Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Ottoman Empire

Besides giving me some great furniture for my living room, the Ottoman Empire carried the torch of Islam into the modern era. The earlier Abbasid Empire, based in Iraq, turned to dust by 1258 under the hooves of fierce horses bearing crack Mongol warriors. For a time thereafter the heartland of the Middle East experienced a power vacuum. Crusading knights from Europe, bearing the cross and unsheathing the sword (crux means cross in Latin), had wreaked havoc in Palestine and Syria since 1096, the start of the First Crusade. The fulcrum of political power in the Islamic world began to shift to Turkic-speaking regions of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey for the most part) and central Asia. The Seljuk Turks first established a significant rival power to the Christian Byzantines, a Greek-speaking people centered by this time in and around the resplendent city of Constantinople. But it was the Ottomans who would go on to conquer the dwindling Byzantine Empire after having subdued other Turkic powers in the region.

Evidently Allah blessed the Ottomans in the first three centuries or so with a succession of gifted sultans—a high caliber of imperial leadership brought about in part by a system of fratricide that cruelly weeded out weaker elements in the ruling house. As a portent of imperial greatness, Osman, the founder of the dynasty, had purportedly dreamed of a tree whose branches and roots stretched far and wide. Were it not for the Ottoman Empire, Islam might have stayed put in the Middle East and parts of North Africa. The spread of the faith in the Abbasid era from the Arabs to diverse ethnic groups in the region had already given Islam the status of a universal religion like Buddhism and the other two Abrahamic faiths (and unlike Hinduism); but it did not yet have global reach. The use of political might, indeed of a powerful state, to aid the territorial expansion of a spiritual movement is a phenomenon common to other world religions as well. For instance, the acceptance of Christianity as a legal religion by the Emperor Constantine, and its status as the state religion of the Roman Empire decades later, ipso facto brought the Palestine-based religion into those areas conquered by Roman legions. Likewise, when the Mauryan ruler Ashoka the Great opted to conquer by righteousness rather than by brutality, having converted to Buddhism after witnessing a horrific battle, Buddhists found a great patron and sponsor of monasteries throughout India.

Highlights of Ottoman history include Mehmet II’s 1453 conquest of Constantinople, the last vestige of the moribund Byzantine Empire, and broad expansion into Europe and the Mediterranean in the 16th century under Suleiman the Magnificent, perhaps the greatest monarch of his era. Renamed Istanbul, the former Byzantine capital provided the Ottomans with a cosmopolitan megalopolis at the crossroads of two continents and set up as it were a base of operations to protect its European possessions on the Balkan peninsula and Hungary. To be sure, a strong presence on the Bosporus bequeathed a legacy of commitment and involvement in European Christendom and the Islamic Near East. Today the Republic of Turkey, the successor sate of the Ottoman Empire since the 1920s, is the only Islamic country in NATO and is poised to enter the European Union in the not-so-distant future. (Moreover, the Turks have been a strong ally of the United States since the 1930s.)

The agonizingly long decline and fall of the empire, starting in the late 16th century and culminating with defeat in World War I, is as much if not more significant to our study of the contemporary Middle East than its meteoric rise. A Russian tsar once referred to the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe.” Despite valiant efforts to revive the patient that included a reform program in the mid 19th century known as Tanzimat and an 11th-hour attempt to reinstate the constitution on the part of Young Turks, it was too late. The sultanate became more rigid under the autocratic Abdulhamid II, who unsuccessfully withstood the predatory imperialism of Tsarist Russia and found dubious consolation in the massacres of Bulgars and Armenians. The British and French benefited from the dissolution of the empire; these Western empires, beside themselves like hyenas feasting on a carcass, carved up the “sick man” and set up their mandate governments. The collapse of the empire in 1918 was merely the final act in a tragedy begun a century earlier when Egypt succeeded from the empire and, on the eve of World War I, Balkan subjects broke away from Istanbul. Frustration over the loss of these lands, coupled with Russian victories in the East, help account for the encore performance in systematically obliterating the Armenian population in what most historians and commentators apart from Ottomans and their modern successors see as genocide.

The Western occupation of Middle Eastern countries, the artificial creation of national borders, and the intervention in regional politics did not endear locals to their new overseers. For our purpose it’s important to appreciate the new order created in the Middle East that resulted when the various ethnic groups, provinces, principalities, and regions once under the Ottoman umbrella now clashed with Western powers intent on denying the very sovereignty and independence that they had promised them during the war. The internecine conflicts and the clash between East and West that ensued in the faulty treaties that settled the “War to End All Wars” has shaped the Middle East to this day.