BreakingNews 14/9/15 - Ottoman wisdom, European Imperialism: The Modern Middle-East

[ Masterweb Reports: Book Review by Dr Kusum Gopal ] - Ibn Khaldun in his philosophical work Muqqaddimeh observed,” Untruth naturally affects historical memory... the result is falsehoods are accepted and transmitted...” Ilan Pappé’s third edition is an explicit attempt to explain the modern Middle-East by correcting misconceptions in popular Euro-American imaginations. He highlights  the rich social and cultural contributions of Islamic civilizations,  discussing its egalitarian traditions, the literary, artistic scholasticism in the Middle-East.

Pappé’s introduction discusses approaches to the writing of history – from Karl Popper to the anthropologists, positivism to anti–linear readings of time and space. He wavers between the two approaches neglecting the authoritative critiques of positivism, linearity and evolutionary approaches. Pappé  naively states his is a social and cultural study, not about politics or religion- even though all areas have always overlapped, influencing each other. With Turkey on the fringes, Pappé divides the Middle-East into the Maghrib   which is North Africa, Tunis, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, the Sudan and the Mashriq region for Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan, the kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as separate entities. While they can be used in speech, can such separate distinctions be maintained? Under the Ottomans, Arabs and Turks had been united along with several other peoples – central Asia and beyond where cultural interactions, movements and inter-marriages were commonplace. The heritage of the modern Middle- East rested on its rich, syncretism and powerful Ottoman past that was shattered by colonialism. 

“Christian” Salvation, “Islamic” Despotism and the Jewish Question

Questioning Modernism, Pappé  perceptively points out modernity has been consciously defined  as the preserve of  European  Christian and Jewish cultures  while those of Islam and non western societies are seen to have remain shrouded, inferior, behind the times with the need to catch up. He notes that modernism and its beginnings have always been traced to Europe, often marked by invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte. The renaissance, moral thought, sanitation, industrialization – hallmarks of democracy it is argued he notes were markers of modernism, and it was European interventions that brought military technology to Muhammad Ali and Caliph Salim.  He notes that these Judaeo-Christian advocates saw Islamic, other non-western societies and their populations’ behaviour as being predictable, thus these populaces could be guided, coached, indeed persuaded to adopt western values and beliefs by behaviour change. However, the Ottomans did not regard Christian Europe with hostility and conflict, as is generally assumed. They employed Christians extensively, later using western know-how and technology, encouraging European merchants to trade in the Levant, the results of carefully calculated priorities. 

Pappé makes a few critical omissions. For instance, the acknowledgement that European pre-colonial understandings – readings, both official and traveller accounts  on the landscape and cultures reflect the deep-rooted suspicion if not antipathy with which Christian Europe has regarded not just Islamic Empires but also Jewish populations. Critically, these explorations are required for the valuable insights they provide in understanding the Middle-East. Such bigotry had led also, to the persecution of Jews from times immemorial in Europe which have had repercussions in these regions. As has been researched by a scholar, for example, the kingdoms of Leon-Castila, Aragon, and Portugal contained greater numbers of non-Christians - Jews and Muslims - than any other Christian territory in Western Europe. Until the late fourteenth century the kind of public life led in these states was termed convivencia, "peacefully living together," and in Jewish usage Iberia was termed Sefarad (Sephardic) Jews played a subordinate but central role in these kingdoms,- chiefly financial and professional - that Christian subjects could not or would not perform. Although Jews were needed, they were also excluded from high public office, as were and they had been elsewhere in Christian Europe. In 1391, a number of riots broke out in different parts of Iberia, directed against Jews. As a result, about half the Jewish population of Iberia converted to Christianity, a happening unprecedented in history - and one for which the Iberian church and society, were utterly unprepared. But despite this, a generation or so later, from the 1440’s new anti-Jewish movements began again, directed this time also against the "New Christians," or conversos, as they were called followed by the persecution. Such waves of bigotry and prejudice caused several thousands to flee to Ottoman lands where Sultan Beyzid welcomed them. Later on again, at the behest of Sultan Mehmed, the chief Rabbi of Edirne was able to substantial support to other such emigrations. With their own religious heads – in these Wilayats,  laws that were passed protected  the cultural sovereignty of all subjects.

Thus, in stark contrast to European  bigotry, indeed, racism, the Ottoman Empire which governed for over six hundred years (Pappé  incorrectly states as 400 years), allowed for the integration of large Jewish, Christian and other communities, who, despite some legal handicaps, found that the dispensation generally allowed them to live and worship in faithful adherence to their laws and traditions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews were organized into millats, which were responsible for both religious and secular duties in their communities. Unbeknownst to most people is that until Islam had a well-defined Church and State (politics and religion) divide, much more so than Christianity. As theologians enlighten us, under the Ottomans, while the Sultan or the Caliph were seen to be imbued with divine writ for legitimacy, they did not legislate or control over religion and its practice, they did not give sermons on it either. Religion had no formal control over them and none of their subjects expected them to pontificate on spiritual matters. Islamic traditions during the medieval times, indeed until the Ottoman Empire was desecrated, maintained a palpable distinction between the civic/administration and religious matters—contributing to the success and enrichment of the Empire. The Caliphate commanded considerable support and respect, it also knitted together not just Sunni and Shi’ii but also minorities, Kurds, Druze, Coptics and so forth, employing special efforts to accommodate various, diverse cultures. In 1856, for instance the Hatt-ý Hümayun promised equality for all Ottoman citizens and as was its practice, irrespective of their ethnicity and confession, widening the scope of the 1839 Hatt-ý Þerif of Gülhane. Indeed, a significant percentage of non Muslims  were appointed to  high offices, were decorated by the Sultan and  commanded considerable power. Influential religious heads even believed that the Turkish conquest had preserved the Greek Church from the threat of annihilation by the growing power of the Latin west. For instance, the Grand Duke Loukas Notarasis had stated on the eve of the conquest: ‘It would be better to see the turban of the Turks reigning over the city than the Latin mitre.”  Gradually in the face of Ottoman resistance, there would be elites in various parts of the Empire who would assert their independence and embrace nationalism-- Pappé  is keen to assert, independent of European influences.
Pappé does not discuss different practices within Islam, Christian or Jewish traditions – though an analysis is integral to understanding culture and society for instance the Ibadis, Baha’i, Coptics, Druze and so forth. Significantly, by embracing the Hanafi School the most accommodating of all the four schools and, drawing upon all four schools in its law making, it permitted maximum flexibility within the limits of Islamic tradition, thus was placating disparate populations of Jews, Christians and, indeed, various schools within the Sunni Islamic traditions; many of the spiritual exercises of the Hesychast movement championed by St Gregory Palamas, who had spent a year at the Ottoman court debating with Muslims, were derived from Sufi and Islamic practices. The institutionalising of Sufism, some scholars have argued in governance and military establishment sanctioned non conformism. Such latitudinarian forms of governance derived from the philosophical, religious and cultural syncretism’s cobbled together from Byzantine, Arab, and Central Asian as indeed, the Mughals traditions. Many of the
html add here