and its political landscape.

A. Ebru Akcasu is a historian of the late Ottoman empire whose work focuses on social and legal history with an emphasis on migration, national identity, and sentimentalities of foreignness and belonging. On this topic, she has authored “Migrants to Citizens: an Evaluation of the Expansionist Features of Hamidian Ottomanism, 1876-1909” (Die Welt Des Islams,2016) and “Nation and Migration in Late-Ottoman Spheres of Belonging” A Comparative Look at Laws on Nationality” (Nationalities Papers,2021). She is working on her first monograph which touches on migration, national identity, foreignness and belonging in late-Ottoman Istanbul.

[1] For more on the Ottoman Nationality Law, see İbrahim Serbestoğlu, “Zorunlu Bir Modernleşme Örneği Olarak Osmanlı Tabiiyet Kanunu,” Osmanlı Tarihi Araştırma ve Uygulama Merkezi Dergisi: Osmanlı Hukuk Tarihi 29 (2011): 193-214, Will Hanley, “What the Ottoman Nationality Law Was and Was Not.” Journal of Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association 3/2 (2016): 277-298, and A. Ebru Akcasu, “Nation and Migration in Late Ottoman Spheres of Belonging: A Comparative Look at Laws on Nationality, Nationalities Papers (2021): 1-9.

[2] Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: 1982).

[3] Hasan Kayalı, “Elections and the Electoral Process in the Ottoman Empire, 1876-1919,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 27/3 (August 1995), 266.

[4] Kayalı, 268.

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