Mustafa Akyol: Remembering Abdul Hamid II, a pro-American caliph

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mustafa Akyol is a writer based in Istanbul.]

AL QAEDA'S STATED GOAL--to reestablish the caliphate, the political leadership of worldwide Islam embodied first in the successors of the Prophet Muhammad and most recently in the four-century rule of the Ottoman dynasty--is pure, ahistorical fantasy. One way to appreciate this is to revisit the 33-year reign of the most remarkable modern caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909). An ally neither of bigoted Islamists nor of the radical secularists who ultimately deposed him, Abdul Hamid was an Islamic modernizer--and, interestingly, a friend of the United States.

Abdul Hamid emphasized the role of Islam inside the Ottoman Empire, and he emerged as the protector of Muslims around the world, from India to sub-Saharan Africa. He pressed for a new railway to the holy places of Mecca and Medina and sent emissaries to distant countries preaching Islam. Because of these policies, once called "pan-Islamism," he is still revered by conservative Muslims.

His principal political opponents were the Young Turks, inspired by the fashionable European and especially French ideas of the time. They portrayed the caliph as a despot, and the description stuck. While it is true that Abdul Hamid suspended the constitution of 1876 for decades, he did so not out of any contempt for democracy, but out of justified fear of the Young Turks' autocratic ambitions. Although they espoused the rhetoric of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, they had strong authoritarian tendencies. As Princeton historian Sukru Hanioglu explains, their worldview was based on "biological materialism, positivism, Social Darwinism and Gustave Le Bon's elitism," all of which led them to regard egalitarianism as "unscientific."

Another Princeton scholar, the dean of Middle Eastern history, Bernard Lewis, writes that "Abdul Hamid was far from being the blind, uncompromising, complete reactionary of the historical legend; on the contrary, he was a willing and active modernizer." In areas such as education, commerce, finance, diplomacy, central government administration, journalism, translation, and even theater, he accomplished significant reforms. He founded the first archaeology museum, public library, faculty of medicine, academy of fine arts, and schools of finance and agriculture. He endowed the empire with the telegraph, railroads, and factories, and during his reign, Constantinople flourished as a world capital.

Unlike subsequent modernizers, however, Abdul Hamid developed an Islamicly legitimate way forward. Personally observant, he practiced Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. Yet he also had Western tastes; he loved playing the piano, and arranged piano lessons for his daughter. He enjoyed opera, too, and had the famous Belgian soprano Blanche Arral perform for him.

With some notable exceptions--such as the harsh repression of Armenian insurgents by irregular forces authorized by the sultan in 1895-6--Abdul Hamid was on good terms with his non-Muslim subjects, of whom a record number entered government service. Ahmet Midhat, who has been called a sort of Turkish Edmund Burke, was Abdul Hamid's favorite intellectual. Midhat argued that Islam respects Christianity and Judaism, emphasizing how the empire welcomed the Jews expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492. And he defended the emancipation and education of women.

Abdul Hamid's attempt to marry Islam and modernity was cut short by the Young Turks in 1909. Although secular in outlook, they proved willing to exploit Islamic concepts for political ends. Abdul Hamid never waged a jihad; the Young Turks, on the advice of their new allies, the Germans, launched a global jihad in 1915 against Britain and its allies. Alas, the dethroned and interned caliph had warned them that they should align the empire with Britain, which controlled the seas and so would inevitably triumph. Britain did triumph, and this brought the Ottoman Empire to an end.

Abdul Hamid's relationship with the United States further defies the Islamists' notions about the caliphate.

In contrast with the aggressively secularist Westernizers who believed that the only hope for progress was to get rid of religion entirely, Abdul Hamid saw that the West was not monolithic. In particular, as Kemal Karpat, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, explains, he studied the American separation of church and state, which he regarded as consistent with Islamic principles. (The Ottoman Empire was not a theocracy in the sense of being governed by clerics; indeed, it developed a de facto separation between the religious and temporal authorities.)

At the beginning of his reign, Abdul Hamid observed the centennial of American independence by sending a large number of Ottoman books to be exhibited at Philadelphia and subsequently donated to New York University. Later, he was the first foreign head of state to receive an invitation to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, to honor the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America. Although he did not personally attend, a total of one thousand people from Jerusalem alone visited the exposition. The World Parliament of Religions held its inaugural meeting in Chicago at the same time, and the sultan's representatives exhibited a large number of Ottoman wares and built a miniature mosque.

Because Abdul Hamid believed that American prosperity had resulted partly from a good accounting of the population and efficient management of national resources, he asked Samuel Sullivan Cox, the American ambassador in Constantinople and the organizer of the first modern U.S. census, to introduce the Turks to the study of statistics, one of the first of the exact sciences to be established in the Ottoman Empire.

Beyond such cultural exchanges, actual Ottoman-American cooperation in foreign policy took place in the face of the Muslim insurgency in the U.S.-occupied Philippines. The American ambassador to Turkey Oscar S. Straus (a Jewish diplomat, incidentally, who was welcomed by the Abdul Hamid regime at a time when his colleague, A.M. Keiley, was declared persona non grata by the Austro-Hungarian authorities simply for "being of Jewish parenthood") received a letter from Secretary of State John Hay in the spring of 1899. Secretary Hay wondered whether "the Sultan under the circumstances might be prevailed upon to instruct the Mohammedans of the Philippines, who had always resisted Spain, to come willingly under our control." Straus then paid a visit to the sultan and showed him Article 21 of a treaty between Tripoli and the United States, which read as follows:

As the government of the United States of America . . . has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmans; and as the said states never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the partners that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony between the two countries.

Pleased with the article, Abdul Hamid stated, in regard to the Philippines, that the "Mohammedans in question recognized him as Caliph of the Moslems and he felt sure they would follow his advice."

Two Sulu chiefs were in Mecca at the time, and they were informed that the caliph and the American ambassador had reached a definite understanding that the Muslims of the Philippines "would not be disturbed in the practice of their religion if they would promptly place themselves under the control of the American army." Later, Ambassador Straus wrote, the "Sulu Mohammedans . . . refused to join the insurrectionists and had placed themselves under the control of our army, thereby recognizing American sovereignty."

This account is supported by an article written by Lt. Col. John P. Finley (who had been the American governor of Zamboanga Province in the Philippines for ten years) and published in the April 1915 issue of the Journal of Race Development. Finley wrote:

At the beginning of the war with Spain the United States Government was not aware of the existence of any Mohammedans in the Philippines. When this fact was discovered and communicated to our ambassador in Turkey, Oscar S. Straus, of New York, he at once saw the possibilities which lay before us of a holy war. . . . [H]e sought and gained an audience with the Sultan, Abdul Hamid, and requested him as Caliph of the Moslem religion to act in behalf of the followers of Islam in the Philippines. . . . The Sultan as Caliph caused a message to be sent to the Mohammedans of the Philippine Islands forbidding them to enter into any hostilities against the Americans, inasmuch as no interference with their religion would be allowed under American rule.

Later, President McKinley sent a personal letter of gratitude to Ambassador Straus for his excellent work, declaring that it had saved the United States "at least twenty-thousand troops in the field." All thanks to the caliph, Abdul Hamid II.

Such acts of statesmanship make painfully obvious that if there are any religious leaders in the Muslim world today who walk in the footsteps of the great caliph, they are not the terrorist leaders of al Qaeda, but rather the peacemakers such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who have been trying to defuse the violence in Iraq by cooperating with coalition forces and calming fellow Muslims. When terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his big brother Osama bin Laden portray themselves as warriors for the caliphate, they totally misrepresent the historical meaning and function of this Islamic institution. What they do is "hijack" the caliphate--to borrow a term from President Bush--as much as the faith it represents.

The caliphate was abolished in March 1924 by that supreme secularizer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Young Turk hero of World War I and the Turkish war of independence. Despite strong opposition in the Turkish National Parliament, Ataturk dethroned and expelled the last caliph, Abdulmecid Efendi, a cousin of Abdul Hamid, and outlawed all Islamic institutions including the Sufi orders. The 1,300-year-old leadership of Islam was destroyed overnight.

Today many Turks see this act as a great leap forward in Turkey's modernization. Yet it also had terrible side effects. The religious Kurds, who had been loyal to the Ottoman state for centuries, mainly out of Islamic brotherhood, were shaken. In 1925, a group of them revolted against secular Turkey with the aim of reestablishing the caliphate. They were crushed, and this trauma was the source of Turkey's never-ending Kurdish question.

Indeed, the excesses of the Kemalist revolution poisoned the very notion of modernization for many devout Muslims all over the world. Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, inspired by Kemal, became an even more enthusiastic secularizer and tried to de-Islamicize his society by force--ordering police, for example, to rip the veils off women in the streets. The response, in the long run, would be Ayatollah Khomeini.

And in the Sunni Arab world, the end of the caliphate left a vacuum of authority that was filled by myriad radical, revolutionary, or fundamentalist movements. The worst was Wahhabism, the product of a revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century that the caliphs suppressed. In the post-caliphate disorder, Wahhabism found fertile ground for spreading its antimodern and inhumane distortion of Islam.

One antidote to that violent heresy is to recover the spirit of Islamic modernity personified by the piano-playing Sufi, Abdul Hamid II. There really is a third way between the spurning of all faith and militant Islamism, and that is what the Islamic world needs today.

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