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After Paris: Long Cycles in Politics and History

The world still awaits a resolution of the end of the Ottoman Empire, Caliphate or not.

November 16, 2015

The world still awaits a resolution of the end of the Ottoman Empire, Caliphate or not.

Even though the 11/13 attacks in Paris occurred within days of the annual occurrence of Armistice Day (11/11), most commentators did not immediately connect them to the First World War a hundred years ago.

And yet, they are. During or right after the War of 1914-1918, three Empires collapsed. One was the Austro Hungarian (Habsburg) Empire. It dissolved, releasing a dozen new nations across Central Europe.

The other collapse occurred in Germany, where the Hohenzollern Dynasty abdicated, with the country embarking on an uneasy life as a democratic republic.

The Second World War was needed to solve Germany’s political malaise, partially if not completely. It took the end of the Cold War to unite Germany into a single democratic republic.

The Romanovs of Russia lost their claim to the Russian Empire with the Bolshevik Revolution of November 7, 1917. However, that change of political authority did not lead to dissolution of the Russian Empire or loss of territory.

In fact, the Russian Empire actually deepened under Communist Party leadership and expanded. The Romanov/Bolshevik Empire was only dissolved in 1991, with Russia’s leaders now trying to reclaim at least part of the imperial mantle.

The last empire

The one Empire whose dissolution was least noticed in the aftermath of WWI is the one which is the major headache for the world today.

The Ottoman Empire came to a close with the end of the First World War. Since its defeat had been foreseen, Britain and France had begun to carve up its territory into “areas of influence” via a secret treaty – the Sykes Picot Treaty of 1916.

That deal, along with the Balfour Declaration of the same year, set in motion the current set of conflicts in the Middle East. Britain got Iraq, Palestine and Jordan while France took Syria and Lebanon as their responsibility under the League of Nations.

The boundaries were drawn arbitrarily on a map during the war and new kings were installed from among the client families of the Allied Powers. What we have today is the working out of the contradictions of the Sykes Picot Treaty and the Balfour Declaration.

The end of the Ottoman Empire meant for the Sunni Muslims the end of the Caliphate which had been in continuous existence since the passing away of the Prophet Mohammad. Viewed with a Western lens, the end of the Caliphate was as if the Catholic Church had lost the Papacy — but even worse.

The Emperor/ Khalif traced his descent from the Prophet himself in an unbroken line. Sunni Muslims have been without a legitimate head since the end of the First World War.

Absent such an organizing leader and owing to the haphazard Franco-British construction, outbreaks of violence have been in the offing for a long time.

When things got worse

What initially made things worse for Sunnis was Kemal Pasha taking over power in Turkey, abolishing the Caliphate in 1924 and asserting his modernizing tendency.

As an atheist, he had no time for orthodox Islam and its clergy. He deliberately gave Turkey a constitution as a secular republic.

The rest of the old Ottoman Empire had to wait until after the Second World War to shape its own future. Soon enough, the Kings were removed, except in Jordan.

In their place, a pan-Arab movement was built up, with the promise of a modernizing Socialist Republican movement.

A United Arab Republic was mooted by Nasser after the Egyptian monarchy had been replaced by a military coup. But whatever its other shortfalls in the realm of economic policy and civic rights, the pan-Arab movement failed to get rid of the old imperial designs which had originated in 1916.

It did not help that, after the existence of Israel was finally sanctioned by the United Nations in 1948, the Arabs fought and lost three wars against Israel in 1948,1967 and 1973.

After those three defeats, the modernizing Republican movement in the Middle East lost its reputation as a viable and potent force. The people of the region rejected the Socialist pan-Arab crusade and reverted to Islam for an answer.

The four decades that have passed since the 1973 war have been murderous for the region. Lebanon fell apart on multiple occasions. The Iraq-Iran war lasted for much of the 1980s.

The only countervailing force, the oil price rise of 1973, brought a lot of money to Saudi Arabia and helped it finance the revival of the Wahhabi movement. That, however, was anything but a peace-building and constructive move for the region.

Saudi Arabia’s leaders used it to cynically and systematically exploit all the cracks in the increasingly tenuous firmament of the peoples living in the Middle East.

Al Qaeda, ISIS and ISIL

Al Qaeda was a further response to the crisis of the region. It waged an Islamist war against the West and its presence in the region.

But Al Qaeda lacked ambition. ISIS or ISIL changed the game by rejuvenating the aspiration of a Caliphate. This may seem a trivial, transparent or even anachronistic ploy to Westerners.

However, this ambition has a tremendous pull for a new generation of Sunni Muslims who see its establishment as a return to the challenge of reasserting the forgotten legacy of the Ottoman Empire.

Thus, it is that last unresolved issue of the First World War that has come to haunt us with full frontal force. Its resolution may be modernization, as happened to Europe and is happening at variable speeds in Asia and Africa.

But that may not be the ultimate outcome. After all, it is precisely the disappointment with previous strategies of modernization in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere that fuels the appeal of ISIS today.

A true word of caution: A military defeat of ISIS – even if it could be accomplished — is not enough. The emotional vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire with its link to the Founder of Islam is impossible for non-Muslims to understand.

The assertion by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi that he is the New Caliph has little legitimacy, except for his call to the force of arms.

It may even be that a part of the post-ISIS policy on the part of the Great Powers should be the re-institution of a legitimate Caliphate for the Sunni Muslims.

This would acknowledge that the crisis unleashed by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has finally reached closure. Some sort of resolution of the end of the Ottoman Empire is a political necessity. How soon it will come is anybody’s guess.

The rise of identity politics is not just an issue in the Western world. Its true virulence manifests itself in Sunni lands.


The end of Ottoman Empire meant end of the Caliphate that was in existence since Prophet Mohammad.

Sunni Muslims have been without a legitimate head since the end of the First World War.

Young Sunni Muslims see the Caliphate as a return to the forgotten legacy of the Ottoman Empire.

Disappointment with strategies of modernization in Iraq and Syria fuel the appeal of ISIS today.

It’s impossible for non-Muslims to understand the emotional vacuum left by the fall of Ottoman Empire.

Identity politics is not just an issue in the West. Its true virulence manifests itself in Sunni lands.