But the Patient Died

But the Patient Died

Mini Teaser: The death of the Ottoman Empire was a case of suicide, not homicide.

by Author(s): David Pryce-Jones

Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East 1789-1923 (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1999), 397 pp., $29.95.

In its heyday, for two full centuries after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was a superpower, complete with ideology. An absolute ruler, the Ottoman sultan was also Caliph, and Muslims everywhere were supposed to acknowledge his spiritual as well as temporal supremacy. The Ottomans were then in the forefront of military technology. They conquered Muslims and Christians alike, enslaving some of the latter and, with a stroke of originality all their own, transforming them into an elite corps. Pioneers of bureaucracy, the Ottomans devised a centralized organization of their subjects according to religious community--a form of pluralism, however imperfect. Machiavelli thought that they were likely to overrun Europe. Writing in the 1530s when Ottoman expeditions were raiding Italian ports, the great historian Guicciardini feared the moment had finally come.

For reasons having to do with social structure and outlook, the Ottomans in fact failed to keep pace with Western innovation, particularly in the sciences. A number of envoys and courtiers fatally misreported to the sultan that the Age of Enlightenment had nothing to teach them. Amid general astonishment at his audacity, Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 invaded and occupied Egypt, hitherto an Ottoman backwater. The Ottoman order would never be the same. Its protracted decline throughout the nineteenth century came to be known as the Eastern Question, a delicate euphemism for a great power struggle that was the nineteenth century's equivalent of the Cold War. Territory was to be gained, boundaries redrawn, and commercial advantages enjoyed. The potential winners were the British, Habsburg and Russian empires, with France in the running, Germany at the rear, and Iran at the sidelines. If the powers could not obtain what they sought, they would nevertheless thwart the ambitions of others. Here was a laboratory illustration of what used to be the central doctrine of international diplomacy, that a balance of forces best ensured the peace.

European encroachment on Muslim lands was in fact part of the normal historical process whereby the strong and the weak are continually adjusting their relationships. Muslim weakness was of course open to analysis and remedy, but it proved emotionally more satisfying to blame others rather than themselves. Thus, a myth was slowly to crystallize around the Eastern Question, and eventually to deform reality altogether. Today it appears to more and more Muslims--the Islamist militants first and foremost--that the Europeans were in agreement and even conspiracy to take their resources, destroy their culture, and suppress Islam. Out to achieve such ends, Europeans of all occupations and nationalities--and by imaginative extension, Americans as well--appear malign and wanton by definition, an undifferentiated mass lumped under the single reductive word "imperialist." This is a choice term of abuse borrowed from the communist lexicon (which in turn had borrowed it from the liberal). It served to vilify the supposed intention of Western powers to impose their values everywhere and exploit the whole world.

In Empires of the Sand, Efraim and Inari Karsh set out to show that this myth is a complete misreading of the record--indeed, more or less the opposite of what actually occurred. The statesmen of the century routinely sacrificed opportunities of conquest that threatened to overturn the balance of power. In spite of misunderstandings and breakdowns, they almost invariably sought to return if possible to the status quo, or else to limit damaging change, consistently shoring up the Ottoman Empire in one international treaty after another. Far from being greedy and ruthless, the strong displayed remarkable moderation. The real "imperialists" were the minorities within the Ottoman Empire, who detected in the weakness at the center the chance to realize ambitions of their own, and so consummated its ruin.

The British at once grasped that Napoleon's success in Egypt, if allowed to prevail, would introduce an unpredictable world order, and they made sure to evict the French. This was the precedent for the rather unusual policy that endured for the rest of the nineteenth century, whereby one of the leading Christian and European powers came to the rescue of an Asia-based Muslim power, and convinced the other powers that this was the proper course of action. Russian czars and Habsburg emperors continued to covet Ottoman provinces that looked ripe for the plucking, each time disturbing the balance of power, which then had to be redressed. Czar Nicholas I coined the memorable phrase that in the Ottoman Empire, "we have a sick man on our hands", but when he proposed to kill this sick man off, the British sided with the Ottomans in the Crimean War. To be sure, Gladstone called for the Turks to be driven out of Europe "bag and baggage", and Lloyd George was to share this streak of anti-Turkish prejudice that came to color the Liberal Party. Still, realpolitik dictated that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire was almost sure to precipitate a world war, and that was too high a price to pay.

To one Ottoman sultan after another, this was a boon, and they made good use of it, buying time in surprisingly successful efforts to modernize and catch up with the Europeans. Again and again they played the great powers off one another, persuading and inveigling them singly or in concert to safeguard the Ottoman interest. The Karshes emphasize that the sultans were diplomats skillful enough to convert political or military weakness into strength. Indeed, the holding operation had its brilliance.

It was ideological conflict that finally led to loss and collapse. Prior to the nineteenth century, Muslims, wherever they might live, were accustomed to defining themselves as a single community of the faithful. Whether Christians or Jews, members of other denominations had their own communal structures, subordinate to be sure, but with established rights including freedom of worship. In the wake of Napoleon came nationalism, a revolutionary by-product that encouraged people to define themselves in a novel manner, according to language and custom and place. Identity followed, and with it the nation-state, constitutional government, the franchise, democratic concepts of rights. This was a process of thought incompatible with the Ottoman order and an identity based on the supremacy of Islam.

The Karshes describe with clarity and in detail how the minority communities of the empire absorbed these new self-definitions, revolting in the name of independence and creating nation-states for themselves. Nationalism transformed peaceful and sometimes even privileged communities of Greeks, Armenians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians into romantic revolutionaries with a cause. Every language, it turned out, required an uprising on its behalf, then an army in support, and then usually an appeal for help to one or another of the great powers. The Ottomans were bound to respond with war and massacre.

Nationalism was a European import, and in that sense Islamists can argue a case that alien values were somehow in the service of "imperialism." But as the Karshes establish beyond all doubt, nationalism was also a pretext--a cover--for empire-building, and Muslims themselves were as quick as Christians to perceive how they could thereby empower themselves.

First off the mark was Muhammad Ali, seizing power in Egypt after the rout of Napoleon. Conquering as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria, he was at the point of overthrowing the sultan when the British decided that such an outcome would destabilize the entire region. As a compromise, he was allowed to found a dynasty. Though he formally acknowledged the sultan as overlord, he had effectively won an independent empire for himself. Overreaching themselves, his ambitious heirs bankrupted Egypt. Local power struggles threatened the peace, and the British landed an army where once they had evicted Napoleon. As so often was the case, apparent imperialism in this instance was actually the consequence of upholding the balance of power. It was an irony at more than one level that the anti-Turkish but also anti-imperialist Gladstone was the prime minister who took the decision to occupy Egypt. In the years to come, successive British governments were to pay lip service to Ottoman sovereignty through scores of declarations that they had no intention of remaining in the country.

Mounting their coup against the sultan in 1908, the Young Turks found themselves ruling an empire that was almost entirely Muslim. Freed from the troublesome Christian minorities who had won independence, they might well have preserved this Muslim core of Turks and Arabs indefinitely. Unfortunately, the Young Turks were not diplomatically as capable as the previous sultans. At the outbreak of the First World War, they took the initiative in concluding an alliance with Germany, on the assumption that Germany was certain to win. Such an alliance committed them to definite rewards or punishments, depending on the outcome of the war, with no possibility of playing on the whole range of European powers when it came to pulling their chestnuts out of the fire. More than a break with the past, this was a mistake. Had they stayed neutral, Turks and Arabs might very well have continued to form a united Islamic empire, and the whole Middle East would have had a very different development.

The Arab Revolt and the final dissolution of the Ottoman Empire have been the subjects of a literature as immense as it is polemic. It is the sphere in which Arab nationalists and now Islamists habitually rage against the "imperialists." Rejecting the view that the Arabs were a tribal society without any cohesion at all, as alleged by Europeans and their "Orientalist" spokesmen, they claim that they were already a nation desperate to throw off Turkish rule. Their champion was supposedly Hussein ibn Ali, the sherif of Mecca, self-styled king of the Arabs. Treacherously, the British and the French egged him on, when they had already cut a secret deal to parcel out Arab lands among themselves. This they then proceeded to do, until a later generation of nationalists, inspired by the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser, at last took things into their own hands. This version of events can be heard every day in any Arab cafe.

Historians and scholars are in a position to match facts and emotions. In several books, and with an authority all his own, Elie Kedourie was first to unravel this complex myth of "imperialist" double-dealing. He showed how in the conditions of the First World War, the British hoped to have the sherif as an ally, and engaged Sir Henry McMahon, an official, to try to agree to terms for such an alliance. No previous plans had existed for disposing of Arab provinces in the event of Turkish defeat, and none was even outlined until the war was well under way. Suggestions for the postwar settlement were entertained by McMahon and the sherif in a correspondence that has been exhaustively picked over, but no treaty was proposed, much less signed, and there was not even an informal agreement. The Allied powers were guilty only of heedlessness in the final break-up of the Ottoman Empire, not giving proper consideration to its achievements and the unifying role it might still have played in a turbulent part of the world.

The Karshes go over this ground in the same spirit as Kedourie, and they reinforce his conclusions. A Muslim, indeed the honored keeper of the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, the sherif had no qualms about joining a campaign with Christians against his sultan and Caliph. He gladly accepted large subsidies and asked for more. But while engaging McMahon in a tug of war, he also kept lines of communication open to the sultan. Taking all possible precautions to ensure that he would emerge on the winning side, he carefully deceived the British in a number of crucial respects, sending them unreliable emissaries, grossly inflating his strength, pretending to command a hundred thousand tribesmen and a huge proportion of Arab officers in the Turkish army, when the actual numbers were in the hundreds. Above all, he treated every British proposal, however qualified and tentative, as though it were a firm promise.

Always considered a "sideshow", sensationalized out of all proportion by Lawrence of Arabia and the publicity which that dubious character knew how to generate around himself, the Arab Revolt was essentially careerism on the part of the sherif. Nationalism and Islam in his case were expedients masking the ambition for absolute power. His two self-seeking sons, Faisal and Abdullah, similarly trapped the British, and Lawrence in particular, into sponsoring empire-building schemes of their own, as a result of which they finished as kings of Iraq and Jordan respectively. Here were further examples of weaker parties turning that weakness into a tool for extracting concessions from the stronger, a stratagem learned from those past masters at it, their former rulers, the Ottoman sultans. The abiding question is why even with their experience and well-informed intelligence services the British allowed themselves to be so manipulated by the sherif and his sons.

Turkey duly paid the price for alliance with Germany. The Allies, the Greeks especially, were unwise enough to make postwar territorial and other claims that endangered Turkey's future. In response, Mustapha Kemal, a genuine warlord, mobilized his fellow countrymen in the service of nationalism, not Islam. Once he had repelled the invaders, he exiled the sultan and closed the Caliphate. Following the example of their own previous minorities, the Turks thus redefined themselves as members of a nation-state. Constitutionalism and democracy have since been their declared aims, however imperfectly realized. Most Turks claim that this has been a process of Westernization that they freely chose, but the Islamist minority sees it as an imposition.

It ought to be impossible to continue arguing that European "imperialists" selfishly determined to destroy the Ottoman Empire simply because it was Muslim and powerful. The true "imperialists" came from within the empire itself, in the shape of assorted leaders, Christian and Muslim, who mobilized minorities into nations. Accused by Arab nationalists of dividing and betraying them, the British in fact were responsible first for accepting the fanciful notion that the Arab nation was a reality, and then for willingly participating in handing power to those whose claim to be its rulers was at best notional.

In spite of their minimal military effort, the Arabs did rather well politically out of the First World War, laying the foundations for what have become a score of independent states rather than a single nation. But the encounter with Europe and its values seems to have generated a widespread sense of defeat and humiliation that sets them apart from other former peoples of the Ottoman Empire. Victimhood of the sort is a deep and paralyzing emotion. The Karshes are the latest to provide a historical perspective that in the long run should liberate Islamists and other militants from self-destructive myth, and allow them to meet the rest of the world on equal terms.

Essay Types: Book Review