‘Resuscitate Ottoman Wisdom’

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Interview by: R Tadros, Belques Addisu and Zainab Amin 

AT a speedily arranged informal meeting in Addis Ababa we met Dr Kusum Gopal an anthropologist and an UN expert who agreed to discuss with us at short notice the background of the horrific wars that are happening in west Asia, ISIS and the Refugees fleeing to Europe. We doubted peace is possible in the Middle-East. DrGopal strongly disagreed stating that the wisdom of the ages would prevail no matter how terrifying the present, the sorrows of people, ultimately humanitarian justice would triumph. The views expressed by DrGopal are entirely her own. Some excerpts: 

Q: Dr Gopal, you contend humanitarianism will triumph. We ask when and how? As citizens of the countries of the MENA region working in the media and civil society, we are deeply disturbed by these events. There is widespread anger and very little understanding. Can you explain what needs to be done, in steps?

A: Yes knowledge needs to be shared and disseminated. Sadly, academics have been remiss, indeed to have relinquished their responsibilities in translating and making available the remarkable scholarship that has and is being produced over the last decade in particular with the opening of the Ottoman archives. Inevitably they are hampered addendum–  governments and policy makers must be prepared  to listen to them, to learn, to re-evaluate  the outdated preconceived erroneous, belief systems also, the need to engage in these joint conversations–it is of moral and ethical urgency.

People in these regions understand much more than we realise, it is the governments and policy makers who need to acknowledge why as a matter of urgency! Indisputably, what is happening today is an outcome of the administrative and legal measures imposed by colonial regimes such as the Black Letter Laws, uninformed partitioning of territories, of separating peoples with shared emotions, histories, cultures, demeanours and natural resourcesthe root cause of all conflicts in the Indian Subcontinent, in the vast landscapes of Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, eastern Europe as indeed, the MENA region. 

There can no longer be recourse to solutions that offer immediate gratification  not only will it prolong the genocides but strengthen ISIL. Long term solutions to the current crisis lie in acknowledging the pre-colonial Ottoman governance of these regions. We need to initiate a series of dialogues with ISIL and include its supporters  no matter how distasteful the prospect. 

Q; You say we must negotiate with ISIS. How do we go about that?

Socrates argued that the invisible world is the most intelligible and that the visible world is the  least knowable, and the most obscure.” That is to say what we see happening has many layers and we need to look beyond the five senses, beyond the material understandings. We live in interconnected worldsall of us. And, that is why we must begin communicating as the bombing however advanced and powerful will not weaken ISIL or Daesh as they call themselves they will gain a greater following- the ideal of a Caliphate is extremely appealing and secret cells will mushroom further — that will have immeasurable repercussions. How much can police or intelligence do? 

ISIS or ISIL comprises of human beings and it is doubtful it commands a unity as a national army doesit is an umbrella network there are many trigger happy soldiers of faith– led by Saddam Husseins army who punish with brutality. We can discuss this later. 

To start, Euro-America and Russia need to formally recognise that relentless bombing of these regions by the most advanced weaponry will not eradicate the strength of ISIL or Daesh as they call themselves. Lessons from the past — Did the 11 million tonnes of agent Orange stop the Vietnamese from winning the war? Did bombing of Afghanistan end the power of Taliban? Al Qaeda still remains powerful in the shadows as also many other groups such as the Haqqanis.  The persistent bombing only fuels deeper anger and hate for western nations.

Governments need to not just commission Experts and most certainly Religious leaders but also incorporate them in these dialogues, allow them to lead the way. For example, .Ulema to initiate dialogues, leaders that Abu Bakr Baghdadi will be prepared to grant a hearing.  It can be done through for example; Skype or projections –I is not advocating the use of Gandhian principles but rather Ottoman wisdom which this region can accept and  emotionally relate with. Also, simultaneously, the specific histories and cultures of the regions must be understood as also Islamic fiqh, as practiced from the point of view of the inhabitants of the Levant region- Syria Iraq, Lebanon Kuwait, include Palestine and Israel.

Q: What do you mean by Ottoman wisdom? How can it help where everything else has failed?

The Ottoman Empire which governed for over six centuries allowed for the integration of large Jewish, Christian and other communities, who, despite some legal handicaps, found that the dispensation generally allowed them to live and worship in faithful adherence to their laws and traditions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews were organized into millats, which were responsible for both religious and secular duties in their communities.  

Unbeknownst to most people is that until Islam had a well-defined Church and State (politics and religion) divide, much more so than Christianity. As theologians enlighten us, under the Ottomans, while the Sultan or the Caliph were seen to be imbued with divine writ for legitimacy, they did not legislate or control over religion and its practice, they did not give sermons on it either. Religion had no formal control over them and none of their subjects expected them to pontificate on spiritual matters. Islamic traditions during the medieval times, indeed until the Ottoman Empire was desecrated, maintained a palpable distinction between the civic/administration and religious matterscontributing to the success and enrichment of the Empire. They thus wielded considerable support and respect, knitting together not just Sunni and Shia but also minorities, Kurds, Druze, Coptics and so forth, employing special efforts to accommodate various, diverse cultures. In 1856, for instance the Hatt-ý Hümayun promised equality for all Ottoman citizens and as was its practice, irrespective of their ethnicity and confession, widening the scope of the 1839 Hatt-ý Þerif of Gülhane.It established freedom of belief and equality of all citizens before the law. “Firman of the Reforms” gave immense privileges to the Armenians, which formed a “governance in governance” to eliminate the aristocratic dominance of the Armenian nobles by development of the political strata in the society. Certainly, the military regulations meant conscription; they were also guaranteed protection providing the impetus for vernacular languages and traditions to develop unhindered within the Ottoman fold.. The flexible techniques by which the Ottomans maintained their legitimacy specifically the manner in which dissent was handled and/or internalized in the nature of state society respect of minorities; the co-operation of their diverse elites both at the centre and in the provinceslessons we can incorporate.

Indeed, a significant percentage of non Muslims were appointed to high offices, were decorated by the Sultan and commanded considerable power. Influential religious heads even believed that the Turkish conquest had preserved the Greek Church from the threat of annihilation by the growing power of the Latin west. For instance, the Grand Duke LoukasNotarasis had stated on the eve of the conquest: It would be better to see the turban of the Turks reigning over the city than the Latin mitre.  Certainly it was widely held the Greek Orthodox Church had been allowed to flourish by the Ottomans– it might have been undermined by the Christian European influences at that time. What is particularly significant is that the Ottomans recognised the leading Rabbis of the Old Yishuv as the official leaders of the devout Orthodox Jews from east Europe and also the Levant region; they had organised themselves as VaadHair which later became EdahHaChreidis. These local Rabbis of Palestine were deemed officially to be similar or extensions of their own Orthodox Hakam Bashis  Chief Turkish Rabbis loyal to the Sultan. Such unparalled examples point to the inclusiveness and tolerance of all peoples setting precedents for reconsidering what aspects of the administrative set up of the Ottomans can be resuscitated and wherever relevant syncretic dispositions must be discussed as part of the necessary interventions. Lawyers who are experts in Islamic fiqh, Ottoman governance can be consulted to participate and to advise along with Experts and Religious leaders.

Q: Tony Blair apologised for the war and acknowledged  it as the cause of ISIL, Too little too late Hans Blix had warned there was no smoking gun no WMDs yet documents state that the war had been a deliberate plan by Blair and Bush regardless a year before. Any comments?

Yes, the call for regime change is not new it is over a century old — British and French colonial encroachments. What is happening now is a continuation of what was set in motion 100 years ago, To my mind, the roots of the crises lie in the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the pivotal roles of TE Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill as principal agents of the Crown. For over a thousand years the Head of Hashemite family had governed the region commanding deep respect from Muslims all over the world. As custodian of the Hejaz Sharif Husayn position as Caliph was sacrosanct. At that time Turks and Arabs co-existed along with so many other peoples and religious traditions.  This was also the time when early stirrings against the Ottomans had begun, regions wanted to be free.  And, the British exploited anti-Ottoman sentiments very successfully persuading the Sharif to rally Arabs against the Turks with the mendacious promise of a united Arab kingdom.  

Q: Could you elaborate on the Sykes Picot Agreement? 

As ongoing scholarship has emphasised the Sykes-Picot Agreement partitioned the Empire. Naturally, the British defeated Ottoman Turkish forces in 1917 and occupied Ottoman Syria and a military edict was issued dividing Ottoman territories into “occupied enemy territory administrations” (OETAs). The Empire was divided into three OETAs. Occupied Enemy Territory Administration South extended from the Egyptian border of Sinai into Palestine and Lebanon as far north as Acre and Nablus and as far east as the River Jordan. The British Mandate for Palestine, was a legal commission for the administration of the territory that had formerly constituted the Ottoman Empire Sanjaks of Nablus, Acre, the southern portion of the Beirut Wilayat, and the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem. Indeed, although Gen. Maude had stated that they would uphold the complete and final liberation of the peoples who have for so long been oppressed by the Turks, and the setting up of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous populations”such an agreement had  never been on the Anglo-French agenda. No longer were these regions allowed to continue the Ottoman polity: freedoms of worship and conviviality with minorities of all descriptions living together. 

Under the Mandates a series of Laws were passed removing all older traditions of Common Law and understandings. Indeed, to take one example, the immediate developments after the Mandate, in Iraq in addition to the nationalist resistance was the violent infighting by the the Anayzah, the Shammar, and the Jubur tribes of the western desert caused by sudden drawing of lines across peoples.  And, the chief cause for the scarcity of resources and new laws. Villagers demanded that the tribes be restrained, and tribes demanded that their titles to tribal territories be extended and confirmed. Merchants demanded more effective legal procedures, courts, and laws to protect their activities and interests. Municipal authorities appealed for defined powers and grants-in-aid in addition to the establishment of public health and education facilities. Landlords pressed for grants of land, for the building of canals and roads, and for the provision of tested seeds and livestock. The holy cities of An Najaf and Karbala and their satellite tribes were in a state of near anarchy. British governance had yet to be established Kurdistan. Meanwhile, from the Hakkari Mountains beyond Iraq’s northern frontier and from the plains of Urumia in Iran, thousands of Assyrians began to pour into Iraqi territory seeking refuge from Turkish reprisal. Further, the growth of Iraqi nationalism posed a serious threat to the British.

Obviously the egalitarian traditions and generous hospitality of these cultures has been sorely testedsuch unprecedented political developments and random Partitions forced the new governments to secure their borders- the only form of governance that was possible was dictatorship thereby creating a culture of terror to prevent opposition—brutalising their armies and secret service, Traditional forms of governance no longer applied with the imposition of the Black Letter Law, thus Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad dictatorships came into being, – a foregone conclusion- these happened as a consequence of colonial encroachments and exploitation of natural resources,  What Mr. Blair and Bush have done   inevitably was to lead to  an upsurge in anger and  a desire to reclaim a lost past–  It explains Abu Bakrs statement: video  titled End of the Sykes Picot: this is not the first border we will break, we will break all other borders harkens to the times of yore when the Caliphate was in existence, This needs to be acknowledged and  remedial measures in Dialogues must include these  sentiments,  We must stop ISIL by communicating with them. Europe  and the USA have a responsibility  and they must be prepared to reflect on supranational domains of policy framing  by incorporating research knowledge.

Q: What about the Refugee crisis in Europe?

I cannot regard the refugee problem as a crisis but as an opportunity for Europe to address “its heart of darkness” its own moral and social concerns that would strengthen, not weaken their own cultures. Where will these people go?  And, Europe has the wherewithal to help them. But prejudices and racism are weapons these people will be forced to encounter, Scholarship has revealed a great deal of common grounds between Europe, the MENA region and beyond.  For example,  Maltese is said to have some Siculo Arabic origins –a comparative analysis based on the treatise by Ibn Makki al-Siqilli:  Tatqif allisan wa Talqih al-Janan, a linguist has noted reveals  common foundations. .Undoubtedly we need to build bridges and understand each other and coexist, Have you read James Baldwin? The very great American writerplease do read his political writings.

Q: Any final thoughts?

Yes discussion and dialogues must be taken in the public arena in the MENA region and voting should be arranged in the Arab world on what people want and forms of governance.

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Dr Kusum Gopal

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