A Nation Plagued By Empire? Dilemmas of Sovereignty in Ottoman Turkish Political Thought

Ottoman-Turkish intellectuals of the early twentieth century conceptualized national sovereignty as antithetical to principles and institutions of imperial rule, yet they also thought these principles and institutions reinforced Turkish national sovereignty. This paper explores the constitutive paradoxes and dilemmas of emerging Turkish ethno-nationalism through a close reading of the works of one of its most prominent ideologues, Mehmet Ziya, better known by his nom de plume, Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924). As many have noted, Gökalp’s writings exhibit a particular mix of nineteenth century French positivism, pan-Turkish ethno-nationalism, and constitutional authoritarianism. While Gökalp diagnoses imperial rule as a disease that plagues the Turkish nation, he also emphasizes the importance of pan-Turkic political unity and cultural solidarity which crosses Ottoman, Russian, and Iranian borders. In this paper, I argue that Gökalp’s rejection of imperial rule relies on an understanding of the nation as a monolingual and mono-ethnic body. In principle, national sovereignty is not incompatible with imperial rule; rather, it is the corrupt ways in which Ottoman rulers have practiced imperial rule, enabling mixing of languages and ethnicities, that is incompatible with the rightful sovereignty of the Turkish nation. To better elucidate the political-theoretical stakes of thinking about how a “nation” can be “plagued with empire,” this paper adopts a transnational perspective and situates Gökalp’s work in the early twentieth century debates about national sovereignty, imperial rule, and Western colonial expansion.