Daily Archives: 13 August 2006

Ataturk and the Last Caliph, 1922–24

After the disastrous Young Turk flirtation with Germany, the last Ottomans were in fact cosmopolitan and progressive. The brief “jazz years” of Constantinople saw the throne reject its recent disastrous leap into ethnic nationalism and resurrect its centuries-old tradition of tolerance. The city got a Kurdish chief of police and a flowering of Kurdish newspapers. The Armenians were left in peace. Women’s hemlines were rising and the veils were falling. Yet these last Ottomans were enormously unpopular. It was not that the Turkish people weren’t ready for liberalization of all kinds, as Ataturk would prove shortly thereafter. It was rather that the last Ottomans had shown a love for all things modern, liberal, and Western—fast cars, fast women, “high life,” as Mr. Osman called it—just as their empire was being picked apart by the European powers. They were seen, quite simply, as traitors.

Ataturk was firmly in control of the “new” nation of Turkey by 1922, though it was unclear what his official position was. He had moved the seat of government to Ankara, a small, barren city in Anatolia, in order to insulate Turkish politics from the intrigues of Constantinople. He had removed the temporal rights from the Ottoman throne—that is, detached the title of sultan from caliph—turning the position, for the first time in history, into a purely religious one, but he was not prepared to abolish it yet. To end the caliphate at the same time as the sultanate might have been too much for the hidebound Turks, especially the religious establishment. Ataturk did not want a civil war, so he ended the sultanate first, and then looked around for the cleverest, most honorable Osman to become caliph.

He chose … Abdul Mejid, who was a serious-minded Renaissance man—an accomplished scholar, painter, musician, and poet—and perhaps the most progressive ruler ever to have sat on the throne. An American magazine profile in 1924 noted that the caliph “read a great deal … German and French philosophers … he regretted his inability to read English well enough to understand the English philosophers. He found politics distasteful, because it is ‘the cause of so much hardship and unhappiness.'” Mr. Mejid had told the magazine that he counted on foreigners to come to Turkey. “Their coming here should be of great assistance to this country,” he said. “Their money will enable us to build schools and enlighten the people of this unfortunate nation, who until now have been nothing but excellent warriors, though they have all the aptitudes for becoming philosophers and scientists.”

Most astonishingly, perhaps, the spiritual leader of all the world’s Sunni Muslims flatly denied the superiority of Islam. The scholar-sultan told the American reporter that he dreamed of a world “where all human beings will call one another brothers, racial and religious considerations will disappear, and people will live obeying the true word of God as it was brought to them by His prophets, Moses, Christ, Confucius, Buddha and Mahomet.”

Then, on March 3, 1924, Ataturk suddenly abolished the position of caliph, a little more than a year after convincing the enlightened Mr. Mejid to take the job. On March 23, the vali of Constantinople, a sort of lord high chamberlain, received instructions from Ankara that “the Caliph should be treated with utmost courtesy but must be out of Turkey before dawn.” All male descendants of the Osmans were to be given twenty-four hours to leave. Princesses and others had three days. The caliph would receive $7,500 in cash, and $500 each would go to the other members of the Osman family. The Osmans had never handled money before, as their servants had always had unlimited access to the country’s treasury on behalf of their material wishes. Many barely knew how to dress themselves. The family’s passports were to be stamped to bar them from ever returning to Turkey; they were to be permitted to live wherever they chose in the West, but no Osman was to take up residence in a Muslim country, for fear that he could resurrect himself as either sultan or caliph.

SOURCE: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss (Random House, 2005), pp. 117-118

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