Books on the Making of the Modern Middle East:
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 – Eugene Rogan – 2015
The Ottoman Endgame, War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923 – Sean McMeekin – 2015
The Poisoned Well: Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East – Roger Hardy – 2016
The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe – Andrew Wheatcroft – 2009
Posted by Özay Mehmet on 1/1/2017
We are now witnessing a harvest of new history books on the making of the modern Middle East. Four are chosen for a critical review below. They are works by experts, well-researched and highly readable and infinitely more objective than the over-supply of Eurocentric or Orientalist books of the past. Yet, all four have limitations, lacking due Ottoman/Turkish/Arab/Muslim sentiment and “flavor.” When, finally, the Ottoman world came to a bitter end [Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Arabs and others paying heavily in blood and tears], were the Turks and Ottomans irrational, stupid or ignorant? Why is the region perennially subjected to Western invasions from the British take-over of Egypt in 1882 (or still earlier the French in North Africa) to the Bush-Blair intervention in Iraq in 2002 and its shameful aftermath to this day? Can the Middle East taste freedom and independence so long as the Israel-Palestine problem remains unresolved?
The trauma and vacuum created by the Imperialist destruction of the Ottoman Empire haunts us still. Imperialism has spawned Neo-imperialism. Kipling’s Great Game is now a globalized market-place in which capital and technology move freely, but not labor. Sadly, we are still a long way away from a truly objective history of the Death and Heritage of the Sick Man of Europe. Aksakal’s superb, but short, account, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 is but an opening chapter in yet an unfinished History of the Modern Middle East. The standard-bearer in objective history-writing remains Toynbee’s The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, A Study in the Contact of Civilizations, first published in 1922. We shall return to this theme presently.
It is instructive to begin this review with some questions that remain unanswered.
Why was the Ottoman Empire, long in decline, suddenly condemned to death in St. Petersburgh, London and Paris at exactly the onset of the Automobile Age? Yes, old men and empires all, Roman and Ottoman and others, die mortals’ death. But why at this particular timing of the Sultanate, at the onset of the new oil wealth? Who got that wealth?
If religion and faith mattered, why did the Sultan’s call, and his Kaiser friend’s, for a Global Jihad go unheeded in the Muslim World? Why and how hundreds of thousands of Indian, African Muslims (alongside ANZACS and other colonials), as well as Arabs were recruited to fight the Ottoman armies in Mesopotamia and Gaza and elsewhere? What were these Ottomans fighting for?
Were the leaders of the Arab Revolt so naive and ignorant as to believe Lawrence and Gertrude Bell and ignore declarations by Balfour, Churchill, et. al. at the time when maps by Skyes & Picot were drawn? How come the Sharif of Mecca got cartloads of gold from the Sultan to raise an army against the British on the Suez, only to betray his master at the last moment?
Who now believes that George W. Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq and destabilized the region for human rights and democracy?
Rogan’s book, much to the author’s credit, explicitly links the British landings in Basra in the summer of 1915 to the newly discovered oil wealth in Kuwait and Bahrain, which were coveted by British oil interests in London (pp. 79-81). British India played a vital role in this campaign, not only with pre-war intelligence concerning the oil wealth and trade opportunity. Most significantly, British India provided the raw manpower, Hindus and Indian Muslims, to drive the Ottomans out. Rogan also well documents the diplomacy of betrayal of Sharif Huseyin (p. 402), his final (secret) meeting in Cairo in 1921 with Churchill, when Arab national cause was traded for British-dependent dynasties in Saudi Arabia, Transjordan and Iraq. Rogan’s account of battles is especially unique and fascinating as he stresses the ordinary soldier and minor actors caught in a wider conflict which only few could decipher.
This otherwise superb work suffers when the author suddenly stops being an objective historian and allows personal emotionalism to take over. He endorses the genocide narrative in the tragic case of the Ottoman Armenians in chap. 7 and footnote 17 (pp. 424/5). Missionaries write from “conviction”, objective historians from archival evidence evaluated with an open mind. Rogan chose to rely on “genocide” authors only, rejecting the converse hypothesis in historians such as Guenter Lewy, while also ignoring important facts of the conflict. McMeekin’s account on this tragedy (chap. 10) is far more balanced and factually more complete. Here the Ottoman Armenian fight amidst the Great War is explained as an “ethno-religious war” (p. 232). Extensive archival details of the short-lived Armenian victory at Van are given, and “genocide scholars” are chided with a telling quote from none other than Morgenthau (p. 235). McMeekin provides revealing details on an ill-fated Armenian-British collaboration, which Rogan ignored: This is the strategic role of Cicilian Ottoman Armenians in the never-implemented Alexandretta landings of the British forces from Egypt who chose instead to attack Gallipoli. In McMeekin’s words, in Alexandretta a “golden opportunity” was missed. The “Armenian-British” military operation against the Ottomans in Cilicia was first planned, Armenians of the region provoked to rebellion, but then abandoned. Boghos Nubar Pasha is quoted with his promise of “armed collaboration” to the British with “25,000 Armenian insurgents in Cicilia” and additionally a “formidable force of close to 50,000” from nearby provinces (pp.241-45).
Overall, The Ottoman Endgame by Sean McMeekin is a rich and detailed summation of a complex story of imperial destruction. He analyses, in 550 congested pages, all the important historical facts and related dynamics of decision-makers, the unceasing stories of intrigue and scheming that finally brought about the destruction of the House of Osman, almost a thousand-year-old. The Great War, 1914-18 started as a senseless European fight in which Ottomans had no business. The key figure was Wilhelm II, the ambitious Kaiser who felt cheated out of imperial plots, most recently in the “Scramble for Africa.” In desperation, he looked East. In Istanbul Sultan Abdul Hamid and the adventurist Enver, the pro-German War Minister were all too willing to lead the warmongers. The linchpin of the conspiracy was a dubious global Jihad. Announced by the Calif Sultan it aimed to beat the British and the French colonialists at their game. Alas, the poor Muslims of British India and French Africa enlisted (some pious Malays rioted in Singapore). By force or choice, these Muslim troops took the money and joined the imperial fight in the deserts of Iraq and Palestine against their co-coreligionists. The irony did not escape the attention of the keen Ottoman warrior, Mustafa Kemal. His plans for the salvation of what became the Turkish Republic were first crafted in the Middle East deserts with these bitter realities etched in his mind. Witnessing in Palestine the inevitability of Ottoman defeat and the futility of Pan-Islamism, he dared to withdraw as many Turkish soldiers as he could back into Anatolia to fight later in the War of National Liberation.
McMeekin gives us a more complete picture of Mustafa Kemal than Rogan. He tells a magnificent story of the rise of Modern Turkey and Ataturk’s victory, not only on the battlefield but equally in diplomacy. Kemal’s success in replacing the unequal Treaty of Sevres with the Peace of Lausanne, is summarized masterfully, in particular with a humane understanding of the massive population exchanges it legitimized. There is a whole chapter on Sevres and Lausanne is covered in the epilogue along with a brief resume of the Ottoman legacy in Arab-speaking countries of the Empire. One wishes McMeekin would go more substantively beyond the creation of Modern Turkey and explain the failure of the Arab world to produce its own Ataturk or, at least, embrace Kemalist secularism in nation-building. After all, the Turkish Republic was only part of the Ottoman heritage. For Arab lands, as McMeekin states, “…we should not romanticize the Ottoman past.” (p.492). But the Ottoman past is an integral precursor of the imperial Divide and Rule that followed. David Fromkin put an apt title to it: A Peace to End All Peace, The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989), still one of the best book on the subject. Imposed artificial boundaries set the scene for subsequent drama. A thoroughly disillusioned Lawrence was quick to condemn the new colonizing Game. He wrote in the Sunday Times in 1920 before the ink was dry on colonial documents: “Our government is worse than the old Turkish system.” (p. 494). Imperialists marched into the Middle East for their own gain, not to benefit the Arabs, and to this day Western will to invade, overtly or covertly continues.
Of course, the Arab leaders, no less than the imperialists, are at fault. Roger Hardy’s Poisoned Well, Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East, is a well-documented and highly readable account of nation-building following the end of the Ottomans. Appropriately, Hardy’s first case is the Turkish Republic, created out of the “ashes of the Ottoman empire” (p.8). Chap. 1 begins poignantly with Halide Edib Adivar, the early Turkish feminist and nationalist. Reading her one gets a glimpse of the popular patriotic sentiment at the outset of the Great War in the Sultan’s capital. In Halide, we see a strong awakening of Turkish nationalism, a passionate yearning for freedom and liberty in an independent Turkish homeland. Halide’s passion was shared by her compatriots across the entire Anatolia. It provided the essential foundation, the social grounding of the Kemalist Republic, mobilization of the masses as a first step in nation-building.
Imperial interests in collusion with self-serving Arab leaders prevented similar social grounding in the post-Ottoman Middle East. From chap. 2 to 9, devoted to case-studies of specific Arab countries, Hardy’s narrative is a pathetic story of failed states, betrayal of people by military or dynastic rulers. Imperialism created the Arab countries and Neo-imperialism dominates them still. Oil wealth has been a curse, the wells poisoned. Limited national attempts, from Mosaddeq to Saddam Hussein and Qadafi never had a chance because the CIA or Big Power interests always intervened.
Hardy dates the end of the European hegemony in the Middle East in 1967. That was the year of Nasser’s humiliating defeat in the Six Day War. It was also the last withdrawal of the British colonizers in Yemen, handing power to the first Marxist regime in the Arab world. The British and the French replaced the Ottomans in direct rule, but they lasted not quite half a century. Hardy’s conclusion is clear: “…the West is deeply implicated in the region’s failure.” (p.205).
Now, turning to the objectivity issue raised in the title of this Review Article. Hardy, McMeekin and Rogan do not deal with the vital and key question which must be asked in writing an objective history of the making of the modern Middle East: What did the Middle East and the world lose with the violent end of the Ottoman Empire? Yes, at the end the Osmanlı was a Sick Man. He died from fatigue and decay. From Malazgirt 1071 to Malazgirt 1915 (McMeekin, 240) the Turkish/Ottoman system lasted almost a full millennium. There is, of course, no room for any romantic nostalgia. Yet, Lawrence’s judgement in 1920, quoted in Hardy above, is not wrong. At a minimum, it deserves careful historical analysis.
The briefest answer is one word: Multiculturalism. Some expansion is needed because the region needs it still, as does the world.
Ottoman multiculturalism was an implicit policy of tolerance, allowing different religious and ethnic communities, millets, of Muslims, Jews, Christians and a myriad of ethnic groups in the Empire to co-exist with mutual respect in reasonable peace and security. The Sultan’s government, to varying degrees, provided peace and security in return for taxes and other obligations. Mutual respect came from custom and tradition. The system, though far from perfect, fitted very well the polyglot world of the Middle East.
When the Sick Man finally died, so did multiculturalism and tolerance in his empire. Intolerance took over. A millennium of good relations between Turks and Armenians [known in Ottoman Empire as the Sadik Millet, the loyal community] suddenly burst into an ethno-religious inferno provoked by imperialist powers, the Tsarist Russia in particular. Similarly, colonial Divide and Rule fragmented the Ottoman Arab millet and opened the floodgates of the Arab-Jewish conflict. Gladstone’s Bag and Baggage policy had earlier set ablaze the entire Ottoman Balkans in an unprecedented policy of ethnic cleansing, with its final genocidal finale delayed till the breakup of former Yugoslavia almost a century later.
In its last phase, when it was too late, the Ottoman intellectuals toyed with three alternative ideologies: Turkism, Pan-Islamism and Ottomanism. These were made-at-home substitutes for the French Revolution ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Ottomanism was a feeble inspiration, intended to make official the idea of multiculturalism around the Sultanate in its death-bed. It died a most violent death in the holocaust of the Balkan wars for which Gladstone in particular must bear heavy responsibility. Turkish refugees and survivors of this holocaust trekked into Asia Minor having bitterly learnt that nationalism pays.
WWI ended Pan-Islamism. Arabs and non-Turkish Muslims who fought the Ottoman armies, rallying behind the calls of Lawrence, Kitchener and Churchill, killed more than their fellow Muslim Turks. They killed a defunct ideology. Which is why Mustafa Kemal, fighting imperialism in the deserts of Libya and Palestine and Anatolia, had had enough of Islam, the Caliphate and the Sultanate. Kemalism replaced millet with ulus, ethnic nationalism.
Turkish nationalism emerged late in the Empire. Halide’s passion and Mustafa Kemal’s vision represented a winning formula. It was sheer genius that Kemal went beyond the French Revolutionary ideals and embraced Laicism (secularism) as the corner-stone of the Republic. For, only in a political space, freed from the shackles of religion, could national development based on basic freedoms, equality of all citizens, rule of law take root.
In the Arab Middle East, no such transformation occurred. Nation-building, a long-term process of economic, social, cultural and political development, requires social grounding, popular mobilization from grass-roots up to the top. Even the oil-rich Arab countries are still at the early stages of such development, dependent more on guest-workers than on their own human resources, especially women.
War and Western hegemony in the Middle East have now spawned terrorism and refugees. Islam is now hostage of fanatics. The global order is at risk. In the post-Brexit, Trump-ed World a Clash of Civilizations a la Samuel Huntington appears on the horizon. There is a danger of a post-modern, Post-Truth Crusade between the Muslim Middle East and a Christian West. Prophets of misinformation, on both sides of the religious fault lines, are busy preaching Hate and Bigotry. In this context, The Enemy at the Gate, by Andrew Wheatcroft, though written in 2008 before the sub-prime lending financial meltdown, the Syrian civil-war and the refugee crisis, is a timely warning.
The book recounts well the history of the disastrous Ottoman Siege in 1683, detailing with amazing maps, battle-plans and sketches of personalities of the key figures in this tragic event. Missing, however, is a solid analysis of the motives behind this Ottoman adventure. Habsburgs vrs. Ottomans, an inter-dynasty conflict is simply inadequate, and, in all fairness, Wheatcroft, is well aware of the complexity of why the Ottomans came to the Gate of Vienna. However, the reader is left in the dark on the intricacies of the Divan politics at the time, especially how these Ottoman politics of the day had become an integral part of the French, Hungarian, Polish and, indeed European conflicts of the day. The Sultan and his Grand Vezir were certainly not out to make Europe Muslim. In earlier centuries, had they Muslim-ized the Balkans? Fear dominates us still. Noteworthy is the author’s concluding chapter, his warning against bigotry with quotes from a former EU Commissioner and Pope Benedict XVI. These quotes are worth noting especially with reference to the Islamophobia and Xenophobia which have engulfed Europe since 2008.
The EU Commissioner rejected Turkey’s entry into EU with the argument that “ the liberation of Vienna in 1683 would have been in vain.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed more ominously: “The roots that have formed Europe, that have permitted the formation of this continent, are those of Christianity. Turkey has always represented another continent, in permanent contrast with Europe.” (p. 267).
The sad reality is that today at the end of 2016, several major European political leaders, from Austria, Hungary, Holland, France and elsewhere, subscribe to such bigotry, content to shut themselves behind walls to keep out the poor and hungry. Are we now descending into the Inferno of a Modern Crusade, this one between the Rich and the Rest? We shall see.
Meanwhile, a World of Tolerance, Fairness and Peaceful Co-existence remains a distant dream. Neo-Imperialism, often referred to as Globalization, rules the markets.
Ozay Mehmet, Ph.D (Toronto), Senior Fellow, Modern Turkish Studies, Distinguished Research Professor, International Affairs (Emeritus), Carleton University, Ottawa, Ont., CANADA