The Nostalgic Man of Europe

Was the Muslim Ottoman Empire a European empire? What does the Ottoman Empire mean for both European and Middle Eastern nations? Jalal Parsa examines the BBC production ‘The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors’

There has been a tremendous nostalgic romanticisation of the Ottoman Empire in recent years, and the BBC is no exception. The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors a three-episode series broadcast in October 2013, is one example. The series was replete with references to the Ottomans’ past glories with presenter Rageh Omaar constantly reminding us that the Ottomans ruled for 600 years over three continents and that theirs was an empire of tremendous wealth ruling over one million square miles of land. The series is packed with elaborately captured views from the picturesque landscapes of the Bosphorus and beautiful architecture of Istanbul that sometimes resemble holiday adverts. The nostalgia for the empire fits into a contemporary fondness for all things Ottoman – the documentary itself mentions the recent Turkish TV series, The Magnificent Century, which has attracted 200 million viewers worldwide and made the cast and crew international celebrities. The series is a product of the BBC’s Religion and Ethics Department which has also recently produced ‘The Life of Muhammad(s)’. The Ottomans can also be seen as the continuation of another series presented by Rageh Omar in 2009, An Islamic History of Europe, focusing on Islam in Spain, Sicily and France. The connection between these documentaries is their emphasis on ‘European Islam’ and the thesis that Islam is not alien to Europe.

Without knowing Ottoman history, it is truly impossible to understand the current situation of the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the civil war
in Syria and the political turmoil in Egypt, all of which are in a sense by-product of the Ottoman demise.

They would also have us believe that Europeans and Muslims have lived alongside one another for a large part of history, not as two inherently different people, but as one. According to this view, Islam has been and still is an integral part of Europe and European identity. The Ottomans’ director, Gillian Bancroft, has other documentaries on his CV which have also been broadcast by the BBC: A History of Christianity, Bible Mysteries and When God Spoke English about the making of the King James Bible. Knowing his interest in the history of Christianity, one would expect Bancroft to look at the Ottomans from a Christian point of view. And this is not entirely untrue as the documentary renders a romantic picture of Byzantium, its glory and its demise. Episode Two for instance talks about the Turks’ atrocities against Christians, and particularly about the practice of enslaving Christian boys and girls; boys for the Sultan’s elite troops known as Janissary (yeniçeri in Turkish) and girls for the harem. We learn that because of religious restrictions, Turks were allowed to capture only non-Muslim (Christian) boys for the Sultan’s Janissary. One of these enslaved Christian boys was Mimar Sinan, the great architect and civil engineer of the Ottoman court, who built a number of iconic Ottoman mosques and palaces. During the film we also learn about the key moments of the Ottoman Empire: the fall of Constantinople to Muslims in 1453; the battle of Vienna in 1683 and the consequent Ottoman defeat that for many historians marks the beginning of its end, followed by the 1917 fall of Jerusalem and the fall of Istanbul a year later, all of which have their resonance in contemporary societies. The partitioning of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War is perhaps the most significant of them, and as the film stresses quite rightly, has shaped the current geopolitics of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, if not the entire world. Without knowing Ottoman history, it is truly impossible to understand the current situation of the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the civil war in Syria and the political turmoil in Egypt, all of which are in a sense by-product of the Ottoman demise. Another key date in Ottoman history was 1798 when a French expeditionary force commanded by the young general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and governed Egypt. The French occupation was short-lived and soon replaced by the British invading force, but it was the first time that the Ottomans and Muslims in general had to learn the harsh lesson of their decline and the rise of Europe. Sometimes it is hard to imagine the intensity and severity of the Ottoman fall. The Treaty of Sèvres (1920), later replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), partitioned the entire Ottoman territory into pieces and if it wasn’t for the Turkish independence movement and Ataturk’s leadership, there would be no Republic of Turkey as well. From a variety of different opinions and theories about Ottoman decline, the one advocated by this film, is in keeping with the established narrative of the West, which blames the lack of modern institutions, modern technology, freedom of individual and the rule of law; a theory that can be traced back to the words of mainstream historians such as Bernard Lewis and Niall Ferguson. On the issue of their decline, the Ottomans themselves had arrived at the same conclusion when they began their modernisation programme in 1839 known as Tanzimat. During this period, they published their first newspaper, established a parliament, abolished slavery, established a central bank, modern style schools, post office, modernised the army and so on. In imitating every detail of the west they even adopted a national anthem and a national flag. The quest for modernity however did not stop with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The new republic too followed the same path and with much more intensity.

[…] it would be extremely difficult to accept the Muslim Ottoman Empire as a ‘European’ empire, without facing an identity crisis.

To divorce modern Turkey from its Ottoman past, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk introduced the principals of Kemalism in six so called ‘arrows’: populism, republicanism, nationalism, secularism, statism and reformism. He replaced the Islamic calendar with the Gregorian calendar, abolished the caliphate, prohibited the fez (the traditional hat worn by males) and more importantly decreed that the Roman alphabet replace the Arabic script. The ultimate goal of Kemalist reforms since then has been to be considered part of Europe. This ninety-year old dream is yet to be achieved. For many years, Turkey’s weak economy was cited as the main reason for Europe not to accept it. Nonetheless in recent years with its economy stronger than many of its European neighbours, very few excuses remain. Turkey first applied for European Union membership in April 1987, after thirty five years of membership in NATO. During the following years, most East European countries as well as the Baltic republics succeeded in acceding to the EU. For Turkey who joined NATO based on the geopolitics of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union was not good news; not only did it not help its EU membership, it even jeopardised its standing in NATO as one of the alliance’s bulwarks against the Red Army. Having been denounced by non-aligned countries in the 1960s, disillusioned by its treatment by the EU, and rejected by Islamic and Arab countries in the 1990’s because of its close relations with the United States and Israel, the government of the then president Turgut Ozal turned its attention to the newly independent Caucasian and Central Asian republics with the hope of leading an alliance of the so-called ‘Turkic’ nations. In the 1990s, leaders of Turkey and other nations ‘stretching from the Adriatic to the border of China’ had the vision of building a community of ‘Turkic’ people. In 1991-92 Turkey started a series of activities to strengthen its ties with these nations. It included long-term low-interest loans, direct aid, satellite TV, tourism, and scholarships for Turkish speaking students. However, Turkey’s activities in the Turkic republics suffered a setback both because of limited resources and because of the rise of Russia reasserting its influence in the region after a period of decline. This failure might in part explain recent enthusiasm for the Ottoman Empire, especially when Turks themselves have historically tried hard to forget or distance themselves from that legacy. Failing to establish a league of Turkic nations, and finding itself rejected by Muslim nations, reviving Ottoman memories may be a defiant reassertion of Turkish identity. The film tries to portray the Ottomans as a ‘European’ dynasty, which may sound paradoxical. As Edward Said argues in his book Orientalism, the orientalist discourse not only shaped what he calls the ‘imaginary geography’ of the Orient (or the Middle East) but the European identity too is constructed through the establishment of difference, in opposition to this imaginary ‘Other’. For Europe as a culturally constructed identity with relatively undecided geographical eastern frontiers, it would be extremely difficult to accept the Muslim Ottoman Empire as a ‘European’ empire, without facing an identity crisis. It is not just the Middle Eastern nations that have to know Ottoman history to understand their current position. Europeans also need to keep the memory alive in order to understand their own identity.


BBC – The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Empires, Director: Gillian Bancroft, 2013


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