How Erdogan rewrote the history of the Great Arab Revolt
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.