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The sultans and their heritage 4 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt) Sunday, March 4, 2012

Samir Sobhi

The proactive role that Turkey is playing in the Middle East today recalls policies pursued by the 19th-century Ottoman Sultan Abdel-Hamid II, writes Samir Sobhi.

Poised on the fault line between Europe and the world of Islam, Turkey has been given a rare set of options: it could pursue a credibly European future, or it could revive what was once a glorious oriental career.

Today, the East is waiting at a moment when leadership is in short supply for a voice of reason and a go-between, someone who can bring the Arab world safely back to the shores of moderate Islam. Meanwhile, the West is also waiting for an interpreter and an interlocutor, someone who can help to decipher the turmoil that simmers, sometimes openly, sometimes less so, in the lands that were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

Sultan Abdel-Hamid II (1842-1918), the 34th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, was perhaps the last to exercise real influence within the Empire. During his reign, he tried to ensure that the crescent of Islam remained united, while being challenged at every turn by colonialism, the major powers of the time, insurrections, insurgencies, and a restless population of ultra-nationalists and discontented minorities.

Abdel-Hamid’s reign ended in failure, and Turkey began its lonely march onwards through a hybrid, half-eastern and half-western existence. However, it is worth reconsidering Abdel-Hamid’s career, particularly for what it can tell us about the political entanglements of today.

Abdel-Hamid II embraced Islamic unity at a time when both France and England, with Germany and Italy waiting in the wings, were getting ready to dissect the ailing Empire. In the Arab provinces, nationalists were clamouring for independence, and at home the Turkish population was castigating the sultan for allegedly favouring the Arabs over them and for not paying enough attention to their hardships.

Embattled, indebted, and generally beleaguered, Abdel-Hamid II was determined to keep the Empire together. The Palestinians will never forget how he spurned Jewish offers of help, for example, since it came with strings attached. All the Empire’s financial problems would disappear, Abdel-Hamid was told, if he allowed Jerusalem and its surroundings to become a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

In 1896, the Austrian Zionist Theodor Herzl sent an emissary to Abdel-Hamid II with an offer that would have enticed lesser men. However, the emissary returned from the sultan’s reception hall at the Yeldiz Kiosk in Istanbul « with a long face, » Herzl recalled.

« If Herzl is as much your friend as you are mine, then advise him not to take another step in this matter. I cannot sell even a square foot of land as it does not belong to me but belongs to my people, » Abdel-Hamid told the emissary.

From that moment on, Herzl knew that the road to Palestine would not be through Istanbul, and he started urging Jews everywhere to support the enemies of the sultan. The Empire’s Armenian population was encouraged to rise up, insurgents in the Balkans were given active support, and, in Turkey proper, the Jewish intelligentsia rallied around the Committee for Unity and Progress (PUC), a coalition of opposition forces which eventually took control of the country in 1913.

In Egypt, the legacy of Abdel-Hamid II is felt to this day. He was the man who ordered a map to be drawn of Egypt showing Taba on the Egyptian side of the border, for example, thereby frustrating British attempts to take over the port of Al-Aqaba. Abdel-Hamid II also opposed the extravagant ways of the Khedive Ismail, these having paved the way to the country’s bankruptcy and eventual occupation, and he provided active backing to the nationalist Ahmed Orabi Pasha.

Early 20th-century nationalists in Egypt, among them Mustafa Kamel and Mohamed Farid, were both great admirers of Abdel-Hamid II.

In his memoirs, Abdel-Hamid II expounds his views on the possible conflict between the West and the Islamic world, offering exceptional insight into the ways in which the Arab countries were occupied by the Europeans. His revelations about the way the Europeans discovered Arab oil and at first tried to keep its economic potential a secret are especially interesting. The memoirs also shed light on some of the charismatic figures of his time, especially the intellectuals Gamaleddin Al-Afghani and Medhat Pasha.

Abdel-Hamid II does not try to hide his concern at the extravagant ways of the Khedive Ismail in his memoirs, Ismail having borrowed the then enormous sum of nearly 100 million pounds from the British and the French, effectively mortgaging the country to European interests and condemning it to a life under occupation.

The first thing the Europeans did, once they had placed their officials in charge of Egypt’s treasury thanks to Ismail’s folly, was to seek a reduction in the Egyptian army from 30,000 to 11,000 men. The resulting tensions led to the Orabi revolt against growing European influence in Egypt, resulting in the British occupation of the country in 1882.

In 1879, Abdel-Hamid II issued a decree replacing the Khedive Ismail with his son, crown prince Mohamed Tawfik Pasha. Ismail ended up living in Turkey until his death in 1895. On Abdel-Hamid II’s own death, the Turkish philosopher and poet Riza Tevfik wrote a poem about him that runs in part as follows:

When history recalls your name,
Right will be on your side.
We spoke ill about you, shamelessly, too,
But you were a great politician.
The sultan is unjust, we said, even mad.
He should be overthrown.
The devil must have taken hold of us
To stir up sedition as we did then.
You weren’t mad. We were.
It’s just that we didn’t know it.

Today, it seems that the Americans want Turkey to be a part of Europe, so satisfied are they with the performance of the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (JDP) both at home and abroad.

The JDP seems to be determined to play a leading role in the Arab world, and the Turkish government’s confrontation with Israel over Gaza, culminating in the crisis over the Freedom Flotilla in 2010, has brought Turkish-Israeli relations to a grinding halt. On many occasions over the past two years, the Turks have spoken up louder for the Arabs than the Arabs have themselves. It is fair to imagine that if the Turks continue on this forthright path, they may indeed end up playing an influential role in the region.

Meanwhile, what should always be born in mind is that many of the issues that are being debated today in the Arab world, such as the status of non-Muslims and their role in society, have their roots in the time when the Ottomans were still the dominant power in the region.

In 1718, the Coptic Pope Boutros VI asked the Ottoman sultan to pass a decree protecting the rights of non-Muslim Ottoman subjects across the Empire, for example. It was an understandable request, for it was around this time that Europeans living in Ottoman-controlled lands were given extensive privileges under the so-called « capitulations ». From this time on, the Ottomans began issuing decrees consolidating the rights of non-Muslims across the Empire.

Later, under Mohamed Ali in the first half of the 19th century, all Ottoman laws concerning Egyptian non-Muslims were put on hold and new regulations supporting equal treatment for all citizens became the norm. In 1855, Mohamed Ali’s descendant Said Pasha abolished the jezia, a poll tax which only non-Muslims were required to pay.

One of the Ottoman-period laws that remain most relevant to Egyptian Christians today is the 1856 Hatt-i Humayun, which established a state of semi-equality for all Ottoman subjects regardless of creed. According to the Hatt-i Humayun (the term means imperial command in Turkish), churches were exempted from taxes and a council of clergymen and lay members was appointed to run the affairs of the community, or millet.

The Hatt-i Humayun, though not today an active law in Egypt, still inspires many of the practices, let alone the sentiments, that arise in connection with the renovation, expansion, or building of churches in Egypt. It is just one example of how Ottoman history still intersects with ours, even a century or so after the Ottoman Empire finally expired.

Today, Turkey, like us, has to grapple with its past as a hybrid country and a multi-layered land that is infused with multiple histories and inspired by various identities. Where will Turkey go from here? The answer to this question will affect many people around the region and the world.

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