There are some topics on which being right is not enough to solve the matter. The legacy of the Ottoman Empire is one of those topics. How we should look at the Ottoman Empire is a long debated issue. Most recently, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on the centennial of Lebanon’s independence that they gained their independence with French support after he accused Ottoman Empire of conducting state terrorism. Similar accusations can be found in Western literature and school books of some Arab countries.
Indeed many actions of an empire that ruled a wide geography for 600 years can be criticized. However, accusations which can easily be thrown against imperialist countries like “occupation, and oppression against different identities and cultures” are obviously a slander against the Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, some circles in Turkey are criticizing the Ottoman Empire for not implementing assimilation policies against different groups within the empire. According to these critics, if Ottoman Empire had conducted such policies, today there would be more Turks and Muslims in the geographies once under Ottoman rule. If we consider the fact the lands once ruled by the British and the French look very similar to those countries today, it doesn’t seem like a baseless claim. However, we should note that this is what creates the distinction between the Ottoman Empire and those imperialist countries.
The lands once ruled by the Ottoman Empire are now in a lake of blood. The ottomans ruled over the Balkans, the Middle East, and parts of Africa for hundreds of years in peace in such pluralism, and respect for different religions, and cultures still unmatched today. A tangible proof is that these lands continued living their own languages, religions and cultures after the exit of the Ottomans the way they did before or during the Ottomans. In literature, Ottoman tolerance is called “Pax Ottomana” which means Ottoman Peace. The value of pluralism offered by the Ottomans is best understood when you compare it to destruction of Native Americans in the American continents after their discovery and a very short 150 years-long presence of the British in the Sub-Indian continent, where the official language was changed into English.
If Ottoman Empire conducted oppressive policies like western imperialist states as some circles claim the name of Lebanese President would likely not be “Michel Aoun” and it would be difficult for him to keep his Christian identity. Famous Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, who is also a Christian like the President, says these words, which sound like a response to the Lebanese President:
“No religion can be isolated from intolerance, but if we are to make a comparison between these two rival religions, Islam doesn’t look that bad. If my ancestors were Muslims in a country conquered by the Christians instead of being Christians in a land conquered by Muslims, I don’t think they would be able to continue their presence while protecting their beliefs for 14 centuries. Really, what happened to the Muslims in Spain? Or the Muslims in Sicily? They disappeared, they were massacred to the last one of them or forced into exile or forced into Christianity.” Israeli history professor and popular author of recent times, Yuval Noah Hariri said in an interview with Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper:
“There was no bit of tolerance in Middle Ages Europe… In the year 1600, everyone in Paris was Catholic. When a protestant entered the city, they would be killed. In London, everyone was Protestant. When a Catholic entered the city, they would be killed. In those years, Jews were driven out of Europe… No one would want the Muslims around… However, in the same period, in Istanbul Muslims, Catholics, Armenians, Orthodox, Greeks and Bulgarians used to live happily in peace side by side. “
Instrumentalization of History or moving on with the disintegration of Ottoman geography…
There are many possible answers to give against accusations like mentioned above. However, this is not the real issue. The problem is the “divide and rule” strategy of imperialism. The problem is whether, Islam, which served as a valuable asset in establishment of peace and preventing separation will be taken as reference or not. After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, new countries emerged in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa, and they still want to disintegrate these countries.
With newly created micro level ethnic, religious, cultural and national identities, the geography is being torn apart even more. This is the meaning of operations to create new conflicts and to draw new borders. In this framework, they want to instrumentalize history for their imperialist goals. We should life history to historians and stop instrumentalizing it, but there’s no response to such calls. Imperialists consider everything as a tool to achieve their desires, why would they stop doing it to history?
So what should be done?
The legacy of the Ottomans is nothing of the past and not an assessment of the past. It’s a new light on today and tomorrow. We cannot say that we are giving a successful test because of the westernization virus caught by some Ottoman and Republican intellectuals and politicians. Intellectuals and politicians who broke up with their own societies, traditions and values have served as figures for ideas that were inspired from the West and eventually disintegrated the Ottomans. Today, the perspective of intellectuals who experienced westernization process in former Ottoman lands is no different against the Ottomans and their own societies.
However, the situation today in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa is not that different from the past. Countries in these regions still face the threat of separation. This is the eventual destination these countries can reach under the rule of intellectuals and politicians who broke apart with their own societies, cultures, histories and traditions. This is why we should be aware of imperialist attempts and make peace with our own history, our present, our society and our region.
Academicians, wise men, intellectuals, opinion leaders, politicians, and sensible people from all regions should stand united against instrumentalization of history and further disintegration of the region. We should not disregard political goals and look from a limited perspective. We should open doors to not separatist but inclusive ideas. Or else countries and peoples of the region will become more disintegrated and fall against each other, become more passive and be easier game for imperialists.
This article was written by Prof. Dr. Kudret Bülbül, Dean of the Faculty of Political Sciences at Ankara Yildrim Beyazit University