NEW PUBLICATION: The Ottoman Empire


Today the hot spot of unrest is Syria, the repercussions of which are reverberating across the Western world. From the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in early 2011, it has been estimated that by February 2016, the total number of deaths due to the war stood at some 470,000 (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights). Internally displaced persons are given as over 7,600,000 with over 4,000,000 people made refugees (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees).

The current blame for this disaster is being placed upon three main parties: the brutal regime of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the various rebel groups who rose up against his rule, and Daesh, the terror group that is also known as the so-called Islamic State. All three share some culpability, a situation that has hindered efforts at resolving the conflict.

The root causes of the problem are very deep and can be traced back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent peace treaties that were ratified by the Allies, as well as Western interference over recent decades.

The creation of the mandates resulted in large swathes of Arab territory coming under mandatory French or British rule, a direct result of which led to a growth in Arab nationalism. Furthermore, many Arabs in the region were angered by what they perceived to be Britain’s duplicity. Instead of achieving Arab independence, as had been promised, in return for helping to defeat the Ottomans, their lands were carved up and they were placed under foreign rule with a ‘puppet sovereign’ from another tribe being placed on the ‘throne’.

While elements of Arab nationalism can be traced back to calls for independence during the Ottoman period, the ideology gained force at the time of the mandates and spread across the Arab world. The declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, resulting in the displacement of an estimated 711,000 Palestinians (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine), further strengthened the resolve of the Arab peoples to preserve and protect Arab identity and fight for sovereignty.

Arab nationalism suffered a severe blow in June 1967 during the Six Day War between Israel and an allied army of Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi and Lebanese forces. Against all odds Israel not only defeated the Arabs but at the same time she annexed the Sinai Peninsula including the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. These annexations led to the further displacement of Palestinians, with hundreds of thousands fleeing from the West Bank into Jordan, from the Gaza Strip into Egypt and from the Golan Heights into Syria.

This mass exodus added to the general instability in the region. The influx of refugees into neighbouring countries following the Six Day War only added to the refugee problem that had been created by the displacement of refugees in 1948 and the Arab/Israeli war of 1958. After 1967 refugee camps, particularly in Lebanon, became even more crowded. They have always been natural breeding grounds for discontent and the nurture of insurgency groups. These camps still exist and the refugee problem facing Lebanon in particular is more critical than ever as the tiny country struggles with the arrival of a further 1,500,000 refugees as a result of the current Syrian Civil War.

Today’s mass exodus of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other war torn countries of ex Ottoman territory has led to a crisis across Europe and fed into the debate on immigration that influenced the United Kingdom’s recent decision to leave the European Union.

Apart from the continuing refugee problem, the dispute over territory between Israel and the Palestinians has still not been resolved. Both sides claim territorial rights. While Israel may appeal to Biblical tradition, both Israel and the Palestinians base their claims on the various documents and treaties of the post Ottoman period, the most significant being the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Crucially however those Palestinians who have remained in Israel, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip see themselves as living under an illegal occupation. This is a view that is shared across the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular. The plight of the Palestinians is like a running sore. Until it is healed it continues to infect relations between many Muslim countries and the West, which by and large is perceived to support Israel.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt (1956-1970), had hoped to unite the Arabs of the region as peoples sharing a common language and culture, known as pan-Arabism. But after the Six Day War and defeat of the allied Arab forces his hopes were dashed. Equally, nationalism espoused by individual Arab states, was not succeeding. With the failure of pan Arabism and nationalism, which were both secular movements, people now turned to the religion of Islam, or Islamism, as a way forward.

Strands of Islamism can be detected throughout Islamic history. However, the current phenomenon can be traced to the doctrines of Wahhabism and Salafism that took root in Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century. In the early twentieth century nationalists living under British and French mandates as well as those opposed to the British presence in Egypt, for example the Muslim Brotherhood, gradually turned to Islamism. With the suppression and imprisonment of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the middle of the twentieth century, and other activists opposed to the State of Israel, some of the leading thinkers and advocates of Islamism sought refuge in Saudi Arabia.

One such was Abdullah Yusuf Azzam who left Palestine to take up a teaching post at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah where he taught that militant Jihad was an obligatory duty of all Muslims. Azzam was teaching at the university during the late 1970s when Osama bin Laden, one of the founders of Al Qaeda, happened to be a student at the same university. It is quite likely that this is when Bin Laden first came under the influence of Azzam and his militant views.

It is possible to draw a straight line from Osama bin Laden to Daesh. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 Bin Laden volunteered, along with hundreds of other young Saudis, to support their Muslim brothers in the fight against the Russians. By 1988 he had gathered a band of followers together who became known as Al Qaeda (‘the Base’). During this same period the West was providing him with arms.

When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia where he was greeted as a hero. He toured the country giving speeches about the injustices suffered by Muslims around the world: the Palestinians under the Israelis, the Chechens under the Soviets and the Bosnians at the hands of the Serbs. In 1990 when Bin Laden offered to lead his ‘Afghan army’ against Saddam Hussein following the invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi Monarchy rebuffed him. Instead the Monarchy accepted the protection of the United States. The sense of rejection and humiliation, coupled with his anger at the prospect of American boots on the ground in the ‘Land of the Two Holy Mosques’, would have a profound affect on Bin Laden.

Following the New York attack on the Twin Towers on the 11th September 2001, Bin Laden was the key suspect. Ten years later, in May 2011, United States Intelligence Forces tracked him down in Pakistan and shot him dead. Although Bin Laden had been executed, the Al Qaeda ideology remained alive and well. Indeed, it became even more of a threat as Al Qaeda members dispersed to all parts of the world.

The search for Bin Laden started in Afghanistan but the war against terror very quickly moved to Iraq. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction, many Al Qaeda operatives travelled there to fight the invading and occupying Western forces. They were known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In 2006 AQI merged with other Sunni militant groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

Soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, began sending Al Qaeda fighters across the border into Syria where they formed the Al Nusra Front with an affiliation to Al Qaeda. In April 2013 Al Nusra merged with the Islamic State of Iraq becoming known as ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The following year, in June 2014 Al-Qaeda broke with ISIS, who now called itself the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) with Al Baghdadi as Caliph. Since the majority of Muslims don’t recognise the legitimacy of the ‘Islamic State’ the organisation is more commonly referred to by the derogatory term Daesh. (For a more detailed account see my book Making Sense of Militant Islam.)

A few points are worth mentioning here. First, before the West’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was no obvious Al Qaeda presence in the country. As mentioned above, Bin Laden’s protégés went to Iraq after the US invasion in order to fight the Americans. The United States and her allies not only toppled Saddam Hussein but also disbanded Iraq’s military forces and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Consequently, Al Qaeda and its successor Daesh filled the vacuum. Furthermore, displaced Iraqi army officers joined the ranks of Daesh and weapons captured from the Western forces were added to its arsenal.

Secondly, the fact that Daesh is far more extreme than Al Qaeda and has been criticised by mainstream Muslims as being un-Islamic, has not deterred many hundreds of young men and women from around the world travelling to Syria to join the terror group. These recruits are being indoctrinated into the hard line ideology that was propounded by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, friend and mentor to Bin Laden. Perhaps more importantly, their commitment to militant Jihad is fed on the plight of the Palestinians and injustices of the post Ottoman peace treaties that robbed the Arab Muslims of their land. Indeed, one of the stated aims of Daesh is to restore the Ottoman Caliphate under a new Caliph.

Thirdly, it is relatively easy for members of Daesh to cross the border from Iraq into Syria and neighbouring countries. Cells now exist across the Levant and Southern Turkey, with a large presence in Libya. This ease of movement is not surprising when we consider that for centuries the region was all part of the Ottoman Empire. Countries such as Iraq, Syria and Libya are less than a hundred years old. The borders that were put in place in the post Ottoman period are meaningless to many of the tribal peoples of the region. The British and French discovered this during the mandate period when both sides accused the other of harbouring terrorists.

Turning now to the Balkans, although the region was not put under foreign rule after the dissolution of the Empire, it nevertheless has suffered periods of instability, much of which can be traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Most of the conflicts in the Balkans are rooted in ethnic and religious differences, for example the Yugoslav Wars between 1991 and 2001.

Throughout most of the history of the Empire these differences were subsumed under the Ottoman policy of pluralism. However, ethnic and religious differences began to emerge from the seventeenth century onwards as the Ottomans lost territory to the Habsburgs. When Austria, Russia and to a lesser extent Britain, encouraged and supported the Christians of Ottoman Europe to rebel against their Muslim masters these differences became critical.

During the final decades of the Empire violent conflict between Christians and Muslims broke out, very often with Jews caught in the middle. Unspeakable atrocities were committed by all sides as the Ottomans fought for survival. For some Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Turkish people the suffering experienced is still within living memory and has fed into a fear and prejudice of the other that remains to this day, albeit perhaps just beneath the surface. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that some of the Balkan countries, for example Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, have taken a hard line against the plight of largely Muslim refugees fleeing the current Syrian crisis. In many cases rather than finding safety they have discovered their paths blocked by walls of barbed wire.

The final few words must be given to the Republic of Turkey, a state that was created out of the rump of the dying Empire. Kemal Ataturk, who became the first President, was convinced that the Ottomans had fallen behind the West largely because of their ‘backward’ religion of Islam. He was determined therefore that the new Republic would be based on secular values. In this he has been largely successful but in recent years Turkey has witnessed resurgence of Islamic observance, evidenced by an increase in the wearing of the hijab and the building of mosques. It has even been suggested that the current President aspires to reinstate the Caliphate with himself as Caliph.

The course of history follows the principle of cause and effect. Turkey has come a long way since 1923 but she is still haunted by the ghost of the Armenian tragedy and the problem of how to deal with the Kurds, both issues that were exacerbated by the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The refugee crisis that we are witnessing today can be traced back to the post-Ottoman period. It is a crisis that threatens the stability of Europe and the survival of the European Union.

13 Responses
  • Ed

    Impressive articulation of the Middle Eastern problem.

  • Anne davison

    Many thanks Ed.

  • Duke Kanamwangi

    Nice and educative narrative of the Middle East history and problems!!

    • wpadmin

      Many thanks Duke. I’m glad that you liked the article. Anne

  • Saleemullah

    That’s informative and somewhat balanced. Commenting on your Prologue from a Muslim point of view i would say that you describe the problem as a domestic/internal default within the Muslim countries. I have also written a paper which i would like to share with you with via mail. The I have written paper is from a Muslim perspective.

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