Bring Back the Caliphate

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Soner Cagaptay
Wall Street Journal
October 7, 2009

The reaction in Turkey to the recent death of Ertugrul Osman, heir to the Ottoman throne and successor to the last Caliph, could not be more shocking. Islamists in kaftans and long beards gathered in Istanbul two weeks ago to bury the titular head of the world Muslim community, a scotch-drinking, classical music-listening Western Turk who until recently lived on New York City’s Upper East Side.

The Islamists’ embrace of Osman, a descendant of the westernized Ottoman sultans, provides a periscope into the Islamist mind: Islamism is not about religion or reality. Rather it is a myth and a subversion of reality intended to promote Islamism, a utopian ideology. Osman, raised by a line of West-leaning caliphs and sultans, loved Ataturk’s Turkey, yet the Islamists abused his funeral and the memory of the caliphate, changing it into a symbol for their anti-Western, anti-secular and anti-liberal agenda.

Were Ertugrul Osman alive and were the Ottomans around today, he would be Sultan Osman V and no doubt, he would be going after the fundamentalists who abused his funeral in an attempt to distort his legacy.

Despite what the Islamists want the world to believe, the Ottoman caliphate was not anti-Western. The Ottoman Empire always interacted with the West — an interaction that goes all the way back to 16th-century Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, who envisioned himself as the Holy Roman emperor. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman sultans and caliphs embarked on a program of intense reforms to remake the Ottoman Empire in the Western image to match up with European powers. To this end, the caliphs launched institutions of secular education, and paved the way for women’s emancipation by enrolling them in those schools. By the beginning of the 19th century, the sultans and caliphs of the Ottoman Empire embodied Western life and Western values. The last caliph, Abdulmecid Efendi, considered the Ottoman state a Western power with a Western destiny. An enlightened man and avid artist, the caliph’s sought-after paintings, including nudes, are on exhibition at various museums, such as Istanbul’s new museum of Modern Art.

It is therefore wrong to represent the Ottoman Empire as the antithesis to the secular republic Ataturk founded in 1923. True, when Ataturk turned Turkey into a secular republic in 1923 by abolishing the Ottoman state and the caliphate, Ataturk did noteradicate the sultan-caliphs’ legacy. Rather, he fulfilled their dream of making Turkey a full-fledged Western society. Ataturk’s reforms are a continuation of the late Ottoman Empire — he merely pursued Ottoman reforms to their logical conclusion.

Moreover, Ataturk was the product par excellence of the Ottoman Empire. He was raised in Salonika, the hub of cosmopolitanism and Western culture in the reforming empire. He studied in secular Ottoman schools, and he was trained in the Westernized Ottoman military.

The debate over the Ottoman caliphate’s legacy has ramifications not only for Turkey, but also for contemporary Muslims and the Western world’s desire to counter radical Islamists. Years before emergence of al Qaeda, the caliphs produced an antidote against radical jihadists, a progressive vision for a Western-oriented Muslim society. The sultan-caliphs built the institutional foundations of this society, including the first Ottoman parliament and constitution of 1876, and planted in it seeds of Western values, such as secular education and women’s emancipation. Modern Turkey owes its existence as much to Ataturk as to the sultan-caliphs who were among the first to promote liberal and Western values in a Muslim society.

Now, the Islamists want to usurp the caliphate and its legacy. The fundamentalists first distort the caliphate’s politics, reimagining it as an anti-Western institution. Then, they portray the revival of this invented caliphate as the ultimate political dream in an anti-Western ideology.

Eighty years ago, the Ottoman caliph-sultans imagined a Turkey that is more akin to modern Turkey than to the Islamist society envisioned by al Qaeda or others who dismiss Ataturk’s dream of a Western Turkey and liberal values as anomalies. Ertugrul Osman himself told Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas shortly before his death that “the republic has been devastating for our family, but very good for Turkey.”

Caliph Osman was Turkish by birth, Muslim by religion, and a Westerner by upbringing. I want my caliph back, and so should all Muslims who want deliverance from the distorted and illiberal world envisioned by the Islamists.

Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.


Ertugrul Osman, Link to Ottoman Dynasty, Dies at 97

Published: September 24, 2009

Ertugrul Osman, who might have ruled the Ottoman empire from a palace in Istanbul, but instead spent most of his life in a walk-up apartment in Manhattan, died Wednesday night in Istanbul. He was 97.

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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

His Imperial Highness Prince Osman Ertugrul of Turkey and Princess Zeynep in their two-bedroom walk-up on Lexington Avenue.

The cause was kidney failure, according to his wife, Zeynep, who was visiting Istanbul with him when he died.

Mr. Osman was a descendant of Osman I, the Anatolian ruler who in 1299 established the kingdom that eventually controlled parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Mr. Osman would have eventually become the Sultan but for the establishment of the Turkish Republic, proclaimed in 1923.

For the last 64 years, Mr. Osman — formally His Imperial Highness Prince Ertugrul Osman — lived in a rent-controlled apartment in a four-story building on Lexington Avenue in the East 70s. At one time he kept 12 dogs in his home, a two-bedroom unit up a narrow, dim stairway, and enlisted neighborhood children to walk them.

Given the gap between what might have been and what was, Mr. Osman was often asked if he dreamed that the empire would be restored. He always answered, flatly, no.

“I’m a very practical person,” he told The New York Times in 2006. “Democracy works well in Turkey.”

In an interview for Al Jazeera television in 2008, he refused to say an unkind word about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led the revolution that deposed his family.

Ali Tayar, an architect from Istanbul and a friend, said in 2006 that Mr. Osman had “no ambitions to return, and he doesn’t want anyone to think he does.”

“But he’s an incredibly important link to Turkey’s past,” Mr. Tayar added.

Born in 1912, Mr. Osman was the last surviving grandson of an Ottoman emperor; his grandfather, Abdul Hamid II, ruled from 1876 to 1909. In 1924, the royal family was expelled by Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. “The men had one day to leave,” Mr. Osman said. “The women were given a week.”

Mr. Osman attended school in Vienna and moved to New York in 1939. He returned to Turkey for the first time 53 years later, in August 1992, at the invitation of the prime minister. On that trip, he went to see the 285-room Dolmabahce Palace, which had been his grandfather’s home (and where he had played as a child). He insisted on joining a tour group, despite the summer heat. “I didn’t want a fuss,” he said. “I’m not that kind of person.”

As a young man, Mr. Osman ran a mining company, Wells Overseas, which required him to travel frequently to South America. Because he considered himself a citizen of the Ottoman Empire, he refused to carry the passport of any country. Instead, he traveled with a certificate devised by his lawyer. That might have continued to work had security measures not been tightened after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2004, he received a Turkish passport for the first time.

Mr. Osman married Gulda Twerskoy in 1947. She died in 1985. At a party in 1987, he met Zeynep Tarzi Hanim, an Afghan princess. Nearly 30 years his junior, she had been raised in Istanbul and was living in New York. They married in 1991. He has no other survivors.

Mr. Osman often impressed interviewers with his dry wit and knowledge of trends in politics, architecture and pop culture. When Didem Yilmaz, a filmmaker, interviewed Mr. Osman for “Seeking the Sultan,” a short documentary film about him, she expected to find him bitter about his life’s trajectory. Instead, she said, she found him to be “kind, understanding and contemplative.”

At one point, she added, he said to her knowingly, “If I had a bad life, it would be better for your film.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 5, 2009
Because of an editing error, an obituary on Sept. 24 about Ertugrul Osman, a descendant of Turkish royalty, misstated the length of time his second wife, Zeynep, lived with him in a Manhattan apartment and misstated the ownership of 12 dogs that lived there at one time. Ms. Osman has lived there since the couple married in 1991, not “for the last 64 years.” (Mr. Osman had lived in the apartment for that length of time.) And the dogs were owned by Mr. Osman, not by the two of them.

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