Second Lecture of

Efforts to Reverse the Military Decline and Why they Failed.

Two Dates:
1699 Treaty of Carlowitz following defeat of the Ottomans by the Austrians.
1774 Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca following defeat of the Ottomans by the Russians.

The first event set off a self-examination that was intensified after the second event: "What did we do wrong?" For the first time the Ottomans had to pay attention to Western practices. Until then the West was ignored completely and even the official Ottoman interpreters were usually Greeks. Muslims had ignored Europe and it was considered not permissible for a Muslim to live in a non-Muslim country. [Any current events come to mind?] After these defeats the need to introduce Western technology to reverse the military decline became obvious.

A remarkable mission: A high Ottoman official, Ebu Bekir Ratib Efendi, accompanied by more than 100 officials spent five months in Vienna (1791-92) studying Western ways. [The word "Efendi" is a honorific, like "Mr." or the Japanese "san". It is derived from the Greek word "αυθεντης" from which the English word "authentic" is also derived.)

Sultan Selim III was a strong proponent of reforms and he established permanent diplomatic missions (starting with London in 1793). He tried significant internal reforms but he met strong resistance by the privileged groups of society (including the clergy). He was overthrown in 1807, and eventually he was strangled in prison. Many other leaders of the reform were murdered. However in 1808 a pro-reform Sultan, Mahmud II (1808-39), was installed. He had better political skills and he was able to push his program through. (For details see [EMT].)

Learning from infidel teachers was a new challenge and required a drastic change in thinking. Finally, in the 19th century, the Muslim elite started studying the West in earnest. After the Greek revolution (1821) the Greek official interpreters were removed from office an the official correspondence piled up unread until Hoca Ishak Efendi started a Muslim translation service. (Ishak himself was a Greek Jew who had converted to Islam.) According to Lewis [WWW, pp. 45-46 - All italics in the quotes have been added]:

" With the crumbling of the language barrier direct observation of the West was now possible, and an increased recognition and more intimate awareness of European wealth and strength. The question now was more specific – what is the source of this wealth and strength, the talisman of Western success? Traditional answers to such a question would have been in religious terms. All problems are so to speak ultimately religious, and all final answers are therefore religious. The final answers given by traditional writers to the older formulation of the question were always “let us go back to our roots, to the good old ways, to the true faith, to the word of God.” With that of course there was always the assumption that if things are going badly, we are being punished by God for having abandoned the true path. That argument loses cogency when it is the infidels who are benefiting from the change.
     Middle Easterners found it difficult to consider what we might call civilizational or cultural answers to this question. To preach a return to authentic, pristine Islam was one thing; to seek the answer in Christian ways or ideas was another – and, according to the notions of the time, self-evidently absurd. Muslims were accustomed to regard Christianity as an earlier, corrupted version of the true faith of which Islam was the final perfection. One does not go forward by going backward. There must therefore be some circumstance other than religion or culture, which is part of religion, to account for the otherwise unaccountable superiority achieved by the Western world. A Westerner at the time – and many Muslims at the present day – might suggest science and the philosophy that sustains it. This view would nor have occurred to those for whom philosophy was the handmaiden of theology and science merely a collection of pieces of knowledge and of devices. Muslims had their own philosophy that had retained and perfected the heritage of the ancients under the aegis of Islam. They had also their own science, handed down by their own great scientists of the past.
      The economy, and more especially industry, was seen as the prime source of wealth and therefore ultimately of military effectiveness."

As a result Lewis states [WWW, p. 47]

"Later rulers and ministers, first in Egypt, then Turkey, then other countries in the region, ... tried to catch up with Europe by building factories, principally to equip and clothe their armies. The effort failed, and most of the early factories became derelict.
       Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising powers of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity, and therefore in exports and incomes."

Unfortunately, 19th century reform came from the top and as a result it strengthen autocracy! It is worth noting that the concept of political freedom did not exist in the Muslim world. The opposite of tyranny was not freedom but justice [WWW, pp. 54-55]. (However, during the 19th century the idea of political freedom started gaining ground amongst the educated elite of the Ottoman Empire while at the same time the authority of the Sultan was strengthened.) Lewis [WWW, p. 63] points out the differences in the form of corruption in the West and Middle East: "In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it to buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. "The end result is, in effect, a state dominated economy. As a practical matter the mystery of the Western success remained.

The Ottoman observers of Europe missed the Social and Cultural features of the West. Lewis points three significant examples: the position of women, the importance of science, and artistic expressions, such as music. Lewis described the severe reaction caused by an 1857 edict abolishing slavery, so that eventually the Ottoman province of Hijaz (today's Saudi Arabia) had to be exempted [WWW, p. 93].

The position of women: According to Islamic law there are three groups of people who have no legal standing - unbelievers, slaves, and women. While an unbeliever could convert and a slave be freed, a woman was doomed to her inferior status. "The emancipation of women, ..., is the touchstone of difference between modernization [i.e. use of technology, esp. military] and Westernization [i.e. accept the culture of the West]" [WWW, p. 73]. Of course, denying education to women means that men are brought up by illiterate mothers.

Science: Originally Islam was far more tolerant of Science than Christianity but eventually the situation was reversed. For example, around 1600 an astronomical observatory in Istanbul was razed to the ground on religious reasons. This was at a time when Western science was overcoming the opposition of the Catholic Church.

Secularism: Separation of "church" and "state" is a Christian concept. It did not exist amongst the Greek and Roman Pagans nor amongst the Jews. It is also absent from Eastern Asian religions. For Islam "the state was the church and the church was the state." [WWW, p. 101].  Muslim radicals perceive as their worst enemies not the Christians or the Jews or the Communist but their native secularizers. [WWW, p. 107]  They are viewed as the enemies from within.

Back to Jewish Topics Page