The Middle Eastern century that wasn’t

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By Khaled Diab

As the post-Ottoman order crumbles around us, would the Middle East would have been better or worse off had Turkey remained neutral during World War I?

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 9 September 2015

A recent visit to Istanbul coincided with “Victory Day”, which marks the successful conclusion of the final battle of the Greco-Turkish wars, which Turkey calls its War of Independence.

While we wandered through streets draped with giant red Turkish flags and superhuman-sized portraits of Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk”, the father of the modern Turkish republic, my brain began to ponder a number of what-ifs.

As the century-old post-Ottoman regional order collapses all around us, I began to wonder what would have happened had Turkey not taken its disastrous decision to enter World War I or had emerged victorious from that murderous conflict. Would the Middle East be a better or worse place than it is today, or just different?

In light of how actual history is a complex and messy affair, often hinging on apparently mundane events as well as monumental moments, it is impossible to know how things could have been but it is possible to construct scenarios of how they could have turned out. And given how the current regional (dis)order depends on the events of a century ago, charting alternative realities can help illuminate our contemporary situation.

It is far easier to speculate about what would not have occurred. Had Turkey emerged victorious or not taken up arms, the Ottoman empire would not have been partitioned, and the Sykes-Picot carve up, which has given the Middle East some of its most troubled borders, would not have taken place – at least not then.

In addition, with the exception of the Maghreb and Egypt, French and British influence in the Middle East would have been negligible. However, German hegemony may have occupied a similar position. It is also possible that Mustafa Kemal would not have become Atatürk, as his outsized influence on Turkish history was a product of the existential anarchy triggered by the collapse of the old order.

But could Turkey have avoided war?

Owing to its weakness, the Ottoman empire was not regarded, in the pre-war years, as a useful ally and was shunned by all the major European powers, with the exception of Russia, but the terms offered by the Tsar would have turned Turkey into a Russian protectorate.

When war broke out, the “Three Pashas” effectively ruling the Ottoman empire felt that Turkey was obliged to enter the fray. They did not care on which side Turkey fought and regarded the conflict as an opportunity to “organise its domestic administration, strengthen and maintain its commerce and industry, expand its railroads”, in the words of Talaat Pasha, the grand vizier.

This strikes me as a strange expectation of war, that it would somehow lead to reform under fire. It seems to me that had Turkey maintained its original position of neutrality, it stood a better chance of achieving these goals. At the very least, it could have avoided the bloodiest excesses executed in the madness and fog of war, such as the Armenian genocide and the mass killings of other minorities, including Assyrians and Greeks.

It is entirely possible, of course, that a neutral Turkey would have been sucked into the black hole anyway – that powerful was its gravitational pull. Or it may have successfully dodged the First World War but been ambushed by the Second.

Neutrality also carried the risk of retribution from powers greedy for Ottoman land, at least that is what some Turkish leaders feared. “If we stayed neutral, whichever side won would surely punish Turkey for not having joined them, and would satisfy their territorial ambitions at our expense,” Talaat Pasha confided in his diary.

But had Turkey successfully sidestepped the conflict and the Ottoman empire survived the war, would this have been good, bad or simply different for the region?

The original “sick man of Europe”, the Ottoman empire was in a state of terminal decline long before the “Great War”. Relatively stagnant economically and scientifically, it was unable to keep pace with its European rivals.

As Ottoman power diminished, despite the Tanzimat and other modernisation drives, the empire became less tolerant and more oppressive and reactionary. This was especially so as it shed territory to foreign conquest, particularly Russia, and confronted the rise of nationalism, first in its European territories and then in its Arab regions.

Even without World War I, the unravelling of the Ottoman empire is likely to have continued. And with the Three Pashas transforming the democratic and liberal Young Turks movement into an absolute and ultranationalist dictatorship, Turkey’s reaction to the emancipation movements among the peoples under its control is likely to have been brutal and harsh – possibly more so than without the distraction of World War I, though the tyrants would not have been able to conceal their crimes behind the thick fog of total war.

There is also the chance that, without the mayhem of World War I, the murderous rule of the Three Pashas – who came to power in a 1913 coup – would have been short-lived and the progressive Young Turks factions, such as the Freedom and Accord party, may have managed to regain power.

Rather than the implosion which occurred following World War I and the power vacuum it created, such a moderate leadership in Istanbul, which preferred jaw-jaw over war-war, could have potentially managed the crumbling of the empire, the possession of which was becoming too costly for the Turks anyway, in a gradual and more enlightened manner.

Such a progressive devolution of power may have helped prevent many of the rivalries and hatreds which have dogged the region for the past century. In addition, it may have helped the region’s diverse populations maintain the advantages of the former Ottoman empire without its warts: a frontierless territory minus the imperial subjugation.

Without World War I, it is possible, but perhaps improbable, that an alternative reality which successfully squares the circle of local self-determination and regional integration would have emerged, either as a loose confederation of nation-states or a union of equal peoples living side by side in enriching diversity.

And transgressing narrow nationalism and factionalism remains, a century on from the Great War, the best hope for saving the Middle East from its current “world war”.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 3 September 2015.

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Gay marriage but no polygamy?

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By Khaled Diab

If we can have gay and interfaith marriages in the West, then why not polygamous ones?

Monday 13 May 2013

Marriage is such an ancient tradition that most people take it for granted. Yet, as the impassioned and polarised debate over gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere clearly reflects, when it comes to matrimony, not all humans are created equal.

In some countries, the restrictions go far further, and limit the rights of heterosexuals too. An Israeli NGO which promotes religious equality has created a global league map of countries based on the liberalness of their marriage laws.

As you’d expect Europe, the United States and much of the Americas top the chart, but so do many Asian countries. Propping up the bottom are conservative Muslim countries, as well as North Korea which, in a communist sort of caste system, prohibits marriage between people of differing class backgrounds.

According to Hiddush, the organisation behind the ranking, Israel, despite its proud self-image as bastion of secularism and freedom, is in the company of the likes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the restrictiveness of its marriage laws. Not only does Israel forbid interfaith marriages, the tight control the Orthodox rabbinate enjoys over personal status issues means that many Jews or nominal Jews cannot even marry fellow Jews – at least not in Israel.

Rather than reform the system and provoke the wrath of the religious establishment, Israel has opted for the path of least resistance and recognises any civil marriages brokered abroad, including gay ones. Although this provides people with a way out of the religious straitjacket and makes the system more inclusive than it appears at first sight, it comes at significant extra expense and hassle – and, by definition, is not an option open to people of limited means, placing a class divide in the access to marriage.

The Middle East as a whole fares pretty badly, as it does in so many other areas related to freedom, such as the media. Across the region, people are generally not allowed to marry out of their sect or religious community.

In my own native Egypt, Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women, but Muslim women may only marry from within their own faith community. Despite plenty of evidence to suggest that Islamic jurisprudence does not actually prohibit this, the only way for non-Muslim men to marry Muslim women is through conversion.

That said, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Turkey and Albania, allow full freedom of marriage.

So why is the Middle East so averse to interfaith unions? Part of the reason is wanting to keep religion in the family, so to speak. Another factor is that much of the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks who established a system known as millet, which Turkey itself abandoned under the reforms introduced by Ataturk.

Although the millet system gave a high degree of autonomy for recognised religious communities and was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This needs urgent reform, though with other pressing issues facing a region in revolutionary flux and the current ascendancy of Islamist forces, this seems unlikely for some time to come. However, change is slowly gaining traction.

Lebanon, like neighbouring Israel, only permitted the registration of civil marriages performed abroad, now Lebanese are free to carry out such nuptials on Lebanese soil, with the first ceremony taking place recently.

This opens the door for unions between the countries various sects. It also raises the interesting prospect that, while the parliament remains divided along sectarian lines, Lebanese families are likely to become increasingly mixed in the future. And this is no bad thing – perhaps mixing up the population through civil marriages can help prevent Lebanon from erupting into another civil war.

The West has a reputation for having complete freedom of marriage, especially those countries that allow same-sex couples to wed too. But are Western countries as free as they seem?

Well, yes and no. Of course, people of different faiths and none can marry each other freely, and gay marriage is becoming an increasingly accepted norm, both of which are great signs of tolerance and freedom. However, polygamy remains a crime – and I can see no rational reason for this prohibition.

While the Christian concept of wedlock as a lifelong, unbreakable bond has given way to divorce becoming an accepted component of the modern landscape, the Christian aversion to multiple spouses remains firmly in place.

Polygamy in most Westerners’ minds is a symbol of an outdated patriarchal order and a clear sign of gender inequality and is mostly associated with a benighted model of Islam, even though polygamous relationships are not exclusively Muslim, and many in Muslim societies reject or frown upon polygyny. Moreover, some lone voices have started demanding that women be allowed to enter into polyandrous marriages.

Traditional models of polygyny (and polyandry, in a minority of matriarchal societies) do, indeed, tend to reflect social inequalities, between genders, generations and classes. The alpha male sits on top of the social pyramid. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships receive a small fraction of a man, but also some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But modern, secular society is about personal liberty – even the freedom to live less freely – not moral judgment. People’s rights should not be limited because they offend mainstream society’s sensibilities, as long as their actions do not harm others. So if, for instance, a Muslim woman in the West wishes to become the second, third or fourth wife of another man, who are others to stop her, even if they disagree with her actions?

Besides, a show featuring an aged patriarch with one foot in the grave and his harem was a massive reality TV hit in the United States. Girls of the Playboy Mansion (The Girls Next Door), featuring the Sultan of Porn, Hugh Hefner, and his trophy girlfriends.

While many are likely to find off-putting the sight of an octogenarian living with women young enough to be his grandchildren, including teenagers, there is no law to stop them for cohabiting and broadcasting it on television. But if Hefner were to decide he wanted to marry his girlfriends, he’d probably have the police knocking at his door. Yet what exactly is the essential difference between the two situations, aside from a contract?

Moving away from the world’s various high-powered patriarchs, more equitable modern models of polygyny and polyandry are emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family.

As the controversy over same-sex marriages clearly reveals, religion and tradition still cast a long shadow over human relationships in these secular times. But in this age of expressed equality and liberty, marriage, like friendship and love, should be open to all.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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Anzac Day and the birth of three nations

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By Ray O’Reill

Anzac Day, which recalls the horrors of modern warfare, marks the birth of modern national conscience in Australia, New Zealand and Turkey.  

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Death in the trenches

Every year, on 25 April, in services and commemorations, Australia and New Zealand remember the fallen in what is now called Anzac Day. On this day nearly a century ago, soldiers from both nations landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now called ANZAC Cove, but was then known as Ari Birun. As part of the Allied Forces, their mission was to scale the cliffs and take the high ground. The defending Turkish army had other ideas.

In the space of 24 hours, some 2,000 ‘diggers’, as they were known, were mowed down. By the end of the battle nine months later, more than 11,400 soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) were killed – 2,700 Kiwis and the rest were Australians. This was a huge loss to nations with populations at the time of fewer than 5 million and 1 million respectively.

But it was the events of the first day of the Gallipoli Campaign (or Battle of Çanakkale), immortalised in the 1981 Peter Weir film of the same name, starring a young Mel Gibson, that set the course of the whole battle and eventual evacuation of the Anzacs in December 1915.

If you want to read more about these events, the book by David W Cameron, 25 April 1915, The Day the Anzac Legend Was Born, is a good place to begin, telling both sides of the story – the Anzacs  and Turkish – of what was to become a tragedy for all nations concerned but an ultimate triumph for Turkey and the then little-known army commander Mustafa Kemal (later given the honorific Atatürk, ‘Father of the Turks’) who had correctly anticipated where the Allies would attack and bravely held his position until their eventual retreat.

The legendary ‘victory’ cemented Atatürk’s reputation following the Ottoman defeat and, along with other military successes, enabled him to enter politics and construct a modern Turkish republic on the ruins of what was left of the Ottoman Empire. It also marked the birth of a separate national conscience in Australia and New Zealand, which were then dominions of the British Empire and largely regarded themselves as Brits.

Anzac Day is not only a rare example of a national day shared by two countries, it has also been woven into the conscience of a third, Turkey which, under Atatürk’s leadership, became a staunch ally of its former enemies, despite the cold-shouldering it has received from Europe over the decades. In 1934, he assured the first Australians and New Zealanders to visit the Galipoli battlefield since hostilities ended:

There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side…

He finished his tribute with:

Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land they have
Become our sons as well.

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Should Arabs treat Erdoğan as a hero?

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By Khaled Diab

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received a hero’s welcome across the Arab world. But should Arabs welcome or be weary of Turkey’s greater engagement in the Middle East?

Friday 23 September 2011

For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encountering cheering crowds and mass adulation on what some have described as his rock star tour of Arab countries must have brought back memories of his early life as a semi-professional footballer, though his success as a political coach, striker, defender and dribbler rolled into one surpasses anything he ever achieved on the football pitch. 

“Erdoğan is now the hero of the Egyptian street,” one Egyptian blogger observed, complaining that Egypt was suffering from a severe shortage of national heroes.

This partly relates to the Middle Eastern “cult hero” phenomenon which I examined a few years ago, whereby leaders seen to be defying the west or Israel, no matter how recklessly or for whatever selfish reasons, are elevated to heroes in the eyes of millions. 

Although the Arab uprisings have created thousands, even millions, of everyday heroes, in a region whose leaders are more often than not villains, the vacancy for a political hero remains unfilled. Erdoğan has skilfully positioned himself to fit this bill, though his advocacy of secularism and democracy as the solution has incensed the conservative wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and made them rethink their welcome of him. 

But it is not just about the person of Erdoğan. Egypt and many other parts of the Arab world, who see in Turkey’s success – despite its recent crackdowns on free speech – a possible model for their own futures, are in the grips of what some have described as “Ottomania”. 

With the Ottoman empire’s repeated refusal and failure to grant Arabs their rights to self-determination a distant and dim memory, enough generations now seem to have passed for a savvy Turkey to re-enter the regional fold from which it was pushed out by military defeat and Arab nationalism, and which it abandoned when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to abolish the caliphate – a traumatic moment for the region’s Islamists – and turn his new republic westward. 

Should Arabs be suspicious of Turkey’s Ottoman legacy or is that simply ancient history?

Since Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the propping up of self-serving dictators and despots over the decades, Arabs are, in many ways, justifiably suspicious of Western action in the region, no matter how nobly packaged.

But is Turkey, despite its geographical and cultural proximity, actually any better? After all, it has centuries of previous form when it comes to imperial meddling in Arab affairs, and client and vassal rulers – long before the west discovered their usefulness – were a popular means by which it exercised its control. 

In Turkey’s defence, it has taken many principled positions towards the Arab revolutions, such as being among the first to call for the departure of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak. 

The country is also stuck between the rock of continued rejection of its bid to become a full member of the European club to which it has aspired for decades and the hard place of being cold-shouldered by the former members of its empire. 

So, pushed away by the West, it seems to have decided, at least partly, to jump east and try to cosy up to countries with which it shared many good years, despite all the bad ones. In addition, like Iran, Turkey’s regional standing has been amplified by Washington’s gung-ho, sledge-hammer approach to the Middle East which has led Arabs to seek alternatives to counterbalance the West’s increasingly deadly hegemony in the region.

Part of Erdoğan’s interest in the Middle East has been to vindicate his Justice and Development party’s focus on Turkey’s long-neglected Islamic identity and demonstrate that it can be a political and economic boon for the country. And it seems to be paying off.

Despite widespread secular concern over his alleged Islamisation agenda, he has also received praise for raising Turkey’s regional standing and profile. “Even if we are mad at him and think he is out of line, we, as people, love him,” one Turkish columnist wrote. “For the first time, we are proud of being citizens of a big country that adopts an ethical standpoint.” 

Ethical standpoints notwithstanding, there are some troubling signs that Turkey’s re-emergence is increasingly part of a neo-imperial scramble for influence in the new Arab order. 

Accompanying the rhetoric and window dressing of a common history and heritage which has played so well to Arab ears has been a clear and visible economic and geopolitical bottom line. For instance, during Erdogan’s visit to Egypt, he signed agreements to increase trade between the two countries from $3bn to $5bn and raise foreign direct investment in Egypt by Turkey from $1.5bn to $5bn.

In recent years, Turkey also invested heavily in Gaddafi’s Libya. Bilateral trade was $2.3bn in 2010 and the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs confidently predicted that it would reach $10bn within five years.

Despite its expressed support for the Arab uprisings, Turkey has exhibited some signs of favouring self-interest over principle. For example, until recently, Erdogan was reluctant to criticise his close ally, Bashar al-Assad, even though the Syrian regime’s suppression of protests has been among the most brutal and ruthless in a region whose political elites are not known for their squeamishness. 

Moreover, when push comes to shove, Turkey is unlikely to jettison its long-standing alliance with the west in order to champion Arab causes.

Despite the favourable Arab reaction towards Turkey’s more muscular approach to Israel, what many overlook is that the greater economic and military might that enabled Turkey to downgrade relations after Israel’s refusal to apologise for its attack on the flotilla is likely to constrain Turkey’s future appetite to act resolutely, especially when its own citizens are not involved. 

After all, how likely is Turkey to jeopardise its relationship with its NATO allies and with the EU in defence of the Palestinian cause, particularly with charges of double standards being thrown about when it comes to Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds?

I am personally an advocate of Turkey becoming one of the main engines of a more integrated region, which borrows the most attractive elements of the Ottoman past – tolerance of diversity, the rule of law and the absence of borders – and adapts them to a secular and fairer future. Alongside this, Turkey could become a useful and unifying bridgehead between Europe and the Middle East. 

But for this to happen requires an enlightened mix of realism and pragmatism on the part of Turkey, the Arab world and Europe.

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 22 September 2011. Read the related discussion.

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