‘Geography of the ummah’

‘Geography of the ummah’

One of the concepts mentioned by the protestors who stormed the building of daily Hürriyet on Sept. 6, 2015, smashing its windows, was the “geography of the ummah,” which translates as the collective community of Islamic peoples. 

Politicians generally prefer softer concepts such as the “geography of our hearts” or the “geography of our civilization.”

“We are now removing the boundaries,” the protestors said.

My visits to Andalusia in Spain, Badshahi Mosque in Lahore and the shrine of Imam al-Bukhari in Samarkand left a deep impression on me. I would also like to visit the shrine of Saladin Ayyub and perform a two-rekat prayer.

Such experiences concern the emotions of our spiritual and cultural inner world. But can they be the subject of politics? Can there ever be a foreign policy based on the “geography of the ummah?”

Debates on Selim the Resolute 

The Egyptians have been attempting to change the name of the Salim Al Awal Street, named after Selim I, the Ottoman Sultan who oversaw the conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt in the sixteenth century.

Some 114 years ago there was a similar debate in Egypt.

A feature on the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Egypt, alongside a picture of Selim I, appeared in the newspaper “Türk,” published by the Young Turks in Egypt on March 17, 1904.

The feature included a poem by the great scholar Ibn Kemal in which Selim I was resembled as “the sun in the mid-afternoon,” having a big shadow and a huge albeit short-lived influence.

“All Muslims should be proud of him,” the feature said.

But as historian Şükrü Hanioğlu remarks, the Arabic press reacted to the feature. Reşit Rıza, a modernist Islamist, wrote in the magazine El Menar that the feature had stirred hatred against the Ottomans among the Arabs.

Arab nationalism 

Arab nationalism had actually sprung up during the reign of Abdul Hamid II as developments in education and the press inevitably foreshadowed the politicization of languages and “Arabism” among the educated Arabs who turned to nationalism.

Kazım Karabekir, the prominent general and politician of the Ottomans and the Republic of Turkey, said Arabic students were having heated arguments about their language. They were demanding that the Arabic language be the official language of the Ottomans just as the Turkish language was.

Some of those young Arabs fled from the Ottoman army and joined the rebellion led by Sharif Hussein of Mecca during the World War I.

Abdul Hamid II did not permit opening any Arabic-medium school. On the contrary, he convinced Mozaffar ad-Din Shah of Iran to open Turkish-medium schools for the Azeri people in Iran.

It was unimaginable for Mehmed the Conqueror or Selim I to follow such a language policy.

Stepping into a new age 

History is not a theater in which the same play is staged over and over. In history, the main plays are in a continuous course of change. As you I am sure you well know, laws, politics, institutions, tastes, experiences and even the foundations of knowledge in traditional agricultural societies differ widely from those of industrial societies.

Ottoman institutions based on agriculture stopped working in the 18th century when the industrial age kicked in. That is why the reformist Ottoman sultans of the 19th century tried to found or copy modern institutions and to establish modern schools.

All these developments paved the way to great and bloody tremors that led to multinational empires breaking up into nation states. The sultans were replaced with national sovereignty and imperial orders with acts.

In the 21st century, especially in the Balkans and the Middle East, foreign policy makers should avoid moves that could evoke memories of the old empires and should instead develop relations based on terms of equality.

Why was the Republic of Turkey conceived as a nation-state and why did the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, say: “Peace at home, peace in the world” in his speech in 1931? The answers to these questions shed light on the era in which we have been living.

To engage successfully with the 21st century, we should understand that our age requires the nation-state to become a beacon of the rule of law and democracy.

Arab, Middle East, Ottoman, Ottoman Empire, geography, opinion, Turkey