LONDON–It was the first time young Turks would march on the streets of Istanbul, when it was still known as Constantinople. On a hot spring night 105 years ago, a movement of student activists, nationalists and secularists rose up against the autocratic rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who was the 99th caliph (or, religious leader) of Islam and 34th sultan of the 600 year-old Ottoman Empire. Their demand was simple: restore the short-lived constitution that the sultan had suspended in 1878, which granted greater freedom to Turkish citizens. Cowed, Abdulhamid quickly capitulated, reconvening Parliament and initiating what came to be known as the Second Constitutional Era in Turkey.
It was too much for the Islamic traditionalists in the Turkish military, who overtook their officers in March of 1909 and marched through the streets demanding restoration of Islamic sharia law. As the Young Turks fled, one writer feared that “Turkey seemed poised to go down an Islamist path.” But it was not to be. Within ten days, democratic reformists had recaptured Constantinople. The Islamic rebels made their last stand at Taksim military barracks on the city’s European side before surrendering to reform-minded troops, including a young officer named Mustafa Kemal. For Kemal–later known as Atatürk, founder of modern, secular, democratic Turkey–the Taksim barracks would serve as a reminder of the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism.