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Why is Turkey reviving an Ottoman sultan?

A great Ottoman sultan-caliph is being re-popularized in today’s Turkey with a clear political intention: legitimizing authoritarian rule.
The Ottoman era Dolmabahce Palace is decorated with a huge Turkish flag as part of the National Sovereignty and Children's Day celebrations in Istanbul, April 23, 2009. The National Sovereignty and Children's day marks the 89th anniversary of the opening of the Turkey's National Assembly. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY ANNIVERSARY POLITICS) - RTXEAOM

In Turkey, there has been an unmistakable revival of the image of Sultan Abdulhamid II. The powerful Ottoman monarch who ruled the empire single-handedly from 1876 to 1909 is praised with a flood of articles in the pro-government press, endless messages on social media and various conferences and panels. The speaker of the Turkish parliament, Ismail Kahraman, a confidant of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even hosted an “International Symposium on Sultan Abdulhamid II and His Era,” at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, a relic from the latter-day Ottoman Empire. The great sultan, Kahraman said, “is a mariner’s compass to give us direction and enlighten our future.”

On the one hand, there must be no big surprise in the love affair for Sultan Abdulhamid II by Turkey’s new ruling elite — the religious conservatives. For as the last great Ottoman sultan, as he has been dubbed, Abdulhamid II has been a cultural icon for decades for Turkey’s Islamic circles. Popular Islamist writers such as Necip Fazil Kisakurek praised him as “the exalted sultan,” for he was a pious Muslim, a caliph worthy of his name and the defender of Muslims. It became a legend that Abdulhamid II refused to sell Palestinian lands to the nascent Zionist movement despite the economic bankruptcy of his state. The great sultan, in fact, has been Turkey’s Islamist alternative to Ataturk as a source of historical inspiration.

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