Second Lecture of
HISTORICAL ROOTS OF THE MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT
Efforts to Reverse the Military Decline and Why they Failed.
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
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
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.
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.