Book review: The Arabs and the Ottomans – Then and now

Dina Ezzat, Sunday 7 Aug 2011

Mohamed Afifi's historical research goes against the grain with regard to the role of the Ottomans in Arab history

"How could we qualify the Ottoman's annexation of the Arab countries or the arrival of Sultan Selim I to the Arab world between 1516-1517 and the consequent end of the Mamluk state?" It is with this basic, but for centuries controversial question that historian Mohamed Afifi approaches Ottoman history in Egypt in his book Arab and Ottomans, published by Dar Al-Shorouk as part of its Alternative Perspectives series of introductions.

The question posited in Arab and Ottomans is Afifi’s attempt to answer definitively the long-debated question: Did the Ottomans “conquer” or “open” the Arab world– a question that is only akin to the debate over the true qualification of the arrival of Muslim troops to Egypt.

Afifi’s thesis seems to argue “no,” bit gives a nod of understanding to those who argue “yes.”

In reading Afifi's Arab and Ottomans, one finds reason to go along with its author's argument that the fall of the Mamluks began before the arrival of the Ottomans and was not a direct rebound into that new relationship. 

Furthermore, Afifi also goes against the grain when he argues that the Ottoman’s days in Egypt were not necessarily inferior to the days of the Mohamed Ali (briefly say who Mohamed Ali is), who Afifi accuses of forcing a false testimony into the Ottomans’ history in Egypt. Bluntly, the idea that Egypt lost its independence under the Ottomans and regained it under the rule of Mohamed Ali is "an exaggerated argument" that Afifi says was "in fact, designed to give legitimacy to the rule of Mohamed Ali."

Pointedly, Afifi says that Egypt was not a sovereign state under Mohamed Ali and that the Mamluks were no more natives of the country than the Ottomans, or Mohamed Ali, for that matter, who was Albanian. So, if any of the three were considered occupiers, the others were, equally, as well. 

And, according to the author of Arabs and Ottomans, there is some evidence of what he qualifies as religious tolerance in the countries under the Ottoman Empire, overall economic well-being and a certain degree of social cohesion to suggest what the days of the Ottomans in the Arab countries.

The writing of Ottoman history in Egypt, Afifi reminds the reader in the early paragraphs of his 100-page book, is influenced not just on whether the historian has an Islamist or nationalist perspective, but also on the time period when the historian was writing. 

"After the defeat of [Egyptian in the war against Israel] in the 1967 war and with the rise of the Islamic trend; it was natural that the nationalist liberal debate gave way to those sympathetic to an Islamic perspective to allow for a re-filtering of this period from an Islamist perspective," Afifi offers as an example.

In fact, Afifi notices that usually when someone affiliated with Islamism touched on the Ottoman history in Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab world, the discourse almost always positive: the Ottoman Empire is the Muslim Khalifa and its “expansion” – the never considered it an “occupation” – of the Arab world only fortifies the ultimate Muslim state. Indeed, according to Afifi, those who subscribe to this theory immediately attribute the fall of Palestine in the hands of Jewish communities to the tragic fall of the Ottoman Empire.

In a nationalistic vein, Afifi characterised the Ottoman presence in Arab countries, including Egypt, as a four-century long occupation that undermined the status of Cairo and even that of the Arabic language itself – not to mention the interest in politics and the conditions of trade and crafts.

On the eve of World War I, Afifi states, the debate between those who supported the Germans and those who supported the Turks was the same: pursuing an independent and sovereign Egypt to be ruled only by Egyptians – a scenario that was only made possible by the 23 July 1952 Revolution, and those who adopted the Islamic State scenario.

Today, this debate is again evoked with Turkey’s increasing role in the Muslim-Arab world and with the rise of the political Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – with some of its members suggesting an interest to revive the Islamic Khalifa.

Al-Arab wa al othmaneyun (The Arabs and the Ottomans)
By Mohamed Afifi
Dar Al-Shorouk, Cairo, 2005. pp.104


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