paleo Ideofact

Wednesday, April 23, 2003
A good post over at Ublog (I would link to it directly, but the blogger archives seem to be acting up again -- it's the April 22 post at 9:22 p.m.) on Bernard Lewis' The Crisis of Islam, which I read a while back and didn't write much about. To be honest, the book didn't make much of an impression on me (although perhaps it did subconsciously -- Lewis argues in the very beginning that the fall of the Ottoman Empire was a far more important event than it gets credit for in the West, one of the points I've been making in the Great War series). I read Paul Berman's excellent Terror and Liberalism almost immediately afterward, which was far more stimulating than Lewis' work (which seemed to rehash other things he's written).

In any case, Ubaid writes,
In the introduction [Lewis] talks about a videotape made public in october 2001, in which Osama bin Laden refers to some event that occured eighty years ago, and which was purportedly a cornerstone in islamic political history. The event referred to was the breaking up of the Ottoman empire and according to Lewis, though Western observers had some time figuring out the allusion, it was something plainly evident to most Muslims. I cannot speak for muslims of other nationalities, but I can speak as an Indian, and I'm very positive about this, Mr.Lewis would be hard pressed to find too many Indians of the Islamic faith who would know off hand of bin Laden's reference. It is uncertain if this can be explained as evidence of ignorance or of an identity independent from that of the larger Islamic body, a more likely reason for me is my belief that radical Islam is intrinsically a geographical and political, rather than an Islamic problem per se.
I think Lewis' point is a little broader -- bin Laden was invoking not just the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but what followed as well: the brief period of European colonialism in the Arab lands, the redrawing of the map of the Middle East, the Balfour Declaration, the secularization of Turkey, and the end of the faux Ottoman Caliphate.

His point is well-taken though, if only because it reminds us that just as Lewis errs in assuming a Muslim frame of reference that's equally valid in Saudi Arabia and India, in Morocco and Indonesia, so too does bin Laden. (An error by Lewis can be corrected in an updated edition; the errors of mass murderers are harder to rectify.) The notion of Muslim political unity and cultural uniformity -- which bin Laden seems to demand, and which bin Laden's mentor Sayyid Qutb fairly explicitly argues for -- is every bit as ahistorical as the mythology of Hitler or the fantasies of Lenin.

I have a fondness for maps; among my favorite books is the Oxford Atlas of World History. On page 68, we see that by the 10th century, the Islamic heartland was ruled by Fatimids, Qarmatians, Buyids and Samanids; from the very onset of the Abassid dynasty, in roughly 750, the western African provinces were for all intents and purposes independent Islamic states. A map from the 11th century shows the Almohad Caliphate in Western Africa and Spain, the Ayyubid Sultanate in Egpyt and the Hijaz, the Seljuks of Rum in part of Asia Minor, the Zenbids and Abassid Caliphate in part of Mesopotamia, the Ildegizids in much of the rest, the Khwarazmshahs in Persia, the Salghurids on the eastern coast of the Persian Gulf, and the Ghurids in Afghanistan and northern India. A map from 1308 shows Marinids in Western Africa, the Kingdom of Grenada in Spain, Zijanids and Hafsids in North Africa, the Mamluk Empire in Egypt and the Hijaz, Rasullids on the southern coast of the Arabian Penninsula, Turkish Beyliks in Asia Minor, the Ilkhanate (a Mongol state) in Mesopotamia and Persia, and the Sultanate of Delhi in India. And of course, none of these maps are entirely accurate; for example, nowhere do the independent statelets formed by radical adherents of the Isma'ilis -- better known as Assassins -- appear. And I have no idea how a map that tried to take into account the various sects of Islam would be constructed -- perhaps a work of pointillism.

In the 1920s, Egyptian intellectuals -- who lived in a land severed from the Ottoman domains before 1914 -- argued that they were in essence Europeans, that a line united the Pharoahs to Alexander to Ptolemy to Caesar, and resisted Arab nationalist calls. It is perhaps not surprising then that Indian Musllims feel no attachment to the Ottomans, whose realm never extended east of their Persian rivals.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003
One can hardly read a newspaper, magazine or weblog these days without running across either predictions for the future of Iraq (or Syria, the Middle East, and so on), or gloating (and in rarer cases mea culpas) over incorrect predictions on the war in Iraq. In the New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof manages to combine all three genres, admitting to his own errors, arguing that others were more wrong than he, and going on to make somewhat more cautious, more qualified predictions for the future.

I found it interesting that in describing his inaccurate prophecies, Kristoff wrote,
Despite my Cassandra columns, Iraq never carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. or abroad, it didn't use chemical or biological weapons, and it didn't launch missiles against Israel in hopes of triggering a broader war. Turkey has not invaded northern Iraq to attack the Kurds.
It's an odd formulation. The Cassandra of Greek legend did prophesize disaster -- the fall of Troy, the murder of Agamemnon, the coming of tyranny to Argos -- but her predictions were accurate. A Cassandra column, in other words, would be one that accurately predicted the future, but was ignored.

Jerzy Stempowski, in a short piece collected in the fine volume Four Decades of Polish Essays, notes that in Homer's Illiad, Cassandra is a minor figure. In the democratic milieu of Aeschylus' Athens, however, she becomes a central figure: parrying with a chorus of citizens who not only discount her dire predictions (that the king will be killed), but who also doubt the facts she relates -- events they themselves have witnessed. To me, this seems about right -- we not only argue over what is to come, but over what has just happened; witness for example the different takes on the Baghdad museum looting from Unmedia and Cronaca. Only in a democracy, the essayist notes, is a Cassandra a truly tragic figure.

Stempowski wrote about Cassandra in the context of the gathering storm of the 1930s; after noting that
Nobody seeks accurate forecasts from journalists -- the manufacturers of ephemerals that turn to scrap paper with each next issue of a newspaper. The press lost the ambition to inform long ago, contenting itself with providing the reader with some entertainment to glaze the inevitable chaff of official reports.
(a critique, I should add, that has been made over and over of the press, and that we hear even today, so much so that if one took it all literally, we would have to conclude we know less today about world events than the most isolated medieval villagers of a millennium ago) ... Stempowski quotes a British journalist of his acquaintance, Robert Dell, who said,
There will be no peace in Europe until fire falls from the sky and burns down the place called Germany.
Stempowski observed
That evening Dell must have been "inspired," as they say about prophets, because even "fire from the sky," which at the time seemed only a biblical metaphor, turned out to be real.
Dell was kicked out of both Germany and France for his reporting, according to Stempowski, and was left to cover the League of Nations in Geneva, where, after all, nothing much happened. He was long dead when Stempowski wrote his essay -- "The talent to predict the future certainly does not favor longevity," he noted -- something else that lovely Cassandra taught us.

Monday, April 21, 2003
Sorry, another break from the Great War, although it is worth noting that the phenomenon I noted immediately below with regards to the Ottoman Empire's demise was not limited to Europe. From Adeed Dawisha's Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century comes this tidbit about the textbooks approved of by Sati' al-Husri, the Yemen-born, Ottoman educated father of Arab nationalism (who nevertheless spoke Arabic with a slight Turkish accent all his life), for use in Iraqi schools:
One such textbook written in 1931 for the preparatory and secondary schools was titled, Tarikh al-Umma al-'Arabiya (The History of the Arab Nation). As the title suggests, the "Arab nation" is taken for granted, and there is no effort to question, analyze, or even defend the concept. And in the spirit of Husri's ordinance, the bulk of the book is a panegyric of the Arabs' military and scientific achievements, and their contribution to the progress of the world under the Ummayad and Abbasid dynasties. The five centuries of Ottoman domination are deemed worth of no more than eleven pages.
Dawisha's book, which is dense, is also enlightening -- admittedly, I'm only half-way through it, but I've learned a great deal already.

Elsewhere, there's an interesting perspective on the looting of the Baghdad museum from Stephen Schwartz that's worth pondering. Over at the excellent Cronaca (the National Geographic -- and much more -- of the blogosphere), David links a story on the sanitizing of European history. No word on how the Ottomans are treated...

Sunday, April 20, 2003
The Great War, continued
Prior posts: first, second, third, fourth, fifth.

The passing of the Ottoman Empire may not have been much lamented in the West -- as a student in the early to mid-1980s, I recall the fact of its end being described as inevitable. I don't think I'm being too flippant if I compare the approach taken to its demise to the news that a distant relation of a terribly advanced age whom one never met and who had long ceased being capable of conscious thought had finally, years after being disconnected from the respirator, passed away. The heir, a great grandson named Attaturk -- a sensible fellow -- had made a good start with the deceased's diminished estate, and we all wish him the best. I think even then l was skeptical of this neat ending to the Ottoman Empire; I found it hard to believe that anything could be so simple.

I think I noted in the first post of this series that I am not entirely sure I am in agreement with my own argument here -- which is that the current conflict is not a distinct, Fourth World War (counting the Cold War as the third), but rather that we are still fighting the Great War. One of the strongest arguments against this interpretation, it seems to me, were British war aims vis-a-vis the Ottoman Empire. No doubt hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pages are awash in black foam describing those war aims, but once again I'll rely on the wonderfully succinct account offered by Michael Howard:
The Ottoman Empire ('Turkey' for short) was a major actor on the European scene whose role we have not yet considered. [this, on page 51 of a 143 pages of text. --ed.]...

Once they [the British] had established themselves in Egypt in the 1880s, they had abandoned the thankless task of propping up the Turks as a barrier to Russian expansion...

The decrepit Ottoman Empire was more useful to them [the British colonial office] as a victim than as a dependent ally. The Colonial Office and the India Office had long seen Turkey's possessions as a legitimate prey for the British Empire. The Royal Navy, having recently begun to convert from coal to oil-burning ships, had its eyes on the oil refineries at Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf. With Turkey as an enemy, Britain could now convert her anomalous occuptiaon of Egypt into a full protectorate. London even felt self-confident enough to promise Constantinople, seen for 100 years as a bastion of British security, to their new allies the Russians. ...
The British had long been concerned about the Russians, or anyone else, threatening their possessions in India and beyond (hence the Crimean War). Moving to the modern day, of course, the British have comparitively little interest in protecting India, which is no longer a colony -- and the collapse of colonialism is one of the main reasons I doubt this argument. But returning to the world of 1914, which may be the world of today, I think it worth noting the contrast between British war aims (the Ottoman Empire as fertile new ground for colonialism) and British rhetoric. I'd quoted this before, but it's worth recalling. In an exchange of letters between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, and Husain Ibn Ali, the Sherif of Mecca, McMahon wrote:
I am convinced that this declaration will assure you beyond all possible doubt of the sympathy of Great Britain towards the aspirations of her friends the Arabs and will result in a firm and lasting alliance, the immediate results of which will be the expulsion of the Turks from the Arab countries and the freeing of the Arab peoples from the Turkish yoke, which for so many years has pressed heavily upon them.
As far as it goes, I suppose this was accurate -- the British intended to lift the Turkish "yoke." I'm not so stupid (well, maybe I am, but let's leave that aside for the time being) to believe that the British colonial endeavors were entirely negative, but I'm not persuaded that there was a Turkish yoke either. Two quotes from a book I'm reading make the case for that as well as anything else I've read -- the book is Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair by Adeed Dawisha. I think they demonstrate that the Ottoman Empire wasn't quite so decrepit -- at least in terms of the loyalty of the Arab Muslims who were part of that empire -- as we've been led to believe:
Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, director of intelligence in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, relates an incident that speaks volumes about prevailing attitudes in Palestine at the time. In December 1917, a full eighteen months after the sharif's [that's Husain Ibn Ali, the Sherif of Mecca] declaration of his revolt [against the Ottoman Turks], British forces entered the Palestinian town of Ramleh, a few miles south of Jaffa.
A large batch of Turkish prisoners were being marched through the village but they were not preceded by their British guard. The Arabs, thinking that it was the return of the Turkish army, turned out in force, yelling with delight and waving Turkish flags; it was not till the end of the column appeared and they saw the British soldiers with fixed bayonets that they realized their mistake, and great was their confusion. Their faces fell with a bump and they slunk disconsolate to their hovels.
The "declaration of [the sharif's] revolt" was all that Lawrence of Arabia business -- throwing off the Turkish yoke in favor of Arab nationalism, rebelling against the Sultan, supporting the British in their march through the soft underbelly of the Ottoman Empire, and so on and so forth. I admit, what I've quoted amounts to no more than anecdotal evidence, but Dawisha makes a fairly compelling argument that by and large the Arab masses were far more loyal to the Ottomans than they were eager nationalists striving to throw off that Turkish yoke. Or as the sharif's son, who set up the first Arab government in Syria, put it,
Faysal, the sharif's son, conceded that Muslims generally blamed his family "for destroying the Islamic (Ottoman) empire."
In the next post in this series, I'll try to come to grips with what was left from the rubble of that empire.