Turco-Arab Relations: A General Outlook of The Course of History [Archives:2001/27/Focus]

July 2 2001

By Sharif Akram
Turks and Arabs, once the major and determining players of the History of Islam, shared and enriched their respective cultures with the glorious civilization of each other, and paved the way for the modernization of other civilizations. But where are they standing today?
According to Bernard Lewis, the start of the modern History of Middle East begins at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries when a French expeditionary force commanded by General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and conquered Egypt and stayed there until it was forced to leave by a British force commanded by Nelson. This event heralded two important messages for the Middle East for the coming years: that even a small western force could conquer, occupy and rule one of the heartlands of the Ottoman Empire without serious difficulty and that, not the regional power, but only another western power could get rid of the problem. This showed the way to the end of the Islamic Empires that ruled the Middle East since the Prophet…
So for the following decades, the fate of Middle East in political, economic and cultural fields was shaped by non-Middle Eastern States. After the destruction of the Ottoman Empire neither the Turks nor the Arabs could form another powerful country in the Middle East that could determine its own fate.
Towards the end and after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, the West used the Turks and the Arabs against each other, creating a contrived animosity among them. Once the animosity was created, it was exploited by the Western Powers in many ways to achieve their political aims. Turkey trying to be a member of the Western World and under the influence of ideologies of NATO, began to see her fellow and brother Arab countries as inferior and became a victim of Western machination, losing her neutrality in international politics. It even supported France during the Algerian War OF Independence, forgetting her own war of independence for sovereignty, forgetting that she was the first Islamic country to be independent which has been looked at as a role model for the other suppressed nations of the World.
Republican Turkey cannot be alien to its Ottoman Civilization. Actually her past will finally shape Turkeys role for the future. History, whether political, social, economic or cultural is not only a part of past, but it is an identity, it is also means to shape future and provide a background for the identity of the people.
Turkey is a country with a rich and vast Islamic background, which constitutes one of the major components of its cultural identity.
On the other hand, after the First World War a completely new orientation dominated the Arabs who were now divided and came under the control of various colonial states. During this period the Arab elite attempted to find and assert its national identity in regionalism. Colonial regimes sponsored this move and local cadres were created to implement this policy. As Abou al-Haj observes: “In condemning the Ottoman regime and all things Turkish, the scholarship helped this group gloss over its role as part of the Ottoman elite…”
Arab nationalism and concentration, which was an effort to find the roots of national identity in a nation-state. The focus was on the unity of Arab history. None of the Arab historians realized that ” the inspiration for the idea of the common identity of the Arab peoples and their common heritage is rooted in the preceding four centuries of Ottoman rule. The Ottoman period is strangely treated as a period of alien domination.
It is general knowledge that the Arab speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire enjoyed a de facto autonomy in their internal administration and that the Arab provinces paid less tax than Anatolian and the Balkan provinces, and that some areas, such as Hejaz, lived for centuries on substinance provided by the Ottoman government.
It is strange that a great amount of research work on the Arab provinces under the Ottoman rule derives its data from Russian, Austrian, German, French and British Archives while a small effort is done to get data from the Turkish Archives.
It is well known now that much of the information about Turks in the Syrian textbooks came directly from the textbooks developed during the French mandate by French commissioners of Education. The Egyptian textbooks are to a great extent the legacy of British colonial administration. Unfortunately, even today many Syrians and Egyptians accept as a factual truth the stereotypes about Turks they inherited from the French and the English and perpetuate them as their own national culture.
An examination of the Egyptian high school text books reveals what the kind of image given to Egyptian youth on the Ottoman Empire and Turkish-Arab relations. One can find that the main source of these books was the history written by European authors. So an European is easily discernible repeated in them. The emphasis is on the populist-nationalist interpretation, with at times a strong denunciation of, and a negative judgement on, the impact of the Ottoman Turkish role. The Ottoman regime is presented a colonial, imperial exploitation of Egypt, and that the Turkish elite ruled the country as a dominant class alienated from the Egyptian people who isolated the country from the West, resulting in its backwardness.
A more careful examination of the history will bring to the fore another role of the Ottoman rule, that is protecting Egypt against the Portuguese menace, upholding the Sunni doctrine, as whole under the Ottoman protection. Egypt, whoever, was able to preserve its religious and cultural identity and was able to be resurrected in the 20th century as an Arab nation-state. Just imagine if there had been no strong Ottoman Empire protecting the world of Islam, the fate than that of the countries of the Middle East would have been no
different of the countries of East Asia (India, Indo-China), Africa and Latin America. They would be just another territory of the Christian colonialist countries.
The split in attitudes to history is not only divided between the Turks and the Arabs, but also among the Arabs themselves. During the uprising of the Wahabis, the expedition of Mohammed Ali against the Wahabis is praised by the majority of the Egyptian scholars and scientists, while a Saudi Scholar, S. Ghannam, sees the same expedition a crusading invasion. 2
To write the history of a given Arab province under the Ottoman rule without consulting Turkish documents and sources is a great mistake. For such writings will concentrate on the Ottoman administration in the absence of the Ottoman viewpoint.
It is evident that the Turks and Arabs must take a close look at the source of their mutual images. One can say fairly safely that the Turkish and Arab elementary schools, and especially textbooks used there, are the key instruments that shape the images of the future generations.
In order to make a constructive approach to the four centuries of common historical existence, we should focus more on economic, social and cultural ties. Instead of repeating superficial generalizations or purposely distorting historical facts and situations for the sake of national fallacies, we should dig into the immense Ottoman archives to establish the realities which made possible this long coexistence and cooperation. One should not forget that the easiest way to run from the responsibilities and duties of history and today’s world is to blame the others.
It is absolutely necessary to take a close look at the textbooks used in Turkish and Arab schools and correct the false notions. This can contribute greatly to removing one of the major psychological roadblocks to better Arab-Turkish relations. It will also give a strong impetus to forming a stronger and more dignified existence in the Middle East.