The Latest Roman Caesar of the Bosporus


There have been four periods in Anatolia in which the state interfered in religious matters and used religion as a tool of the state. The four Roman Caesars to have lived on the Bosporus, the straits that separate Europe from Asia in Istanbul, represent these four periods.

The first Roman Caesar is Theodosius I. Theodosius, emperor from 379 to 395 AD, was responsible for ending sectarian disputes within Christianity by declaring Orthodox Christianity the official state religion and banning other beliefs, creeds, and religions. He rejected Arius’s claim that, “Jesus the Messiah was not immortal and eternal like God, that he was created by God and born a man in order to save the world”.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the central kingdoms established in Western Europe came under the hegemony of the Catholic Church. In the Byzantine Empire, Orthodox Christianity became an official institution, and the church was attached to the state. Religion became one of the tools used in the maintenance and spread of the Byzantine Empire.

The Ottoman state was established on the material and cultural legacy of the Byzantine Empire. The Ottomans not only conquered Byzantine lands, but also adopted the governing philosophy of the empire and established a lasting state. When he conquered the Byzantine Empire in 1453, Mehmet II, who also adopted the title of Roman Caesar, updated the administration of the Ottoman state by issuing a code of governance. This new administrative code incorporated religious leaders into the state bureaucracy, just as the Byzantine administration had done, and the highest religious authority, the Şeyhülislam, became the head of Islamic scholars in the empire, thereby gaining official status. Clergymen lost their independence and became civil servants.

In the 600-year history of the Ottoman Empire, the relationship between religion and the state did not always remain constant. These differences could be categorised into three periods.

The first period, which lasted until the Tanzimat reforms of 1839, embodied the unity of religion and state, and can be classified as the “state for religion” period. The relationship between religion and the state can be characterised as the raison d’état of the Ottoman Empire. Under this school of thought, the duty of Ottoman administrations was to ensure the preservation and propagation of Islam. To uphold this duty, administrations relied on the state. Even though this understanding privileges religion as the reason for the existence of the state, it still prioritises the state. That is, if the state were to not exist, religion would disappear as well.

The Tanzimat reforms brought about the second period, characterised by weakening bonds between religion and state and a Western European-style secular central administration. In the second period, a dual system that accepted the separation of religion and state was established, but this system was short lived.

The second Roman Caesar featured in this discussion is Abdülhamit II, who came to power in 1876 as the Tanzimat Period ended. Abdülhamit relied on Islamic unity politics to instrumentalise religious values and secure the survival of the state. According to Islamist contemporaries of Abdülhamit, rather than being an Islamist himself, he was a sultan who used Islam for his own political goals. This was the view of many prominent Islamist thinkers such as Mehmet Akif, Muhammed Hamdi Yazır, and Said Nursi. A more extreme example of such reactions are Ismail Hakkı’s remarks after Abdülhamit was deposed.

“What an accursed devil! He was going to burn everything to the ground with disregard for humanity; he was going to destroy his companions who had common sense, so that he would be able to rule as he pleased, committing atrocities and reaping what he sowed with despotism. This was his plan.”

In the fatwa that dethroned Abdülhamit, the two signatories – Şeyhülislam Mehmet Ziyaeddin and Fatwa Commisioner Hacı Nuri – accused Abdülhamit of violating Islamic Sharia law. Foremost among Islamist critiques of Abdülhamit were his negligence of the intelligentsia, and the decline in educational standards in religious madrasa schools. Secondary criticisms included the perception of Abdülhamit as being against religion and religious life. Despite being caliph, or temporal head of the Islamic world, he was charged with betraying his religion, and being an enemy of Islam and Islamic congregations.

In contrast to today’s Islamists, Islamists of the time had negative opinions of Abdülhamit. Since temporal and spatial distance distorts the truth, ideological commentators who look back on Abdülhamit today sing his praises. However, his contemporaries had a much more realistic understanding of the sultan. Abdülhamit was not an Islamist; he was a leader who used religion to achieve his political goals.

As a result of enduring crises, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and Turkey was established in its place. The caesar spirit that many thought had died and been buried with history, was still wandering the land. In its third incarnation, the caesar appeared in the form of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. In the new system that Mustafa Kemal established, he created a role for religion within the state.

Historians say Atatürk was influenced by 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau and his predecessors such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Montesquieu were all influenced by Theodosius’s historical experiences.

Philosophers like Rousseau considered the effect and function of religion upon society, and saw religion as a factor that could aid government administration. According to Rousseau, it was important for citizens to possess an official religion delineated by and for the state. This religion would need to cultivate an appreciation for civil duties and aid in ensuring social order. The state could force everyone to believe in this official religion, and banish unbelievers.

These views, which Rousseau elaborated in his “Social Contract”, formed the basis of Atatürk and Turkey’s relationship with religion. It is noteworthy that Atatürk began his reform efforts by establishing the Ministry of Religious Affairs. As part of these reform efforts, Islamic cults, lodges, and monasteries were shut down, and the Minister of Religious Affairs became responsible for all religious activities and organisations. The purpose of this ministry was stated to be the prevention of differing religious interpretations.

Turkey truly embraced the Hanafi School of Islamic thought, and provided religious services within this doctrine. Non-Muslims outside of Istanbul were forced out of Turkey through population exchanges. The best example of this is Christian Turks from the central Anatolian city of Karaman, who were deported to Greece. Christians living in the Black Sea region were systematically Islamised. Massacres organised by the state against the liberal Muslim sect of Alevis living in the southeastern city of Dersim were prompted by the Alevis’ deviation from the religion set forth by the state. The massacres committed against Alevis under the 16th century Sultan Selim I were based on the same line of thinking; the idea of an official religion.

After a brief interregnum, Theodosius’s spirit once again began to wander the land. The latest emissary of this spirit is Roman Caesar Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For many years, he has used religion for his own political purposes, and he continues to do so. The system that he has established through blood, sweat, and tears has nothing to do with Islamic political thought. Islamic political thought rests on the tenet of establishing justice through consultation. Alas, the parliamentary system, which privileges consultation, has been toppled, and the violent sultanate of the Turkish-style presidency has been established in its stead. The judicial institutions, which according to Islamic political thought should be separate from the executive and when necessary should have the power to put the executive on trial, have been brought under the authority of the Presidential Palace, thereby inflicting a serious blow to the judiciary. It is clear that the new order is a type of sultanate that has no basis in Islam.

Another aspect of the matter at hand is the way Erdoğan has treated those who have rejected the official religion. For some religious groups who have not adopted the state’s religion, who instead choose to live according to their own religious interpretations, the state has confiscated their property, closed their foundations and publications, and thrown their followers into prison.

This is all the doing of the latest Roman Caesar of the Bosporus.

Who is next?