Ottomans benefited from the propaganda of Islamist groups from the beginning of the twentieth century
The Riyadh municipality’s decision to remove the name of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent from one of its main streets has encouraged other Arab cities to get rid of reminders of Ottoman legacy as illustrated by the names of streets and landmarks.
This trend was in great part a reaction to Turkish intervention in Syria and Libya and the projected desire of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to impose his country’s influence on the region like in the days of the Ottoman empire.
Saudi Twitter users shared pictures showing the moment the Riyadh municipality removed the street plate bearing the name of Suleiman the Magnificent from one of its streets.
The municipality’s decision was a symbolic message that fuelled calls in Arab cities to get rid of other modern day reminders of Ottoman colonialism. This happened amid growing calls for former colonial powers to issue apologies and compensations for their past misdeeds against occupied nations.
In contrast to the Saudi decision, the Libyan municipality of Tajoura, east of the capital Tripoli, named one of its main roads after Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
This was announced in a social media post shared Monday by Tajoura Mauor Hussein Bin Attia.
The mayor stated that the municipality of Tajoura had formally decided to give the road that starts from the lighthouse of Al-Hamidiya “Al-Fanar” and runs all the way to the island of Al-Duran (known as “the island of Spain”), the name of Sultan Suleiman.
These events could trigger a “street war,” with designations and counter-designations in the region between opponents of Turkish military intervention and its apologists.
The name Suleiman the Magnificent carries special symbolism for Erdogan’s regime because of his expansionist ambitions at the expense of other peoples and nationalities. Suleiman also exhibited intense cruelty during his reign, including by victimising his closest relatives because of his obsession with raw power and penchant for tyranny.
The Saudi move coincided with mass demonstrations in the West calling for a review of the past, the prosecution of those responsible for racially motivated crimes and the toppling of statues of prominent historical figures accused of bigotry in the United States and Britain.
There is also a growing trend in the Arab world to reevaluate the past. This would include putting Ottoman colonialism on trial and doing what it takes to rid the history books of the glorification of the Turks and their activities. Particularly resented are unjustified efforts to ascribe a religious dimension to the Ottomans’ colonial actions. The truth is that the Turks expelled some colonial powers (the Spanish in North Africa for example), only to play the same role if not worse.
Categorising Ottoman invasions in the Arab world as part of a Muslim conquest does not hold water since the notion of Muslim conquests applies only to lands that were previously non-Muslim. The Ottomans, on the other hand, entered Arab countries in the Maghreb and the Middle East as invaders. Their only concern was humiliating the population and demanding loyalty to the Othman dynasty, which imposed its will east and west by force of arms.
Historians say that Ottoman colonialism does not differ in nature from the Western colonialism it left behind in the region. Ottomans also paved the way for powerful Turkish families to control fertile lands and settle in the best parts of the region, in addition to imposing unfair taxes aimed at forcing hapless populations to bear the cost of Turkey’s old wars.
Experts point out that the Ottomans benefited from the propaganda of Islamist groups from the beginning of the twentieth century, which bestowed on them the image of Muslim conquerors. But the matter is now different after the direct Turkish expansion in Syria and Libya. With the expansion of Turkish economic and political influence in many countries of the region, locals increasingly view Turkey as a colonial power, regardless of the historical rationale it tries to invoke to anchor its influence.
The same way Armenians demanded compensation for Ottoman crimes, Arab voices have begun making a case against Ottoman colonialism and demanding a Turkish apology for the massacres carried out by the Ottomans in the countries of the Levant and the Maghreb, as well as holding this colonialism responsible for the backwardness which has held back the region for centuries.
Article first published on The Arab Weekly.