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Babaanne, What's An Ottoman Islamicist?

November 10, 2010

In a piece he wrote for Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec addition, Hugh Pope quoted a certain Harold Rhode discussing Islam in Turkey. The piece is standard Hugh Pope: bang-up and astute, but is unfortunately mostly behind a pay-wall. But the quote he uses from Mr. Rhode fascinates me, and I’m going to explore it:

“It isn’t Ottoman Islam that these Islamist Turks seek to revive,” Harold Rhode, a former longtime U.S. Department of Defense official, wrote in one of the Jerusalem Issue Briefs series in May. “Their Islam is more in tune with the fanatically anti-Western principles of Saudi Wahhabi Islam.”

To which I respond, “…huh?” This also gives me an excuse to unearth one of my favorite pictures of the past 100 years.

And what’ll really twist your noodle is wondering what flag that is to the left of the door

What we have here is the Şeyhülislam declaring a fatwa announcing permissible military Jihad (Jihad bil saif – lit. “Struggle of the Sword”) against the Triple Entente at the beginning of World War I. Complete with the CUP-era flags and fezes. The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic State. Don’t forget this.

Saying something about how Wahhabi forms of Islam and Ottoman forms differ is actually incredibly on-point, historically. Muhammad ibn-Wahhab himself was an 18th century Arab who founded his movement in rejection of these Turks calling themselves the true guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He came under the protection of the al-Saud family who were currently laying their claim to be the proper guardians, and who were trying to drum up support to kick Ottoman suzerainty out of the peninsula. The Empire was just entering its true decline phase at this point, but its worth mentioning the al-Saud family wouldn’t make headway until World War I itself.

Ever since Yavuz 1. Selim defeated the Mamluks of Egypt in 1517, the true, universally accepted Caliph was the Ottoman Sultan. This lasted until 1924, when 2. Abdul Mecid was stripped of the title by the Republican Turkish Meclis, who dissolved the office entirely. That’s right, the “Shadow of Allah on Earth”, the very symbol of a united Sunni Ummah from Morocco to Indonesia stopped existing due to a parliamentary vote. This actually happened in history, and reminds you that the 2010 midterm elections are boring. But the point stands that the Ottoman Empire held the right to be the arbiters of Islam on Earth, and you have lots of fun articles of history, like 2. Abdul Hamid demanding that the British Empire treat Indian Muslims as under Ottoman rule and his declaring, “let the Jews keep their millions and once the [Caliphate] is torn apart one day, then they can take Palestine without a price,”without realizing that, no, the Caliphate would be torn apart by 1948.

Ibn-Wahhab was upset with the direction the Caliphate was going in. And it’s not like he had no right to, either. Many of the most respectable positions in medreses and in courts were going to political appointments, and the slots in the best schools were going to sons of those political appointments. Religion was politicized, to the shock of absolutely no historians. But ibn-Wahhab saw what happened to Kadizade, the 17th-century reformer who tried to go back to the Prophet’s time from within Istanbul. Kadizade tried to work within the political system as a demagogue, was successful to the point of becoming the Friday preacher at the Imperial Aya Sofya Mosque under a like-minded 4. Murad until the political winds changed and Kadizade was exiled. Like that. Snap. Clearly something that failed under the old political system would not work under now. So ibn-Wahhab stuck in the peninsula and wrote. The al-Saudi would work with his message to try to rally Arabs against the Turks. It would take a while.

Ottoman Islam is the Islam of power. It’s the Islam of the Caliphate. It is conservative in the sense of the use of tradition to bring people together. As any sort of credo of power, it changed tremendously from the 16th to the 20th century. Yavuz 1. Selim would not recognize it as acted in the days before World War 1. When the Caliphate moved, each time it moved, it transformed to fit into how the ruler wanted to use it. But to try to paint the Ottoman Empire as softly Muslim isn’t true. They were the Caliphate, the aforementioned shadow of Allah. The living proof of Allah’s glory and Muhammad’s truth. This is not the sort of thing anybody would take lightly. Just because it was brought into a political construct didn’t mean it failed to be true. Even the most ardent modernizers, the CUP, couldn’t picture a nation-state without the Caliph.

The CUP’s great failing in strategy (they had many great failings in action) is that they weren’t creative enough. They were able to enter the political process and cause enough radical change so we have the above picture. Of the Ottoman Empire united under a single star and crescent, in frock coats and bald chins. And they still need the leading expert on Islam in the empire to declare Jihad bil Saif. They still wanted the trappings of empire in a nation-state. Which is why Ataturk felt the need to burn it all to the ground, and why he is revered by many as, well, a God. Because only a God could expunge Allah’s shadow on Earth.

Wahhabi Islam has also changed over the past 300 years. It changed in the days after World War I, when the al-Saud family found themselves in the position they claimed as their right, guardians of Mecca and Medina. The words still use the vocabulary of revolution, a rejection of the status quo. But they’ve been reinterpreted over the centuries to mean, well, something different.

So how do the current Islamist Turks fit in? Well, they don’t.

Ibn-Wahhab vs. the Ottoman Empire is a dead struggle. Over. Fascinating from an historical perspective, but completely defunct. I’m assuming the aforementioned Islamist Turks are a euphemism for the current AKP government, a democratically-elected leadership of a Republican state. They can take inspiration from the principles of Islam, but that’s no more sinister than American presidents taking inspiration from the principles of Christianity. I don’t profess to be an expert on the biographies of Gul, Erdogan, or whomever else, but it does seem that they come from and celebrate Islam. That is, the whole ~1300 years of it. Learning the lessons of ibn-Wahhab and 2. Abdul Hamid and Kadizade and whoever else you throw out there. The lessons of their teachers, parents, whatever.

It’s a different thing. And to try to shove the AKP into a centuries-old construct is to misunderstand what they’re all about. The criticism laid out against the AKP is often criticism of their politics and how they do politics. It’s interesting criticism. But ibn-Wahhab didn’t do politics. The Ottomans didn’t do democracy. Neither apply to Turkey’s current state.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2010 2:36 am

    Really nice post,thank you cna training

    • Asher permalink
      November 13, 2010 2:57 pm

      I’m keeping this spam because I like to imagine that there’s a connection between prostate issues and the Ottoman Empire.

  2. November 26, 2010 5:17 am

    If you could e-mail me with a few suggestions on just how you made your blog look this excellent, I would be grateful.

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