Vicken Cheterian

Ottoman Nostalgia

In the last few years, there is a new popular crave for nostalgia: the Ottomans are back. Televised serials, historic books, and novels are being vehicle throughout Turkey and the Arab world, showing a mass demand to revisit evolved times. After many decades during which we tried collectively to forget the Ottomans, here they are back again!

After the Ottoman defeat in World War I the forces that came to dominate the “Middle East” were not interested in the past. For British and French colonialism that occupied vast territories in the region, Ottomans were to be illegitimated, and forgotten. They contrasted their rule as civilization compared to Ottoman obscurantism. For Turkish nationalists like Mustafa Kemal, the situation was no different. Ottomans belonged to a past that had to be forgotten, erased from memory. With the debris left behind by the Ottomans a new, victorious “nation” had to be born. Ottoman-Arabic script was abandoned, Islam was censored, and the Ottomans were silenced. 

With the Arab states emerging after the departure of colonialism, the situation was no different, although the explanation was particular: to forget the Ottomans as a reactionary, foreign occupation. The Ottomans were suddenly barbaric Turks coming with Seljuk and Mongol hordes to occupy Arab land, burn down Baghdad to ashes, and corrupt Arab-Islamic civilization. It was the Turkish occupation, which was responsible for the backwardness of the Arab, it was argued. Now, finally with independence dearly won it was time for Ba’ath – meaning renaissance – to flourish. 

Turkish Kemalism, belonging to the one-party totalitarian states, had surprising longevity. More surprising it gave up power to a newcomer, the AKP, without a fight. Its Arab sisters in Iraq in Syria had shorter lives, and much bloody endings. In Syria we don’t even see the end, although the country has been flooded with blood and especially since the eruption of a popular revolt in 2011.

To come back to Ottoman nostalgia it is largely conditioned with the failures and disintegration of the nation-states in the Middle East, and the rise of political Islam, and more specifically the Sunni branch. Modern political Islam is largely conditioned by the trauma of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the ending of the Islamic Caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928, and Party of Liberation (Hizb ul-Tahrir) in Jordan in 1953, as parties seeking to replace the dissolution of the Caliphate by a new Islamic order.

The strongest support to the return of political and public attention to the Ottoman past came with AKP electoral victory in 2002 in Turkey. The “Islamo-democrats”, as they were called at the time, rejected Kemalist nationalism and wanted to re-connect with the Ottoman past. Remember the neo-Ottoman diplomacy, about which many speeches were given and articles written in not-so-distant past? 

This new Otto-mania in Turkey and beyond poses new problems and challenges. To illustrate the new problems let me give first two examples: the moment Turkish president Erdogan received his first foreign guest after he inaugurated his vast new, and controversial palace in Ankara. It was mid-January, 2015; the guest was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, carefully chosen for its symbolic message, the imagined centrality of the Palestinian cause to Arabs and Muslims. Imagined, because Arabs and Muslims have done much more harm to the Palestinian people than any good. In the picture we see President Erdogan, who is higher than Abbas and therefore is stooping slightly downwards, and behind them on the staircase there are two rows of soldiers wearing helmets and armour, holding spears and shields No, this is not a masquerade party, but pure Ottomania! 

The Ottoman realm was a vast empire stretching on three continents, one of the most multi-cultural of empires, which emerged in early 14th century surviving to the first decades of the 20th century. The Ottomans ruled Serbia for 440 years, much more than Palestine that was ruled by the descendants of Osman for “only” 402 years. So, when we are nostalgic to Ottoman past, what exactly does that mean? Which lesson from Ottoman past do we want to learn; that we think is relative for today? Which of the many sultans is our hero? 

Here I have the second picture: it is the AKP party conference in Eskishehir. On a large poster there is the smiley face of Davudoglu to the left, and the serious look of Sultan Abdulhamid II on the right, and the text reads: “Padisahim, Sultan Abdulhamid’im Emanetin Artik Emin Ellerde Rahat Uyuyabilirsim”[2] 

AKP, just like Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ul-Tahrir, remember from the Ottoman experience not its bright pages, but its last chapter, Abdulhamid II. It was the Red Sultan who abandoned the Tanzimat reforms, abandoned “Ottomanism” and turned to pan-Islamism. It is for this reasons that he is such a towering father figure among Islamists. But Abdulhamid also suspended the constitution, built the first modern police state, and censored newspapers. He massacred his population in the provinces and in his capital, instead of protecting their lives and property. Most of all, Abdulhamid lost: territories, prestige, and finally the empire. At the end of his reign the Empire had lost its richest provinces in the Balkans, and had become a poor Middle Eastern state.

In case the Ottoman Empire we are dreaming of is the failed model of Abdulhamid, could we by any chance be on the right track?