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HomeExpertsFrom Empire to Republic: The Persistent Challenge of Bribery in Turkish History

From Empire to Republic: The Persistent Challenge of Bribery in Turkish History

Bribery, a phenomenon now commonplace in Turkey, was also present during the Ottoman era. Not only state officials but also judges responsible for administering justice were involved in bribery, parallel to societal corruption. Despite severe measures to combat bribery, success was elusive, and the issue persisted into the Republican era.

Bribery in the Ottoman Empire

The Turkish Language Association defines “bribery” as “providing money or goods to someone to facilitate or expedite an illegal action.”

The Quran explicitly forbids bribery, as indicated in the verse from Surah Al-Baqarah: “Do not consume one another’s wealth unjustly or send it [in bribery] to the rulers in order that [they might aid] you [to consume a portion of wealth unlawfully].”

Bribery is also condemned in Hadiths, cursing both the giver and the receiver. Additionally, Prophet Muhammad prohibited gifts to tax collectors and state officials, considering it a betrayal and theft of state property, thereby banning all forms of influence peddling.

Despite Islam’s clear prohibition, instances of bribery, defined as “a public official using their authority or influence for personal gain,” have been noted from the early periods of the Ottoman Empire.

Neşri’s “Kitab-ı Cihannüma” mentions an incident during Orhan Bey’s reign where the judge Çandarlı Hayreddin Paşa supposedly accepted bribes during the formation of the Ottoman army’s “yaya” infantry. Even if not factual, Neşri’s account signifies the existence of bribery in Ottoman society from those times. Other incidents during the reign of Bayezid I also indicate the prevalence of bribery among judges.

Neşri describes how during Bayezid’s era, “…judges became corrupt, started taking bribes instead of practicing their knowledge.” This led to an inspection ordered by the ruler, revealing extensive corruption among the judges. Consequently, all judges in Yenişehir were reportedly gathered in a house and burned.

Grand Vizier Çandarlı Ali Paşa attempted to address this issue by sarcastically suggesting to the ruler’s jester to replace judges with priests from Istanbul, indicating the severity of the problem. He also informed Sultan Bayezid that low salaries were the reason for judges accepting bribes.

Corrupt Judges

These examples in Neşri are echoed in other sources from later periods. Fuzuli’s complaint that the foundation officials, responsible for disbursing his stipend from Sultan Suleiman, refused to accept his “non-bribe” greeting, illustrates the widespread nature of bribery among state officials.

Fuzuli, presumably exasperated, remarked:

“One cannot purchase paradise with money, Nor enter heaven with bribery.”

Gelibolulu Mustafa Âli provides a more bitter example from the reign of Murad III. According to him, Şemsi Paşa from the Kızıl family, seeking revenge against the Candaroğulları to whom he belonged, bribed Sultan Murad III with 40,000 gold coins, spreading bribery to the highest levels of the state.

Şemsi Paşa Mosque Âli suggests that Şemsi Paşa continued to accept substantial bribes for petitions to the Sultan, even sharing some of the bribes with the Sultan. Paşa reportedly boasted, “Thank God, I have avenged myself on the Osmanoğulları State. From now on, this state will not accept order and will collapse day by day.” Afyoncu, however, cautions that these allegations against Şemsi Paşa, who traced his lineage to Khalid ibn al-Walid, might stem from political rivalries and should be approached with caution.

Selaniki also notes that during the reign of Murad III, bribery became openly practiced, often disguised as “gifts,” leading to the country’s ruin.

The prevalence of bribery among judges, even during the Ottoman Empire’s most glorious 16th century, is noteworthy. Judges misappropriated entrusted funds and seized assets under various pretexts, including excessive taxation and embezzlement.

Judges and their deputies were involved in numerous “official crimes” through these methods, creating a perception in the Ottoman lands that justice was “buyable.” Particularly after the death of Sokullu Mehmet Paşa, many prominent judges were implicated in bribery, as recorded in the official registers.

Is There a Solution?

State administrators, including the sultans, attempted to combat bribery, likening it to a virus devastating the state. They took stern measures against it. For instance, Sultan Selim III stated in a royal decree, “Even if it is my child, I will be harsh and take action.” Nevertheless, bribery persisted, leading the Tanzimat reformers to systematize anti-bribery efforts.

The 1840 Penal Code sought to curb bribery and embezzlement, stipulating that state officials, from viziers to clerks, receiving salaries from the state, should not accept bribes disguised as “gifts.” A bribe-taking official would have to return the money to the treasury, lose all positions, and be sentenced to three years of rowing. The bribe giver, unless under duress and reporting to the state promptly, would face exile.

Another regulation required officials involved in “collection, expenses, and manufacturing” to account for their actions monthly and annually to an appointed officer.

Interestingly, during the announcement of the Tanzimat Edict, Grand Vizier Hüsrev Paşa was prosecuted according to the Penal Code for accepting a bribe. Even though he returned the money, the Code’s clause that “no consideration shall be given to personal relations, rank, position, or prestige” facilitated his trial.

The verdict resulted in his retirement from state service, forfeiture of his salary, eight months in a police station (one-third of his sentence), and subsequent exile to Tekfurdağı (Tekirdağ).

Despite these efforts, bribery, especially in tax collection, remained rampant. Consequently, in 1849, further regulations were introduced to prevent embezzlement and bribery involving state property.

Later, measures included requiring the sultan and officials to swear on the Quran against accepting bribes, and in the provinces, officials had to take public oaths. A 1850 decree distinguished between “gifts” and “bribery,” defining what officials could accept as gifts.

Legacy to the Republic

The unresolved issue of bribery from the Ottoman era seems to have carried over to the Republic. During Atatürk’s era, bribery incidents in courts, particularly involving officials handling resettlement issues after the population exchange, were evident. This led to irregularities in the distribution of houses and land to refugees.

Bribery was also prevalent in the military, with officers involved in such acts being dismissed and sometimes penalized with fines and imprisonment. This included bribery in military recruitment.

Accounting and tax officials formed another group involved in bribery. Clerics and mosque officials were also implicated. According to a document in the Republican Archives, some religious officials were rumored to have accepted money and goods in exchange for religious rulings.

İhsan Eryavuz One of the major political corruption cases of Atatürk’s era was the “Yavuz-Havuz Case.” Navy Minister Topçu İhsan Bey (Eryavuz), accused of accepting bribes during the repair of the Yavuz battleship, was tried by the Supreme Court upon Prime Minister İsmet Paşa’s request and sentenced to two years in prison.

Corruption in Ankara during the early years of the Republic, involving land speculation and profit-seeking, is reflected in various works, notably in Falih Rıfkı Atay’s “Çankaya.”

In summary, despite all measures, bribery and corruption could not be eradicated during either the Ottoman or Republican periods. However, it is crucial to note that these incidents were not normalized and at least reached the courts.

The most significant difference in the last twenty years of AKP rule is the blatant conduct, with even overt bribes and uncovered corruption being swept under the rug. Recent bribery allegations in the judiciary remained in the news for only a few days, with no consequences for the perpetrators.

The real issue is the public’s apparent acceptance of corruption and bribery, viewing events that would topple governments in Europe as normal, and failing to recognize the economic crisis as its price.

This situation is a significant indicator of the extent of societal corruption in Turkey, governed by an Islamic party for twenty years.

Sources: Mehmed Neşri (1949), Neşri Tarihi (Ed. F. Reşit Unat, M. Altay Köymen), Ankara, TTK, Vol. I; Köse, S. (2008), “Rüşvet”, DİA, Vol. 35, pp. 303-306; Mumcu, A. (1969), Bribery in the Ottoman State, Ankara University Faculty of Law Publications; Daşçıoğlu, K. (2005), “Bribery and Fraud Crimes in the Ottoman Period”, Sayıştay Journal, No. 59, pp. 119-124; Çelik, A. (2020), “Bribery Cases in the Atatürk Era and the Fight Against Bribery According to Archive Documents”, Pamukkale University SBE Journal, No. 40, pp. 17-35; Afyoncu, E. (2010), “Ahmet Şemsi Paşa”, DİA, Vol. 38, pp. 527-529.

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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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