Blast from past: The Ottoman shadow on Arab politics

A HUNDRED years after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the shock waves of its death are still rattling the Middle East. Both Arabs and Turks have not come to terms with their common imperial Ottoman past.

By Matein Khalid

Published: Wed 22 Jun 2005, 10:33 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:16 PM

Kemal Ataturk ridiculed and demonised the Ottoman heritage of the Turkish Republic, as did the generation of Arab nationalists who fought the Sultan’s armies in Syria, Hijaz and Palestine. Ataturk deposed the last sultan, abolished the caliphate Sultan Selim had claimed from the Mamluks, replaced the Shariah with the Swiss civil code and replaced the Ottoman Umma with an aggressively secular Anatolian nationalism.

Ataturk banned the fez, introduced by the Napoleonic era Sultan Mehmet II as a symbol of the modern Turk, as anachronistic. Turkey abandoned its historic ties to the Arab world. It was more than history as amnesia. Ataturk performed a lobotomy on the Ottoman past.

Yet the Ottoman shadow still lingers in the landscape, politics and souls of Islamic societies from Sarajevo to Sanaa to Sharjah. On Khalid Lagoon in the UAE "capital of Culture", I see mosques with slender Byzantine minarets reminiscent of the Sulemaniya in Istanbul. There are beautiful Ottoman mansions with latticed windows in Jeddah, Beirut, Alexandria, Belgrade and Sarajevo. In fact, the hillsides of the Bosnian capital evoke the old Ottoman place names long after Tito’s Yugoslavia has vanished into a bitter memory.

The Ottoman ghosts haunt Arab politics. Take Iraq, for instance. The Hashemite kingdom of Iraq was created out of the Ottoman vilayets of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra (which, Saddam argued in August 1990, included the Gulf emirate of Kuwait). Yet the Turkish republic never accepted the Iraq Churchill sketched on a napkin and created out of the carcass of its Mesopotamian empire at the Cairo conference. The tragedy of Kurdistan was spawned amid the Machiavellian cynicism of wartime British realpolitik in the Middle East.

As late as 1997, President Suleiman Demirel questioned why the British gave the Ottoman oil rich province of Mosul to Iraq. The Turkish republic sent troops across the international border into northern Iraq on successive occasions and strangled the idea of a Kurdish state that might well inflame the secessionist psyche of Turkey’s own "mountain Turks" in the east, whose PKK civil war has claimed 30,000 lives.

At fateful moments of Iraqi history, after Saddam’s armies were routed at Fao in 1982 and Kuwait in 1991, Turkey signalled its intention to annex Mosul if the Baathist regime in Baghdad fell. Even Turkish-Syrian relations are held hostage to the Ottoman past. In 1998, Ankara almost went to war over the House of Assad’s covert assistance to the PKK and Damascus still resents colonial France’s decision to wrest Hatay province from Syrian. The Turkish republic’s hostility to Alawite Syria and theocratic Iran has echoes of the Ottoman sultan’s role as the standard bearer of Sunni orthodoxy against the Persian Shia and esoteric Islamic sects of Bilad Shaam.

Even Israel’s close strategic relations with Turkey are a legacy of the Ottoman past. The Jews of Istanbul are the descendants of the Sephardis expelled by the Spanish Inquisition after the fall of the Moorish Nasirid emirate of Granada in 1492. Sultan Selim welcomed the Andalusian Jews himself at Galata and their descendants became the empire’s richest bankers, grand viziers, pashas and scholars.

While Christian Europe persecuted its Jews, the Ottomans showered their most brilliant minds with the highest offices of state. In fact, the first Zionist aliyas (settlements) in Palestine would not have been possible without the Sublime Porte’s consent though Sultan Abdel Hamid angrily rejected the Jewish agency’s offer to literally buy Palestine. The Ottoman cult of absolute rule, bureaucratic politics, an elite palace guard and Western-centric reform was a template for generations of Middle East dictators. If Ataturk was a son of the Enlightenment, so were Reza Khan Pahlavi, Habib Bourguiba, and Jamal Nasser.

The Ottoman empire was the antithesis of the sort of nineteenth century nationalism, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, that swept across the Balkans, the Levant, Iran and the Hijaz as the "sick man of Europe" went into its final, fatal convulsion in 1918. Armenian, Azerbaijani, Iraqi, Syrian Lebanese, Egyptian, Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian and Saudi nationalism were all nurtured in the geopolitical chaos that followed the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

So many of the tragedies that haunt the Middle East in our time have their origins in the British-French plots to dismember the Ottoman empire. What if the Allies had not double-crossed Sharif Hussein and his sons after the success of the Arab revolt in the Hijaz? What if the French had not expelled the Hashemite Prince Faisal from Damascus, not created a Maronite enclave in Mount Lebanon, not recruited Alawite peasants from Latakia in the Syrian Army? What if the Hijaz Railway still carried pilgrims from Bosnia, Turkey and Albania to Makkah? What if Lord Balfour’s HM Government had not viewed with favour the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine?

The Ottoman past continues to influence the political culture and international relations of the Arab world even today. Take the Ottoman millet system, where Istanbul ruled multiethnic provinces via hierarchies of religious leaders.

The modern Middle East intelligence state owes its model to Sultan Abdel Hamid’s secret police, the most expensive, ruthless and extensive organ of state in the Ottoman twilight. Strange, much as the Arab tried to forget their Turkish past, the modern warlords, spymasters are still haunted by familiar Ottoman ghosts. After all, for six hundred years, the epicentre of world politics was not the Kremlin, the Elysee Palace, Whitehall or the White House but the palace, kiosks and terraces of Topkapi Serai on the Sea of Marmara, the citadel of the House of Osman for six centuries.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker

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