Last month, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan shared a twitter post slandering Fahreddin Pasha and very shortly was blasted in the media in Turkey and the Middle East. This is an approach often used in times of conflict by modern nation-states in the Middle East to cast a shadow on the Ottoman Empire, which managed to accommodate Turks and Arabs for more than 400 years. The Ottoman Empire was known for its religious pluralism and multiculturalism. Historical accusations and slander have often been used as arguments to establish a legitimate source of authority during the rise of modern nation-states. They created stories and myths to justify their actions.
Turkish rule has been blamed for the backwardness of the Arab world since the Arab nationalist and secular military movements gained power via military coups in the 1950s. Arab history textbooks were designed to sabotage relations between Turks and the Arab world. A good example would be the Mamluk Sultanate (1250 to 1517), which was considered to be the period of decline and the Ottoman Empire, whose 400-year rule is not even mentioned in the books. Instead, they mention al-Nahda (cultural renaissance) in the modern Arabic literature, which started to evolve in the 19th century.
The Ottoman Empire has been blamed for being the perpetrator of invasion, oppression and the cause backwardness and was mentioned in only a few passages and pages in the history books. The 400 years of Ottoman rule was considered to have incapable leadership, while the positive aspects of this empire were left out deliberately. The painful events of World War I had a big impact in evolving this negative vision of history. The texts suggest that the empire was going through a process of Turkification when in actuality Arabs and the Arab world had a privileged position as can be seen in the historical documents.
The Arabic language has always been respected since it is the language of the Quran. Another shared interest is the fact that cities like Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, where there were majority Arab the populations, have been considered sacred and a large portion of the Ottoman budget was sent to these cities as "surra." Ottomans governed Arab lands with a decentralized administration. The sayyids and sharifs were also shown great respect during the Ottoman period.
The Ottoman Empire did not fit the definition of a colonial power. Oil had not been discovered yet. The only resources were camels and sand. The only references of the credential books of that era consist of English and French books written by prejudiced orientalists in the 19th and 20th century. There were no references to Ottoman books or documents at all.
Before and after the empire
The psychological trauma of the loss of 10 million square kilometers of territory caused a similar Arab point of view with the modern Republic of Turkey. The new Turkish nation-state, converted from the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman Empire, created the Sun Language theory and the Turkish history thesis. The leaders took a critical position against the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Sultans like Mehmed the Conqueror, Selim the Grim and Suleiman the Magnificent were praised, but at the same time the empire and Islam were seen as outdated and backward. They strongly believed the new thesis that Arabs had betrayed them during World War I by forming alliances with the British. However, Islam had its highest scientific contribution to the world during the ninth and 10th centuries. The Ottoman Empire grew to be one of the most powerful empires during from the 16th to the 18th century. The Great Arab Revolt, as the Arabs called it, started out in a small, local area in Hijaz. Far more Arabs – Shiites and Sunnis – fought against the Allies on behalf of the Ottomans during the Battles of Gallipoli, Kut al-Amara and in Yemen. Most Arabs supported the caliphate by taking part in the holy Jihad.
Just like Arabs
The ideologies of the modern Republic were based on anti-Ottoman sentiments to build their national identity, just like the Arabs had done by focusing solely on the negative aspects of 1,200 years of Turkish-shared history to create their own nation-states.
Prime Minister Turgut Özal's government in the 1980s decided to reshape foreign policy by improving relations between Turkey and the Arab world. He held the Ottoman past in high regard and opened the Ottoman archives to scholars. The modernization and extension of communication networks throughout the country created a resurrection of the history books for both sides. Arab researchers started to use Ottoman archives and resources. They soon started to learn Turkish and the Ottoman language at Turkish universities and wrote their post-graduate theses. On the other hand, the Turks started and continued to learn Arabic and did research on the Arab regions in the Ottoman Empire using the Ottoman archives.
The new diplomatic and economic policies of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) caused a real Arab spring at the beginning of 2000. Despite the fact that some Arab leaders were uncomfortable with the effects of Turkish soft power in the Arab street, the ties between Turkey and Arabs started to continue developing. Thousands of Turkish students started to study in Arab countries just like Arab students started their education in Turkey. This made it possible for them to learn each other's language and culture and this process made its way into the history books; but at the end of 2010, the Arab Spring appeared with a wave of protests starting in Tunisia followed by other Arab countries. These events led to violence and instability in the region.
The Twitter post from Emirati Foreign Minister Nahyan concerning Fahreddin Pasha and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should be perceived as an attempt to reinforce his own position and the rise of nation-states just like history has shown us. However, Erdoğan's successful leadership for the Jerusalem decisions at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul and the U.N. General Assembly can be understood as an indicator that these old strategies will not achieve their goals anymore on the Arab street.
* Professor, dean of Faculty of Political Science at Marmara University