How Erdogan rewrote the history of the Great Arab Revolt

Sunday 19/06/2016
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Emine Erdogan, greets supporters during a rally to mark the 563rd anniversary of the conquest of the city by Ottoman Turks, in Istanbul, on May 29th.

Beirut - This month marks the 100th anniversary of the self-proclaimed Great Arab Revolt of 1916, launched against Otto­man rule from the Arabian desert by Sharif Hussein, emir of Mecca. Thanks to a systematic decade-long campaign orchestrated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the event will pass almost unno­ticed in most Arab cities and media outlets.
The revolt, once a cornerstone of Arab nationalism, lasted from the summer of 1916 until autumn 1918 and, with Britain’s military sup­port, ended 400 years of Ottoman rule in the Arab world.
Generations grew up eulogis­ing Hussein’s Arab rebels. Movies were made in their honour. Books and poems showered them with praise. The subject was mandatory in state-run schools from Cairo and Baghdad to Damascus, Amman and Beirut.
That began to change when Er­dogan became Turkey’s prime min­ister in 2003, positioning himself as a friend of the Arabs and a “Muslim hero”. People were encouraged to remember Ottoman influence on the Arabic language, heritage, mu­sic and cuisine.
From 2003-11, works celebrat­ing the Great Arab Revolt were shunned on Arab television, just as critics of the Turkish leader were muzzled.
Erdogan was proud of Turkey’s Ottoman past and insisted on re­branding and reinventing Ottoman rule in the Arab world, politically, culturally, intellectually and eco­nomically.
He knew that for decades after the collapse of the empire, espe­cially when Arab republics were in their infancy, the Ottomans were blamed for most of the difficulties that crippled Arab provinces of the empire, especially Ottoman Syria.
He insisted on telling the world that Ottoman-Arab relations were never as bad or as autocratic as Arab history books depicted them to be after the first world war.
Pro-Erdogan intellectuals cheered this public relations strat­egy and contributed abundantly to it in Turkey and the Arab world. Syria’s state-run television went so far as to cut an interview with a Syrian historian who noted that the Ottomans had executed 21 Arab na­tionalists in Beirut and Damascus in 1916.
The reference to the executions — a well-documented fact celebrated officially as “Martyrs’ Day” in Syria and Lebanon — was too much for the show’s host to tolerate. He cut that part of the programme, saying: “We don’t want to upset Erdogan. Let’s just say they were killed, with­out mentioning who killed them.”
A systematic effort was launched to shed light on Sultan Abdul Ha­mid II’s refusal to sell land to the Zionists in Palestine and his refusal to meet Mizray Qrasow, the Jewish banker who had offered to pay off the empire’s debts and build a navy in exchange for the right to buy land in Palestine.
Once seen as the source of all things evil, the Ottoman sultans were suddenly revamped as far-sighted rulers who invested time, money and education in the Arab world.
Shortly before the outbreak of the “Arab spring”, Syria, Iraq and Egypt produced a TV mega-drama about the life of Abdul Hamid II, one of Erdogan’s Ottoman icons — a far cry from an Arab show of the 1990s that focused on the hardships, fam­ine, torture and executions blamed on the Ottoman Turks.
Abdul Hamid was now seen by millions of Arabs as a warm, firm, charming and dedicated Muslim nationalist who cared tremendous­ly for his subjects, be they Turks or Arabs. Turkish soap operas, all dubbed into Arabic, started invad­ing Arabic television networks, shattering decades-old Arab stereo­types of their Turkish neighbours.
Turkey championed the Palestin­ian cause, so dear to the heart of the Arabs, and severed ties with Israel in 2010. Erdogan invested heavily in economic cooperation and trade, lifting visa requirements with six Arab countries: Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon and Syr­ia.
If history tells us anything, it is that powerful empires are usually unhappy about being unceremoni­ously ejected from their far-flung provinces, which is what the Great Arab Revolt did to the Ottomans in 1916.
It seems that when an opportu­nity arises, empires almost always try to return — one way or another. Witness Russian President Vladimir Putin, who still feeds off Soviet am­bitions that crystallised in Ukraine, especially Crimea, two years ago.
The same applies to Erdogan, who, despite stirring huge contro­versy in the Arab world, still has some support among Arabs be­cause of his embrace of the Syrian opposition and for the Islamic char­acter he has revealed since 2011.
He has marketed himself as pa­tron of the Muslim Brotherhood and as a “Sunni leader” for the Ar­abs and Muslims. For lack of a bet­ter alternative, many have turned to him since 2011.
With the exception of Damas­cus and Baghdad, which have an ax to grind with him, and Amman, whose king is the great-grandson of Sharif Hussein, all major Arab cit­ies have been mute about the Great Arab Revolt on its 100th anniversa­ry — testimony to the fact that, like it or not, Erdogan has succeeded in changing Turkey’s image in the Arab world.