Political Lessons from the Ottoman Empire - OZY | A Modern Media Company
ca. 1880s, Turkey --- Horsemen of the Imperial Cavalry of the Ottoman Empire ride through a gate. Turkey, ca. 1880s. --- Image by © Michael Maslan Historic Photographs/CORBIS


The Ottoman Empire ruled some of today’s most conflicted regions with a combination of military might and brilliant identity politics. Their longevity, and their PR strategies, might be a roadmap for the rocky rides ahead.

By Jack Doyle

After 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems hard to believe that the Middle East and the West could ever get along, even if recent Iran nuclear talks provide a glimmer of hope. Should we just resign ourselves to the vision Samuel Huntington described in 1996’s The Clash of Civilizations, in which religious and cultural differences are an endless source of conflict?

The Ottomans could command loyalty and unity across vast distances by allowing the conquered to practice their native religion. 

But that world once existed. From 1453 to 1922, the Ottoman Empire sprawled from the Balkans to Libya to Iran. The Ottomans were international traders, highly efficient self-governors and a diverse bunch both religiously and racially. The legacy of their rule can still be seen in present-day European and Middle Eastern politics. So what’s to be learned from their success? 

1. Politics and religious culture can work together.

The Ottomans weren’t exactly PC — they took much of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and parts of North Africa by force from the 15th century onwards.

However they did have a remarkable strategy for holding on to power once they’d got it. Taking a tip from the Roman Empire, the Ottomans were able to command loyalty and unity across vast distances by allowing conquered people to continue practicing their native religion (the catch was you had to accept governorship by Muslim caliphates). In fact, when Spain expelled 150,000 Jews in 1492, the Ottoman Empire invited the refugees in.

Recent attempts to legislate religious practices — like the ban on wearing headscarves in France — have only deepened religious and racial tensions in an increasingly multicultural Europe. As immigration changes population demographics, it’s important to continue treating other religions with respect — even if modern Europe is far more secular than it was when sultans and popes wielded power. 

Woman with cream colored headwrap stands in front of protestors

A Muslim woman in France wears a headband with “don’t touch” in French. 

2. Islam isn’t dead-end fundamentalism.

Despite being Muslim conquerors, the Ottomans did not practice sharia law across the board but had a variety of province-focused governments. As such, the apparently ruthless Ottoman Empire had some astounding moments of progressiveness that put Western Europe to shame. 

The 18th- and 19th-century Ottoman sultans — nearly all of them devout Muslims — promoted education for women, constructed secular schools for Muslims and non-Muslims to share, celebrated modern art and fostered international trade links. The Ottoman Empire decriminalized homosexuality in 1853, more than a century before the American Psychiatric Association stopped referring to it as a mental illness.

Many Western politicians’ attitudes towards the Muslim world have grown one-sided. Treating fundamentalism as synonymous with Islam is both historically and culturally inaccurate and only hampers diplomacy.

Nostalgia for empire often goes hand in hand with nationalism, anti-secularism and conservative thinking.

3. History matters. 

Modern Turkey, the heir to the former Ottoman Empire, is undergoing a period of economic prosperity marred by growing resistance to nearly a century of secularism. Recently, Ottoman-style geometric Islamic art and architecture have come back in vogue in Turkish homes and workplaces. There’s also been a rash of entertainment glorifying the past, including the hit film Conquest 1453 about Sultan Mehmed II’s takeover of Constantinople, and the risqué TV drama Magnificent Century, set during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, when the Ottoman Empire was at its peak. Plans are even in the works to build a theme park in Istanbul where people can dress up in 15th-century Ottoman clothing and watch swordfights.

The Republic of Turkey was intended as a post-World War I break from an imperial past. But its leaders should pay attention to this rising interest in the Ottomans. Nostalgia for empire, historian Richard Evans suggests, often goes hand in hand with nationalism, anti-secularism and conservative thinking. 

Their empire may not longer exist, but the Ottomans are a modern-day barometer for political feeling in modern Turkey — and the East-West divide it so precariously straddles.

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