When considering ancient history, is it important to view events from the prism of the time in which they occurred. Doing so otherwise, would not be the least helpful, because one cannot judge distant history by modern day standards. What’s more, arguing over distant history on the other hand, is as futile an exercise as arguing over Donald Trump’s election victory.
Bearing that in mind, if one were to look at the Ottoman Empire from the perspective of the time, one can easily see why the Ottoman Empire was considered progressive by comparison to fellow existing empires. Now before jumping into conclusions that I support and condone everything the Ottomans stood for, stop right there. In the same way that no nation-state is perfect, no empire was perfect, yet both the nation-state as well as Empires had their pros and cons and the Ottoman Empire was no different.
Maritime vs land empires
There existed two different kinds of empires: Maritime and Land. The former, introduced by the Spanish and championed by the British was undoubtably the more savage of the two. While there is certain geographical continuity with regards to land empires, as people and tribes moved around, tribes which then evolved into a specific ethnicity and subsequent civilisation with unique cultural distinctions and within a shared specific geo-graphical area, maritime empires offered no such organic evolution and expansion. The aftermath of the collapse of maritime empires has proved far more calamitous long term for those who were occupied. It is true that while one could not exactly walk from Libya to Sicily, the Arab Caliphates were for the most part a land empire, and a relatively small strip that is the Mediterranean Sea is neither the Atlantic Ocean nor the Pacific – both of which other Empires crossed to attain land. Occupying and uniting ethnic and religious groups who were in relatively close proximity to one another, cannot be compared to the British going all the way to the Caribbean, slaughtering the natives and importing Africans. After all, politics aside, Arabs and Turks who lived near and amongst themselves for centuries and who shared the same religion and customs and a regionally born ruler, were bound to prove more successful than the British ruling South America, India, Hong Kong, Africa etc, etc. The same could be said for the French who had far less in common with the Africans, than the Russians had for instance with the Estonians, Lithuanians, Georgians etc, etc.
The aftermath of the fall of the British Empire is point proof of just how catastrophic ruling a peoples whom one does not understand can be. The majority of crisis we are witnessing in the world in 2018 are originally British authored disasters derived from the ignorance or indeed unwillingness of the British to draw the maps in a manner that corresponded to regional and local identities of the time. From the border disputes between China and India, the human rights disaster in Jammu and Kashmir, 20th and 21st century conflict in Afghanistan, the majority of the Middle East including the Yemen civil war and the decades long Myanmar civil war, the list is endless and indicative of administrators who were extremely ignorant of regional realities.
By contrast, before the Turks reached Constantinople, the Catholic Crusaders had destroyed much of the Byzantine empire. Many observers believe that had the Catholics not destroyed the Byzantine empire, the Greeks might have been able to successfully fight the Ottomans. Indeed the Catholics did weaken the Greeks, therefore creating a vacuum which was filled by the Turks who had already begun to migrate from Central Asia to Asia Minor in 1299 while themselves fleeing Mongol invasions of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the wider Russian realms. The Turks conquered what was left of Greece as well as the Arab lands outside of Iberia and parts of Persia. They ultimately conquered Greek Constantinople in 1453 de facto ending the Byzantine empire. In 1517 the Turkish Sultan also took the title of Caliph of all Muslims, a title originally coined by Arab Rulers.
The Ottoman empire: the success of the Vilayet and Millet systems
Much of the Ottoman Empire was relatively peaceful, progressive and civilised, certainly when compared to the British, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgians and French who consistently brutalised and murdered indigenous peoples across the world, while also championing the African slave trade. The Ottoman rulers, despite being ethnic Turks, were nevertheless sensitive to regional peculiarities as evidenced in their administrative divisions called the Vilayets, derived from Arabic wilaya which meant a particular region or province without a specific administrative connotation. Subsequently the Turks applied an administrative definition on wilaya, which formed the geographical map the empire.
The Ottoman Millets on the other hand, were a series of autonomous administrative and political system where people were segregated on an ethno-religious basis. This applied to various non-Muslim sects in the empire that had their own commercial and legal systems, however, certain high positions in society were reserved solely for Muslims, while the Christians were required to pay extra tax that was collected and paid by the Millet as a whole in most cases. While is it undeniable that there were discriminatory measures against minorities, especially Christians of Greek, Armenian, Assyrian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanians descent, on a day-to-day level, life for non-Muslim and non-Turkish minority communities was incredibly autonomous, both by the standard of the way other empires treated minorities and perhaps even by the standards of 20th and 21st centuries where police states and nanny states micro-manage the lives of the majority in what could be seen as a more repressive way than the Ottomans treated the minority. The internal map of the Ottoman empire organised in a series of Vilayets i.e governates, demonstrates that the Ottoman rulers and cartographers understood who lived where. For example, modern Iraq was roughly divided between a Basra vilayet, which was majority Shi’a Arab, a Baghdad vilayet which was an ancient cosmopolitan centre and a Mosul vilayet which was primarily Sunni.
It was only in the 19th century, a time of sweeping Nationalism that this system collapsed and the government of the Ottoman Empire called the Sublime Porte tried to ‘Ottomanise’ all citizens in a desperate attempt to remain a united entity. The Christians who had not yet attained statehood by the end of 19th century became angry, while many Turks came to resent neighbouring Christians who naturally resented the idea of a pan-Ottoman nationalist identity. Consequently mass slaughters of Christians occurred, the biggest being the Armenian genocide of 1915 which killed 1.5 million Armenians, incidentally by Kurdish mercenaries who had been promised Armenian property by the Young Turks, and of course many Greeks and Assyrians.
Despite the bloody end to the empire, a common phenomenon of all declining Empires, how can anybody truly believe that the Turks were uniquely savage? While it was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries where the Christians of the Ottoman Empires began to suffer in earnest through targeted nationalistic violence which ironically was inspired by the Europeanisation of the Sublime Porte, the British by contrast consistently executed mass murders of Indians – the Jallianwala Bagh massacre being case in point, but they also slaughtered Chinese, Africans, indigenous Kenyans and even their own during the Peterloo massacre.
Ultimately, all Turks are soldiers and likely always will be. While the terrorists in Syria continue to slaughter civilians in the East Goutta area, the Syrians are sending their volunteers to fight the Turkish Army in Northern Syria, at a time where Turkey has no tangible ambitions to occupy Syria beyond neutralising the Kurdish separatists in the North. This is more or less guaranteed by the Russian government, for the time being in any case. However, if Syrian military bodies challenge Turkey, then they have another war coming. As they say, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”.
The Arabs could do worse than taking a leaf out of the Ottoman book. The Ottomans learned a great deal from erstwhile Arab rulers of the Caliphates. Not only did the Turks adopt the model of governance, many elements of the Arabic language, religion and culture to such an extent that in some cases the two were almost indistinguishable from the outside. What the Turks lacked in originality, they more than made up for it in their strength and organisational abilities. The reason the empire was largely successful was because the Turks were incredibly organised, pragmatic and knew their people. Even today, while the Turks may fight amongst themselves, they are quick to unite against anything and anyone who threatens the safety and security of Turkey.
This is where Arab Nationalism comes in. Arabs ought to re-think the concept of Arab Nationalism in the context of the Ottoman Empire, and apply a similar internal ruling model for a safe and prosperous Pan-Arab Republic or Pan-Arab Federation. Ironically, Arabs had been united in a single political unit from the time of the Prophet Muhammad up through the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. So smooth was the transition from Arab to Turkish sovereigns, that few Arabs were initially willing to rebel against Turkish rule even when the British Empire came to them with gold, guns and lofty promises, all of which were broken soon as T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” left Damascus. Where the Arab Caliphates and Ottoman Empire were united, today’s Arab states are not, resorting to fighting amongst themselves over petty sectarianism, and awakening the presently tame beast within Turkey, instead of fighting the real enemy on the ground that actively threatens Syria and the region in the short, medium and long term: US and “Israel”. After all, one can only fight so many battles at one time. If the Arabs were to unite based on the balanced Ottoman model of local autonomy within the framework of a singular global political unit, Arabs would not only become a geopolitical force to be reckoned with, but internal sectarian divides which are a legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the present day exploitation of latent tensions by the Zionist regime, would largely evaporate or otherwise police themselves as they successfully did during the Ottoman Empire.