What the Sultan Saw

Wall Street Opinion Journal Matthew Kaminski April 11, 2006

Practicing a tolerant strain of Islam, the Ottomans clashed with fundamentalists.

The Ottoman Empire passed into history in 1922, a mere lifetime ago. Yet in a certain way it feels as distant as ancient Athens or Rome, known to us mostly through architectural relics, a few striking events and a mythical aura. Kemal Atatürk’s secular Turkish republic, the empire’s successor state, consciously rejected much of the Ottoman heritage and most of its traditions, while the empire’s colonial outposts have reverted to the imperatives of their local identities.

Yet the religious aspect of the 9/11 attacks has made the Ottomans, who led the Muslim world for half a millennium, topical again. The sultans are famous for sacking Constantinople in the 15th century and besieging Vienna in the 16th. Both events became symbols of Muslim aggression against Christendom. And the “barbarian Turk” is still a villain in the folklore of the empire’s northern reaches. Yet such caricature fails to do justice to the remarkable Ottomans, whose story is a corrective to the perceived wisdom that Islam is inherently unable to reconcile itself with the West.

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9 thoughts on “What the Sultan Saw

  1. The story sounds nice, but is it true? What about mass murders on Christians in the 1920’s They killed 2,000,000 in less than six months. A loving forward looking society I am sure

  2. It’s the Wall Street Journal, probably the best editorial page in America, but sometimes woefully naive to historical realities that contradict their short-term political hopes. It’s a striking contradiction, but you see it too often to dismiss as an abberation. You don’t see the ideological conformity that, say, the NYT and like-minded outlets impose, but you do sense a certain inexperience in the realm of historical ideas, as if history functions as a commodity, ie: to be expended in the consumption of a larger political desire.

    Yet, it still ranks as one of the best editorial pages, IMO.

  3. One might also add the anti-Greek (Orthodox Christians, by coincidence) riots of 1955. A state-run Kristalnacht, not a spontaneous event. Before then there were some 100,000 Greeks in Istabul, about 3000 now. Nice to be in a *secular* Islamic country; it could get real ugly otherwise!

  4. Bob wasn’t the military coup of 1960 in response to the Democratic Party’s support of muslim practices in Turkish society during the 50s? Their support of muslims being evidenced in the attack you mention.

  5. JBL – which Democratic Party are you referring to? If you mean the Democratic Party in the U.S., it was out of power during the entire decade. The Republicans were in charge in the White from 1952 to 1960. That was the Eisenhower Era.

    Not that it would make much difference. The overriding military concern at the time was to keep the Soviets bottled up in the Black Sea, and Turkey was critical to that, for both the hawkish Dems of the ‘Scoop’ Jackson variety, and the Republicans who had emerged from WWII as internationalists, having shed their traditionalist Taft wing in 1952 with the nomination of Eisenhower. Concerning Taft, you should know:

    Franklin D. Roosevelt and many liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans (especially New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, with whom Taft waged a bitter 12-year war for control of the GOP) despised and ridiculed him, yet many conservative Republicans and even some Democrats (including, privately, Harry S. Truman) came to respect and admire him for his political courage, high intelligence, and blunt honesty – even when it hurt him with the voters. In 1940 and 1948 Taft was a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination but lost to liberal Republicans from New York. In 1952 he made his last, strongest try for the Presidency, but narrowly lost to Dwight Eisenhower at a bitterly divided Republican convention. Taft blamed East Coast Republicans [read Dewey], internationalists, and the newspapers for promulgating the idea that he was unelectable.

    When Taft went down in favor of Eisenhower, the consolidation of the ‘New Deal’ was complete, as Eisenhower was both a committed internationalist and a proponent of the ‘New Deal.’ After Taft, no Republican candidate has actually attacked the ‘New Deal’ with the idea of rolling it back. Taft was, in fact, the highwater mark of the Conservative movement in the United States.

    The Taftian wing of the Republican Party would have been highly unlikely to do much about the slaughter of Christians in Turkey. But, they would have also been less likely to excuse the whole mess out of commitments to anti-communist solidarity, like the internationalists. Also, simultaneously, that wing of the party was also highly unlikely to get involved in any sort of ‘humanitarian’ war around the world. They were strict constructionists who would also have been highly unlikely to get into our current situation of ‘undeclared’ presidential wars.

    But, of course, that wing of the party was defeated and the internationalists one.

    JBL – you have to be careful about projecting backward. Your posts read like you have a committed internationalist perspective, but combined with domestic social conservatism on issues like abortion and homosexual rights. That outlook would have been defined as ‘liberal’ during the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and even much of the 50’s. It was only in the 1960’s when liberals became ‘doves’ over the Vietnam Era and the Goldwater campaign in 1964 that your outlook would have been considered ‘conservative.’ Prior to 1964 (and maybe even before 1968) you could have easily been a member of the Democratic Party, depending on how you stood on the New Deal question. As you are probably a moderate New Dealer (like most Republicans today) you would have not been out-of-place at a Democratic Party meeting.

    The world you inhabit has only been the way it is since the 1960’s, and the ‘culture war’ alignment only since the late 70’s.

  6. Not the US group but the Democratic Party in Turkey during the 50s. It was a conservative party set to oppose Kemalist policies. As the party retained power they began to favor Islamic groups and policies. They eventually began to weaken Kemalist secular policies that had been in place for a couple decades(as I had asked the possible cause for allowing or leading toward anti-Orthodox attacks in the mid-50s).

    In 1960 the Turkish military staged a coup to return the country to a more secular path. The Democratic Party was disbanned. There were a series of trials for corruption of party members and the the prime minister Menderes was executed (he was linked to the anti-Orthodox attack in 1955).

    My comment was toward the accusation about “secular Turkey”. I would contend that at the time of the anti-Orthodox pogrom, Turkey wasn’t necessarily following a secular path.

    I really wasn’t making a geopolitical comment about US international policy.

  7. Understood.

    I am in favor of ‘secularism’ in the Muslim world, and don’t consider Turkey to be a fit model of that. The Turks substituted an aggressive nationalism in place of their traditional Islamist identity and the results were quite, quite tragic.

  8. The Christians of Turkey are still under attack. Once in a while a story reaches the US press about the latest cemetery desecration or church bombing. The Turks still won’t allow the Halki seminary to reopen. I don’t think anyone regards the school as the Oxford of Greek theology, but it is striking that a church school can’t even be allowed to operate in a “secular” country. Turkey’s intentions on the Greek matter are pretty clear.

  9. Bob ever since the last military relinquished power the Kemalist secularist pursuit has all but vanished. The idea of a secular Turkey is more of a dream left over from the 20s and 30s.

    With Islamic fundamentalism on the rise a truly secular Turkey is all but gone.

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