Turkey or the neo-Ottomans?

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Turkey is a reminder that both countries were once close US allies, but are now relatively estranged, with the governments not exactly anti-US, but committed more to their own interests rather than to the USA’s.

Pakistan and Turkey go way back, to a time earlier than World War I, which was also a time predating the creation of Pakistan. The seminal moment can be said to have come with the medical mission to the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars, in which the Muslims of India, represented by Dr M.A. Ansari and his colleagues, went to the assistance of the Ottoman Caliphate, which faced a war in which it faced Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro. They could not bear arms, so went under the aegis of the Red Crescent, and aided wounded Turkish soldiers.

The Balkan Wars began a decade of war which saw not only the diminution of Turkey-in-Europe, but also the fall of the Ottoman dynasty and the abolition of the Caliphate, and the birth of the Turkish Republic. This entire process lasted from 1912 to 1922, and started with the Italian invasion of Libya, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey came into existence after the Ottomans were stripped of their Arab lands, and then deposed entirely as Caliphs. The Ottomans had become Caliphs not because they were religious, but because they were successful monarchs. Apart from their unification of the Anatolian peninsula from several warring sultanates, had come their taking of Byzantium in 1453, thus achieving a success for Muslim arms that had eluded it for eight centuries. Not only did this provide the Ottomans a splendid new capital, now Istanbul, but it provided the dynasty a claim.

That claim was fulfilled when the Emperor Saleem I conquered Egypt and other Mameluk territories. The Mameluks had controlled the Abbasid caliphs in Cairo, who were the descendants of the survivor of the dynasty which had been destroyed in the 1258 fall of Baghdad to the Mongols. Incidentally, these Caliphs at Cairo were the ones who sent khillats to sultans of Delhi before the Mughals.

The Mughals took control of India, the Safavis under Shah Ismail of Iran, and the Osmanlis of Turkey, the Arab lands and North Africa, to inaugurate a period of Turkish rule. However, two Eastern dynasties did not give allegiance to the Osmanli Caliph. The Safavis were Isna Ashari Shias, the Mughals may have set up a counterclaim. It did not amount to a rival claim of Caliphate, but it placed the Mughal Emperor as the Caliph for the Muslims of India. The problem arose when the Mughal dynasty fell. In whose name was the Friday prayer, that symbol of the ruler implementing Islam, to be read?

The ulema plumped for the only claimant to the Caliphate then extant, Abdul Majid I. This was not entirely displeasing to the Raj, for the UK had been allied with the Ottomans against Russia in the Crimean War. It also made the UK even more interested in the Ottoman Empire than before, not just because of the Eastern Question, but because so many Muslim citizens of its Indian Empire were concerned about it.

Thus when the Caliphate was abolished in 1922, the UK was not so much concerned for the religious implications, as for the law and order problem. The British concern was not unjustified, for the Khilafat movement, started by Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, captured the imagination of the Muslims of India. Like the Medical Mission, this movement too had originated in Aligarh, and it was not for the restoration of the Ottomans, as against the abolition of the Caliphate. It led to the Pakistan Movement, as many Muslims who had stayed away from politics, entered it, and while some went into the Congress, many gravitated to the Muslim League.

The Movement petered out because of two developments. The first was the taking over of the Movement by Gandhi, who announced support for it by Hindu India after an agreement by the Ali Brothers to end cow slaughter. (Gaoraksha is thus not an exclusively BJP trope.) The conversion of the relatively precise Khilafat Movement into the imprecise Indian independence movement was perhaps inevitable in that the abolition of the Caliphate took place anyhow.

This abolition was greeted in India by, among others Allama Iqbal, as a decision by the Turkish people that deserved respect. It is this respect that paved the way for cordial relations between the two countries. Another important part was played by the USA, which regarded both countries as pivots in the alliance system with which it ringed the USSR in the Cold War. Turkey was the eastern-most member of NATO, but the western-most member of CENTO. Pakistan was the eastern-most member of CENTO, and the western-most member of SEATO.

Turkey and Pakistan were both dominated by their militaries. It is not without significance that the founder of the Turkish Republic, was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who made his name first as an officer in the Ottoman Army, in which he received the title of pasha. It was in 1960, 1971 and 1980 that Turkey had its coups, which parallel those of Pakistan in 1958, 1971 and 1977 respectively. Turkey has had to contend with conservative leaders who were obliged to dilute the radical secularising methods of Mustafa Kemal. Whereas Suleyman Demirel was the key figure in the last half of the 20th century, it is now Recep Tayip Erdogan, who has inherited both Demirel’s support base, as well as the overtly Islamist voter who supported Necmettin Erbakan.

The contacts between these two major Islamic powers come at a time when the Islamic world is in ferment, with some arguing that it is caused by the USA’s War on Terror. Both have been affected by the war directly, and while Turkey has been affected by the Syrian crisis too, Pakistan has by the US occupation of Afghanistan. Erdogan is called a neo-Ottoman by his detractors. Pakistan has nothing in its past making it subservient to any neo-Ottomanism. Both countries have been pulled away from their strong relationships with the USA by US behaviour. Both still wish to be part of regional groupings from which they are rejected: Turkey wants to join the EU, but is excluded by members fearing a non-Christian member; Pakistan wants SAARC to develop, but India will not allow this so long as it does not completely dominate.

While Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism, if taken to its logical conclusion, would make the re-establishment of a Turkish caliphate the next logical step, Pakistan might be more inclined to take that path. The Pakistani establishment’s aspiration to resist Indian hegemony (and to solve the Kashmir issue equitably) cannot be met unless it obtains outside support. The USA has proved a fickle partner, and is now backing India. The establishment is now turning to China. Turkey has got a similar problem with Greece, and it (along with the Cyprus issue) is being used against Turkey. However, it makes more sense for the establishment to turn to the Muslim world. That might mean that the establishment might find itself arrayed against the USA and China, but the people are already against the USA and are no longer sure that Chinese hegemony is something to look forward to.


The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.


The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of The Nation.

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