My first response to Arabs claiming Ottomans were imperialists and invaders would be that some Eurasians have similar opinions of Arabs.
For example, many Eurasian Muslims have asked what Arabs were doing in their lands centuries ago. So far, it can be inferred that both the internal and external issues of Muslim nations have kept them separated and blocked the possibility of brotherhood and fellowship.
This stance must change followed by both cultural and economic exchanges being urgently placed on agendas. Muslim nations should learn to listen to each other before falling into racial and sectarian traps set by Western imperialist powers.
In other words, Muslim nations should set aside their biases and empty storytelling and push for the reunification of the ummah.
Personally, given the fact that there are many similarities between Arabs and Turks due to a shared history, I know that there are millions of Arabs who see Ottomans, Turkey and the Turkish people in a good light.
One such person is professor Muhammad Harb, who is currently at Sabahattin Zaim University. It was nearly 10 years ago when I met him for the first time in Başakşehir, Istanbul, with my teammates, Ahmet Faruk Ertem and Talip Arslan. It is due to his kind, friendly and humble nature that I have been friends with him for a long time. Whenever I visit Turkey, he is one of the first people I meet up with.
He has had to constantly prove that he is an Arab, especially to those who claim he has Turkish blood. He has faced these questions on his ethnicity due to his love and respect for Ottomans and Turkish people. Harb has always said there are many reasons to love Ottomans and Turkish people.
He was last interviewed by Mısır Y. Selman in an article published in 1998 in Altınoluk Magazine. In 2012, even Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality organized a panel called "Loyalty to the Harb, a Turcophile." That same year, Mehmet Niyazi published a book about Muhammad Harb entitled "Gurbette Bir Osmanlı."
Harb is the founder of the Ottoman Research Institute in Cairo and has written over 40 books and articles. Some of his books are about Ottoman history and civilization, Sultan Abdul Hamid II and the Ottoman Intellectual and Management System. In 2018, he was awarded the Necip Fazil International Culture & Art Award.
I had a chance to have a fruitful discussion with Harb in Turkish about his life.
He explained that his main reasons for feeling connected to Ottomans and Turkish people are linked to his professor Huseyin Mucib El Misri, who taught Turkish and hung out with Turkish students studying in Egypt when Harb was a student.
Harb has been learning and teaching Ottoman history for 55 years. He has been one of the true voices of Ottoman history. He believes he has been successful in his goal, which is to declare the truth about Ottomans to both Muslim Arabs and non-Arabs.
He feels teaching Ottoman history is his mission in life. Therefore, he has always encouraged his students to study Ottoman history, which is a very demanding field. For example, he once had a student who was excited about studying Ottoman culture and history; however, he gave up and changed his department from history to literature after talking with another lecturer.
The difficult search for truth
However, he has faced difficulties and put in significant effort to tell the truth about Ottomans, and he has gained positive results in return. He has visited many countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt so that he could speak the truth about the Ottomans, which strengthened the cultural and social ties between Turks and Arabs. In the end, he has been successful in changing some negative feelings about Ottomans.
For instance, Harb said: "There are many Arab students here. When they come to us, they have differing opinions about Ottomans; however, we teach them the truth in the hope that they will change their opinions."
"While in Istanbul, it is very important to understand and to know the truth about the Ottoman Empire. I feel the whole world, not only Muslims, should know the magnitude and value of the Ottoman legacy. It is my purpose to ensure these regions know the truth about Ottoman history. This is the right time. But unfortunately, I can't find enough support on some issues. That's another point," Harb said.
Harb was very excited when he came to Turkey. There were many things he wanted to do. Currently, he is in the process of establishing a foundation or an association under the name Association and Center for Cultural and Civilization Studies of the Ottoman and Turkish World. Through this center, he wants to focus on Muslims in Eurasia. He wants his students to focus on these regions.
According to Harb, Turkish and Egyptian ideas come from a single source. Therefore, there is no conflict. While Turks speak Turkish and Egyptians speak Arabic, he still sees Turks and Arabs as the same in terms of culture and history.
For example, he said: "There was one time I was invited to Kyrgyzstan. My focus was on the customs and traditions of Islam in a Kyrgyz village. I talked about the customs and traditions of the Turks in the novels of Cengiz Aymatov. There are some similarities between the Saed regions of Egypt and Kyrgyzstan. For example, a guy would kidnap a girl when he liked her. This was once the norm in both Egypt and Kyrgyzstan; however, this is contrary to Islamic values. Currently, though, I believe these two nations are on the right path."
His Erenköy years
Harb's favorite place in Istanbul is Erenköy, where he lived as a student and stayed for six years. He said he liked the people there and came to understand that they are good Muslims. He learned many things from them about culture, social life and Islam.
Harb likes all Turkish food; however, his favorite dish is Turkish haricot bean soup, a favorite of Anatolians.
We had some talk about history and politics as well. "Turkey remained quite separate from the Islamic world before Erbakan," Harb said. "I still recall entering a shop in Cairo about 55-60 years ago while touring with Turkish friends. The owners of the shop welcomed us and asked if we were Turkish. The owners of the shop and workers thought that Turkish people were Christian. The Turkish people with me corrected them by saying they are Muslim. It should be remembered that 55-60 years ago the Arab world thought Turks were Christian; however, once the Erbakan movement came to power as a political party in Turkey, the Muslim world discovered that Turkey is a Muslim country and a leader of Muslims."
Harb even explained why Arabs thought Turkish people were Christian. According to him: "This was due to the political situation at the time given the anti-Islamic view of European and local journalists, politicians and preachers. They refused to tell the truth about Islam and acknowledge that Muslim nations are like any other state. Thus, this issue took a very long time to overcome."
"Nowadays, Muslims are establishing closer ties with each other again. During the Ottoman period, the majority of the Islamic world was under Ottoman protection, not like today's world. We once cooperated in terms of living, worshiping and rules. We had learned a lot from Ottomans and need to continue learning," he said.
To end the dispute
Harb said the current relations between the two countries are not good. However, he is hopeful about the remarks of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said commercial relations can be developed between the two nations. Therefore, Harb is on duty to ease the ongoing and unwanted dispute between Ankara and Cairo. Soon, he will be able to organize symposiums on Turkey-Egypt relations, inviting all related groups, lecturers and experts. This would help contribute to solving the issue between the two countries and expand their relationship.
Better relations between Turkey and Egypt are expected in 2020.
* Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the University of Malaya, Malaysia