Historical perspectives cannot be understood from the present-day vantage point without taking into consideration the context in which these ideas were formed. Thankfully, we have millions of resources at our fingertips through books, articles and the internet to help us get a broader understanding of the times when these perspectives developed.
It is inspiring to know that a Muslim-Turkish tribe of 40 tents would grow over the next 700 years into the force that would be known as the Ottomans – a force that would shape and influence vast regions and people.
History books call the Ottomans one of the longest-surviving states in world history but just as other nations and empires before, in the face of turmoil it too eventually collapsed.
Ottomans and Africa
The Ottoman-era spanned from 1299 to 1922, with Ottoman initially being a principality in Anatolia. The name Ottoman derived from the founder of the Ottomans, "Osman" in Turkish and "Othman" in English. Over the years, the Ottomans saw the reigns of 36 sultans, who expanded their rule over three continents, bringing together people of different religions, ethnicities and beliefs under one empire.
The Ottomans maintained a presence in Africa until the signing of the Treaty of Orchy with Italy in 1912, which also conceded Tripoli, the last Ottoman land, to Italy.
The Ottoman's first conquest in Africa was Egypt, with whose cultural, economic and political ties gradually improved over the Ottoman era.
Since Egypt was the largest Muslim country on the continent the Ottomans saw it as their responsibility to protect the Muslim community from imposing colonial powers. This move triggered disagreements, clashes and wars between the Ottomans and colonial powers of the time who also had an interest in the region, namely Portugal, the Netherlands, France and Britain.
The Ottomans took on the colonial powers to protect the identity and beliefs of the African people, who were already in dire straits from the colonial imposition. Eventually, certain African states even sent representatives to the Ottomans, requesting both aid and protection from the colonial powers.
The Ottomans brought the local sultans of African nations under their protection and sent aid when requested. In the 1510s Libyan Muslims, who had survived Spanish persecution when Tripoli fell to Spain, sent a delegation to the Ottomans. Eventually, the Ottomans rescued the Libyans by conquering Tripoli from Spain in 1551.
While the Ottoman State continued to expand, Andalus – also known as Muslim Spain – was struggling to exist. Eventually, the Andalusian state collapsed in 1492 with many Muslims (Moriscos) compelled to convert to Christianity while thousands were expelled from Spain.
The Ottomans were onhand amid the chaos to help Andalusian Muslims escape oppression, relocating thousands of them to Tunisia and Algeria. According to professor and historian Süleyman Kızıltoprak, nearly 500,000 Muslims were relocated from Spain to Africa.
The Ottoman state was a tough rival for colonial powers and eventually, once the Ottomans were in decline, the regions under their protection were quickly divided among its opponents. The regions invaded and nabbed by colonials from the Ottomans include Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Niger and Chad.
The Ottomans watched over these countries for centuries, batting off colonialists. Our ancestors lived side by side before the African nations were carved up by the Western powers. The Ottoman presence in Libya lasted almost 500 years, 459 years in Egypt and over 300 years in Tunisia, Algeria, Eritrea and Somalia.
Eventually, the Western powers' goal of invading and exploiting Africa was achieved with Algeria and Tunisia being colonized by France in 1830 and 1881, while Britain took Egypt in 1882, and Italy claimed Tripoli in 1911.
Since Africa's colonization by Western nations, the continent has experienced brutality, oppression, slavery, genocide, repression and forced assimilation in an attempt to erase their local customs and values.
The difference between the colonial powers and the Ottomans was that the latter's approach in Africa centered around Islamic and traditional values, which allowed for kinship to develop between them and the local communities.
While the Western nations abused their power in Africa, the Ottomans built mosques, schools, bridges, ports and libraries, hand in hand with the locals.
The Ottomans acted as a barrier, protecting the African people from colonial rule for centuries. History books document the mercilessness of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy and others in dealing with those who contest their rule.
The 20th century brought with it the end of imperialism, leaving former colonies left to deal with the aftermath of border disputes, ethnic clashes, as well as political and economic uncertainty in the 21st century.
There are many reasons why any nation with colonial inclinations would feel uneasy about the lingering Ottoman presence in Africa since the Ottomans fought alongside locals to contain colonial advances.
The Ottomans represented anti-colonialism, resistance, brotherhood, loyalty, unity and solidarity – all of which pose a threat to those wanting to dominate the region.
*Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the University of Malaya, Malaysia