Open Letter to Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

[Mohamed ElBaradei at the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland on 25 January 2007. Image from Wikipedia.]
Mohamed ElBaradei at the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland on 25 January 2007. Image from Wikipedia.

First posted on 19 June 2012


Dear Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei:

Happy 70th and thank you! Truly, thank you: for refusing to be part of this travesty of presidential elections, for rejecting any form of putsch or “revolutionary justice”, for insisting on a sound constitution and political pluralism, for understanding democracy at a time when those fighting military dictatorship have completely missed the point. I’m sure you feel sufficiently vindicated and at peace to enjoy your birthday; and you must realize by now how many Egyptians respect you…

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Strangers in the House

A growing body of literature attempts to transcend the antagonistic narrative of Muslim encounters with the West. But these revisionist histories, Youssef Rakha writes, still pit ’us’ against ’them’.

The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
Andrew Wheatcroft
The Bodley Head

When Philip Mansel’s delightful portrait of Ottoman Istanbul, Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924, was published in 1995, the Serbian genocide of Muslim Bosnians had reached a new pinnacle in Srebrenica, the Iraq disarmament crisis was escalating after Saddam’s son-in-law, who ran the country’s weapons development programme, defected to Jordan, and the EU signed a Customs Union with Turkey, which was already a candidate for membership.

Here were three apparently unrelated examples of the interface between East and West, each saying something different about the possibility of a clash or a dialogue or a marriage of civilisations: they were like grandiose Muslim rumblings in the stomach of the post-Christian order.

Mansel’s anecdotal narrative of the rise and fall of the House of Osman in Europe touches on the Balkans, the Arab world and European colonialism, but it does not concern itself with Muslim-western relations in the present day. Mansel is impressed with the cosmopolitanism and the multicultural norms of the Ottoman polity, but he does not seem to register the connection between the end of Ottoman rule on the one hand and the decline in the unity and authority of Muslims on the other.

Amazingly, it took 10 more years – spanning September 11 and its ongoing, bloody aftermath – for a Turkish-speaking westerner, Caroline Finkel, to produce the first authoritative contemporary history of the Ottoman Empire in English, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. By dispelling misconceptions about the savagery and lethargy of the Turk, by stressing the role of tolerance and pluralism, this long overdue annal of Ottomania made a critical contribution to the popular but ineffectual Arab attempt to “wipe the filth off the face of Islam” after September 11.

Yet for Arabs – at least until the 1990s – the thesis that the Ottomans were abusive colonisers was taken more or less for granted: Ottoman injustice has been a basic tenet of Arab nationalism since the First World War. In the popular Arab imagination, the Ottomans were vain and ruthless autocrats who plundered, tortured and suppressed Arab national aspirations. The post-2001 idea of a Muslim insurgency threatening the supposedly liberal western status quo was enough to invite a revision of the Ottoman era among Arabs – if not westerners. But lately western historians have turned their attention to the Ottomans to make sense of Islam’s encounter with Europe, a dangerous rite practised in a startling range of historical loci from Al Andalus to Israel.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s recently published take on that rite of encounter is neither partisan nor reductive, but it falls slightly short of transcending the very them-and-us approach it sets out to debunk. The author of Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, Wheatcroft is at the cutting edge of an essentially retroactive genre of history writing that has gained momentum since the turn of the millennium. (Not all history is retroactive: it may reinvent the past, but it need not do so directly in response to the present.)

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In The Enemy at the Gate, Wheatcroft focuses on the Ottomans’ second unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683 to analyse not only Europe’s fear of the Turks but also, as Wheatcroft declares, fear itself. Wheatcroft says he wanted to tell this story to show up statements like that of the former European Commissioner, the Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein, who said that if Turkey joins the EU, the liberation of Vienna will have been in vain.

Bolkestein’s statement follows in the western (and Arab nationalist) convention that saw the Ottomans as foreign invaders. The belief is that, where Ottomans existed in Europe, they did not belong there. Yet it was in present-day Greece that Ottoman power was first consolidated towards the end of the 14th century. On taking Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet II proclaimed himself sultan i rum – heir to the Byzantine emperor. His eventual successor Suleiman I had among his titles “Caesar of all the lands of Rome”.

Suleiman was universally regarded as the most pre-eminent of European monarchs, having secured his hold on Rhodes, the Balkans and, by defeating King Louis II of the Order of the Golden Fleece, much of Hungary and Bohemia. He may have been despised as a Muslim, but he was no less western for being so. Though relative upstarts in Europe, Muslims had controlled significant parts of the continent, on and off, for many centuries; the notion of western versus Muslim that we so readily embrace today was neither current nor very tenable.

The House of Hapsburg, to whom members of the Order of the Golden Fleece owed allegiance, were elected Holy Roman Emperors in 1452, less than a year before Mehmet took Constantinople. So it is hardly surprising that the Ottomans should target their capital, Vienna – not only were the Hapsburgs the rival imperial force in central Europe, they were also the 15th-century heirs to a position (instituted by Otto the great in 962) that directly challenged the Ottomans’ claim to be Rome’s successors.

The Ottomans first attacked Vienna in 1529; scholars still debate whether the failed siege was an attempt to expand the empire into Western Europe or simply a gambit to secure the Ottoman hold on Hungary. Unlike the 1683 siege, Suleiman’s failure to take the city was not entirely disastrous – it involved no definitive defeat, and some historians believe he did not seek to take the city in the first place, but simply to demonstrate his supremacy all the way up to its walls. The next few decades demonstrated that Vienna was logistically if not militarily beyond the reach of the Ottomans, and for many years campaigns never went as far.

Mehmet IV, who was crowned at the age of seven and spent most of his reign hunting, was the first Ottoman to hand over power to the Grand Vizier – giving rise to the common error of confusing the Sublime Porte, a reference to the vizierate, with the Sultan. Mehmet’s ascension, though it brought an end to a period of instability within the House of Osman, coincided with military advances among the Ottomans’ rivals; no longer was the devlat i aliye, or Sublime State, at its magnificent peak.

The first of two Viziers under Mehmet IV, Köprülü Mehmed Pasha – founder of the great ethnically Greek Köprülü dynasty of effective rulers – waged successful European campaigns against Poland, Venice and Romania. But his successor, Kara Mustafa Pasha – an adopted son of Köprülüs, to be succeeded by Fazl Mustafa Pasha, a true Köprülü – failed to carry on the good work.

Supporting Imre Thököly’s Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule, Kara Mustafa failed to take into account the alliance between the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and the King of Poland, John III Sobieski (who commanded the imperial forces against Kara Mustafa) and other Catholic leaders; he misjudged the Ottomans’ client states of Moldovia and Wallachia, and crossed the Crimean Khan of the Tatars, whose forces would have been instrumental to an Ottoman victory.

A two-month siege culminated in the routing of Ottoman forces and a weaker position in southern Hungary, and on December 25, 1863, Kara Mustafa was executed in Belgrade on orders from the Janissary commanders. It is said that the croissant was invented in Vienna in the wake of this battle, its distinct shape intended to celebrate the Austrians’ victory over those fearsome bearers of the crescent flag.

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Factually, Wheatcroft could have summarised these events in a single chapter which, placed panoramically at the start, would have given him the chance to justify his seemingly arbitrary choice of close-ups and show how they might fit together to support the view that, notwithstanding wars, atrocities, and exclusive claims to the divine, Muslims and Europeans (including Jewish Europeans) remain part of the same, croissant-eating humanity.

But here as in Infidels, his earlier study of Enmity, which covers broader territory, Wheatcroft fails to recognise Muslims as part of the fabric of European history, opting instead for the traditional view that they remained, within European reality, an intrusive and scary other. At the deepest intellectual level, he seems to bolster, rather than undermine, Bolkestein’s statement.

This is not Wheatcroft’s intention, but where Enemy at the Gate is concerned, his task is complicated by the difficulty Finkel so impressively managed to overcome: that the Ottomans were too multifarious, their conflicts and alliances too changeable, their organisational structures too complex, and the causal chains informing any one point in their history too many and interlocking to yield a single well-supported argument.

Unlike Finkel, who walks a consistent tightrope to maintain her grand narrative without compromising ambiguity and detail, Wheatcroft frequently and somewhat fitfully switches his wide-angle lens for a macro. He spends more time on the subsequent Habsburg conquest of Buda, for example, than he does on the glitch in Ottoman-Tatar relations which very possibly perpetuated the Ottomans’ defeat at Vienna on September 12; he gives short shrift to Sultan Mehmet IV’s reign; and fails to present Kara Mustafa’s failure in the wider context of Ottoman decline – a slow process that had only just begun.

One wonders to what extent Wheatcroft’s failure to include Muslims as native agents of the unfolding of European history is typical. In recent years a whole army of historians have applied themselves to the task of advancing western-Muslim comity by retelling episodes of conflict and exchange. Their object seems to be to make events like the Balkan conflict, Turkey’s bid to join the EU and Arab discontent with the West less potentially disturbing.

But in grounding the present in a past previously distorted and neglected, in seeing the past through the often narrow tunnels of the present, few of them have managed to shed the notion of a division essentially separating them from the Muslim world.

In God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (also published in 2008), David Levering Lewis, by contrast, makes the fascinating claim that what we think of as the West would never have emerged as a whole entity had it not been for the influence of, and conflict with, the Arabs and Berbers of Muslim Iberia. This goes beyond the notion – recently reiterated in books like The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons, Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely, and The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy – that Al Andalus (or, indeed, Ottoman Constantinople) was a haven of religious tolerance, ethnic intermingling, and scientific and humanitarian advance.

Few will question the argument that, if not for the Spanish Muslims’ transmission of learning all the way from Baghdad into Europe, the Renaissance could not have happened. But few ask what – beyond questionable economic benefits – makes the Turks so eager to be Europeans today, or why it is that so many Muslims are oppressed, disinherited, even mass-murdered under the present, western order.

Lewis stands out for proposing a credible integration, as opposed to a curt acknowledgement, of the rite of encounter. Muslims are not simply, as Wheatcroft suggests, Europe’s antagonistic but morally comparable peers. Instead, having been the superior other whom we (Europe) managed in time to outdo, Muslims are us.

The latter argument makes a far more convincing case for the hypothesis of a single civilisation readjusting its constituent elements through the centuries. But since the consequent insights are reflected in neither policy nor attitude – look at the various phenomena of Muslim immigration to the West and you will see just how disparate and unequal the alleged two sides remain – perhaps all that the retroactive history is doing is dealing with Western fear of Islam, not as a contestant in the making of civilisation but as an agent of insurgency, retrogress, chaos.

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