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  • Imperial Classroom: Islam, the State, and Education in the Late Ottoman Umpire
  • Nader Sohrabi (bio)
Benjamin C. Fortna , Imperial Classroom: Islam, the State, and Education in the Late Ottoman Umpire. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Pp. xvii + 280. $72.

The legacy of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) remains a topic of controversy up to this day. One issue that has escaped controversy, however, is the sultan's role in education. Indeed, in the midst of all the troubles at the close of the nineteenth century--severe financial woes, western economic and geopolitical encroachments, internal nationalist rebellions--the Ottoman state devoted an unprecedented amount of resources and energy to modern education. Many have seen this not as a surprising development, but a natural continuation of the westernizing reforms of the Tanzimat (1839-1876) and a culmination of that earlier modernizing drive.

In his lively account of the educational project of the Ottoman state, Fortna refuses to take for granted the state's level of devotion to modern education and points to the surprising degree of investment, both financial and emotional. Furthermore, in place of an uninspired evolutionary narrative, Fortna highlights the discontinuities that differentiated the Hamidian from the Tanzimat era, and which prove to be essential for understanding the period. While continuities also receive their full share, these are analyzed from a new interpretive angle by being placed in the context of state and nation-building approaches to education, which prove to shed new light on the Tanzimat era itself. Along the way, he challenges our comfortable assumption that the modern Ottoman educational establishment was created at the expense of, and in explicit opposition to, religious institutions or religious morality. Similarly challenged is the assumption that modern education inculcated cultural schizophrenia and engrained in the minds of the impressionable youth radical dichotomies between East and West.

Students of Ottoman history will take delight in the careful demarcation of eras and the capture of intricacies of the period through use of archival and unconventional primary evidence such as textbooks, maps, and photographs. In addition, the fundamental theoretical question that underpins it makes the book attractive to specialists and nonspecialists alike: how are Western institutions indigenized in non-Western settings, and which factors influence their final shape in new contexts? Put another way, how did the Ottomans localize Western educational institutions that were spreading all across the globe? Were they passive recipients of these institutions, or did they seek them out and modify them for their own ends? The response, argues Fortna with keen historical insight, depended on internal circumstances of each era; during the Tanzimat the Ottomans tilted more toward passive adoption, but in response to the changed historical circumstances of the Hamidian period, the state aggressively sought them out and in the process devised a genuine process of adaptation.

The educational drive was fueled partly by the need to create a modern sense of citizenship and inculcate loyalty to the empire. The state devoted enormous energy to building idadi preparatory or secondary level schools to close the gap left by the Tanzimat-favored rüsdiye advanced primary level schools. The French centralized model adopted, attempted, and partially succeeded, to bring together Ottoman subjects under one roof and transform them into citizens by clothing them in the same uniforms, housing them in similar buildings, and teaching the same books and the same curriculum. It also helped to transform the habits of everyday life by the daily use of raised desk and bed, fork and knife, a single blackboard in the classroom, and the map of the nation-state on its walls. Yet, the picture presented here is far from the sinister gaze of the modern state fixed upon its subjects or a Lancaster-type model school. In fact, Fortna questions the homogenizing and top-down control claims of the French state in its own turf; by marshalling evidence from the Ottoman context he shows that centralized education, despite its many successes, was certainly an unfinished project, and although it afforded a glimpse at the centralizing gaze of the modern state, there was a great degree of variation and deviation from the uniform and centralized state ideal.

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