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The two caliphs: Mehmet Reshad of the Ottoman Empire, circa 1917, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS, July 2014

Just over a hundred years ago, in November 1914, a turbaned and bespectacled cleric stood on the exterior balcony of the great al-Fatih mosque in Istanbul. He read a fatwa that, among other things, enjoined all Muslims to fight against the British and French in a war taking place further north, in which a million men had already fallen. France, Russia, and Britain were allies. Their enemies were Germany and Austria-Hungary; and these, the Central Powers, were now being joined by the mightiest Muslim ruler in the world, the caliph Mehmet Reshad.

The al-Fatih (“Conqueror”) mosque had been built to celebrate the capture of Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1453 by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II and his Muslim Turkish army. After taking Istanbul the Turks had moved on westward, filling Europe—as Wordsworth put it—with “miserable fear.” That, however, was distant history by 1914. By then the Turkish Empire was in decline, having lost almost all its European and North African provinces, and had been derided as the “sick man of Europe” for sixty years. It still included what is now Turkey and the Levant—the coastlands running from Turkey to Egypt—and it claimed territory in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It had also one asset of potentially huge but incalculable value: Mehmet Reshad, descendant and successor of Mehmet II, was recognized by some Muslims as far east as India as their caliph, or ruler.

The cleric removed a scroll from the satin bag in which it had been placed by the Ottoman Empire’s most senior cleric, the Sheikh ul-Islam, and read the fatwa aloud to the people gathered below. It had been ratified by no fewer than twenty-nine Islamic scholars and declared binding on all Muslims around the world. Muslims must hasten, it said, with all their bodies and possessions, to fight jihad on behalf of the caliph Mehmet Reshad; if they were subjects of Russia, France, or Britain, they must wage war against those governments; if they failed to do so, they would be exposed to the wrath of God.

The fatwa sounds like the stereotype of Islam: medieval and militant. The background is more complex. The Ottoman Empire for which Muslims were summoned to fight was indeed thoroughly medieval in many ways. It contained five hundred automobiles at the end of 1913 (compared with one million in the United States); they had been legal only since 1908. The Ottoman front in World War I would involve sacred banners, cavalry charges across enemy lines, camel-back fighting, antique rifles, and bags of gold.

Yet it had its modern aspects. The Ottoman Empire’s real rulers were not the sultan but a group of military officers called the “Young Turks.” These had reformed the Ottoman army, parts of which proved during the war to be bold and formidable. A part of the reform was the recruitment of German officers for the Ottoman navy, which was supposedly under Turkish command, but the officers were unavoidably also loyal to their own government. One of these was Admiral Wilhelm Souchon.

In October 1914, Souchon was sent into the Black Sea in charge of a small fleet of Ottoman ships, with sealed orders that he knew would commit the empire to war once they were carried out. He was supposed to wait for confirmation before opening them. Once within range of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, without waiting for the necessary confirmation from Istanbul, he opened his orders and attacked. That was the action that committed the Ottomans to the war and led to the declaration of jihad.

Germany hoped that the jihad might radicalize the sixty million or so Muslims then living in British-ruled India, forcing Germany’s wartime enemy Britain to divert forces from Europe to contain the threat, and undermining the reliability of Britain’s 240,000-strong Indian army. The German authorities distributed Islamist propaganda. They also tried to radicalize Muslim POWs by singling them out for special treatment, and by deploying pro-Ottoman imams to persuade them to volunteer for the Ottoman army in the Middle East. There is an eerie resonance in the behavior today of ISIS recruits from such countries as France, who are following in the footsteps of these hapless Muslim instruments of the European foreign policies of an earlier era.

This foreign backing made it a rather peculiar kind of jihad. Militant as the Ottomans’ language was, they had tried hard to stay out of the war. Furthermore, Muslim holy warriors would be acting in concert with Christian allies. Even the crowd of the faithful who attended the declaration of jihad at the al-Fatih mosque went afterward to make a friendly visit to the embassies of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Hapsburg rulers of Austria-Hungary were the very ones who had stopped the Turkish advance across Europe some centuries before.


The 1914 fatwa’s aftermath is described in Eugene Rogan’s admirable and thoroughly researched The Fall of the Ottomans, which is a comprehensive history of World War I in the Middle East. The clue is in the title: the jihad did not work out as planned. A few Muslims did obey the fatwa, and fought for the Caliphate in Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere. Most did not. Many fought for the other side. What lessons may this have for us, confronted as we are by a new claimant to the Caliphate—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS?

The first lesson is that events in the Middle East are to a large extent determined by the region’s inhabitants, with a less central influence for outsiders than is sometimes presumed. Europe was playing with fire by stoking the jihad. Luckily, it had less power than it imagined even then to shape the Middle East. When I was learning Arabic twenty years ago, my teacher had a little joke to tell his British students. Long ago, he said, British students of Arabic just wanted to learn the imperative mood: “Join our war!” “Release our citizen!” But now, he said, in our dealings with Arabs and their governments we would need to learn other verb forms: “Please join our alliance.” “If you do this for us, we will do that for you.”

The imperative was always overused by Westerners: it still is, in every debate that presumes Western power and responsibility to shape the Middle East. The Arabs have their own version of this misplaced belief, often presenting themselves as powerless victims of outside forces. “If it were not for the scheming of you Europeans, Islam would have conquered the world!” as a Syrian acquaintance of mine once told me.

The claim of victimhood is understandable. For a hundred years, major events in the Middle East have been reported in the West with Westerners at the center of the picture. The Arab Revolt of 1916–1918, which overthrew Ottoman rule in the empire’s Arab provinces, is often presented as the creation of the British officer and writer T.E. Lawrence. In Rogan’s book, one of whose virtues is that it is based in large part on Arabic and Turkish sources, the revolt is much more clearly the initiative of the Arab sharif of Mecca, who proposed it to the British well before the start of World War I. Its military successes owed much to figures hardly known in the West, such as the Iraqi Jafar al-Askari and the Bedouin Auda Abu Tayi.

The best-known example of Western imposition on the Middle East is the Sykes-Picot Agreement made between Britain and France in 1916, which decided their respective zones of influence in the region in the event of victory in the war. The agreement conflicted with commitments to Arab independence separately made by the British to Arab rebels. It has become emblematic of European double-dealing and of the post–World War I order in the Middle East. “The end of Sykes-Picot” was the subject of a video released by an ISIS filmmaker in June, who demonstrated his point by stepping across the border between Iraq and Syria. Underlying this gesture is the supposition that the natural unity of the Arab or Islamic world was stymied by interfering colonialists.

In fact, as Rogan points out, the modern Middle East bears no resemblance to the Sykes-Picot map. (If anything, ISIS has restored something like the original Sykes-Picot Agreement, which allocated Mosul to Syria.) Although the Europeans did indeed betray the Arab nationalists’ hopes for a united postwar Arab state, they did so partly because the appetite for it was not as widespread as the nationalists had hoped. Subsequent attempts to unify Arab states have usually failed, and as British and French influence in the region has declined, the region has become more disunited rather than the reverse.

An allied myth, cherished by Islamists, is that Western colonial powers used their influence to suppress and undermine Islam. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. Europeans were attracted to the power of Islam and what they thought it could do for them. Few took a sentimental interest in the non-Muslim minorities of the Middle East. The German kaiser, for example, was approached during a tour of the Middle East by a Lebanese Christian who asked how Germany might help his community of 300,000 Christians. “You live among three hundred million Muslims; so why not turn Muslim?” was the only advice that the kaiser offered. Europeans did not impose modern ideas on the Arab world; Arabs, until the recent rise of Islamism, adopted them by choice.

Admiral Souchon’s act precipitating the Ottoman entry into World War I is an example of how Europeans could indeed have an impact on events in the Middle East—but nothing that he did would have been possible unless it had been, broadly speaking, in line with the inclinations of at least part of the Ottoman elite. Similarly, the Arab revolt was hastened and encouraged by the presence of British warships—but Britain could never have created the revolt out of thin air, and did not think it up for itself. The West can nudge events one way or another, and provide the strong support that will encourage Arab allies to act. It cannot however decide the Middle East’s future course with a few thousand well-aimed bombs, or even a few well-chosen words.


A second lesson from this book is about jihad and the Caliphate. The Caliphate was not an institution whose rules were laid down clearly in the Koran, but instead had evolved after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Bereft of their religion’s founder, the early Muslims had elected one of their own number to take his place. Or, according to the Shia and some other Muslims, the post went automatically to the Prophet’s son-in-law. The succession was controversial from the very start, and sets apart the Shia and Sunnis to this day. Sultan Mehmet Reshad’s ancestors were ceded the title by the last Arab claimant in the sixteenth century.


Antoine Agoudjian

A man in Aparan, Armenia, honoring ancestors from the area of Sason—in modern-day Turkey—who escaped the 1915 Armenian genocide, 1998; photograph by Antoine Agoudjian from The Cry of Silence: Traces of an Armenian Memory, just published by Flammarion

The caliph was traditionally an emperor, not a pope—a temporal leader with some spiritual authority, especially the power to declare war and make peace, but mainly in respect of his own territory and subjects. As the Ottoman Empire shrank and its former Muslim subjects came under alien rule, they still looked to the sultan on matters of religion. So the role of the sultan-caliph developed an extraterritorial dimension. As trade, newspapers, and the telegraph slowly brought news of the embattled Caliphate to even the most distant Muslims, the sultan came to be acclaimed as caliph in mosques as far east as Dhaka in modern-day Bangladesh.

At times this brought Muslim minorities under suspicion of being in league with the Ottomans against their own governments. Many Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire likewise gradually came under the protection of Christian powers, unfortunately reinforcing a sense that they had divided loyalties. The decades preceding World War I saw several forced exchanges of populations in which Muslims were driven out of Europe, and Christians driven out of the Ottoman Empire. This stoked religious militancy.

Yet as the Ottomans discovered in the bitter fighting of 1914–1918, their non-Turkish Muslim subjects—let alone Muslims from other parts of the world—were not reliable allies. One reason was that the Ottoman claim to the Caliphate was shaky. For the first six centuries of Islam the caliphs came (or claimed to come) from Muhammad’s Arab tribe, the Quraysh. Ottomans by contrast were ethnic Turks, and had made their claim to the Caliphate with circumspection. It was a claim more keenly accepted outside the Arab world than within it. In Dhaka the Ottoman sultan was acclaimed in mosques. In Arab Baghdad, by contrast, he was the butt of ribald songs.

Many Arabs, indeed, took the opportunity of the war to rebel against the Ottomans: they preferred the rival British-backed Arab sharif of Mecca; or some had no interest in obeying anybody’s religious call to arms. The Persians and southern Iraqis, followers of the Shia branch of Islam, had religious reasons to reject the sultan’s authority.

World War I did set Muslims against Christians more bloodily than ever before—but not through any global jihad. The fighting was the product instead of the Ottomans’ manipulation of local grievances, racism, and religious chauvinism against a portion of their own citizens. In 1914, Ottoman-ruled Anatolia was only 18 percent non-Muslim. Now renamed Turkey, it is 99.8 percent Muslim. What came in between is known as the Armenian genocide, a controversial term that Rogan uses, though sparingly, at the end of his book. That more than 600,000 and perhaps as many as 1.5 million Armenians and other Christians (and indeed some Yazidis too) were killed is not in question.

One Ottoman governor gave the order “to exterminate all Armenian males of twelve years of age and over.” Kurdish nomads, enemies of the Armenians because of constant land disputes, were given free rein to act on old grudges. All across eastern Anatolia, men were executed and their corpses thrown into rivers or mass graves; survivors were used for forced labor; women and children were driven on forced marches across the desert. They could survive if they converted to Islam. Among the victims were members of the Assyrian Christian community whose descendants, just last year, were exposed to similar treatment from Baghdadi’s followers.

The Ottoman authorities initiated the killings not out of religious ardor but cold-blooded policy: they feared that the Armenians would side with Christian Russia in the war, just as they hoped that Muslims would take their own side. They made misjudgments on both counts. Their massacres did not stop the Russian advance. Meanwhile of the more than a million Muslims who served in the British Indian army in the Middle East between 1914 and 1918, many of whom accepted the sultan’s religious authority, few defected to the Ottomans. Most, in the words of one Indian Muslim leader of the time, swerved “not a hair’s breadth” from their loyalty to George V.

Compared with the Russians, in fact, whose Communist revolution took them out of the war in 1917, the world’s Muslims proved unexpectedly immune to radicalization. As a general rule, the people of the Middle East sought to be on the winning side, not the side of religion. When the British lost battles, the Ottomans gained recruits; when they defeated Ottoman armies, the Bedouin tribes rounded on the retreating Turks. So clear was this trend that the British invested heavily in losing battles like their increasingly desperate attempt at Gallipoli, preferring to fight on rather than accept defeat and risk the wider effect on Muslim morale.

ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an Arab, and claims descent from the Quraysh; but it is likely that his support will fluctuate just as Mehmet Reshad’s did. Every defeat diminishes his appeal. Every time the anti-ISIS coalition, like the British at Gallipoli, is forced to give up overambitious campaigns against Baghdadi, his reputation and recruiting power will grow.

That is the precedent that reaches us from 1914. It is sadder to reflect on the Middle East’s lost diversity. In 1870 Muslims, Christians, and other religions lived side by side all throughout the Middle East, Anatolia, and the Balkans. They were unequal, but if the Ottomans had modernized faster, or World War I had not happened, it is just about possible to imagine that their empire might have evolved into a genuine multiethnic, multireligious state. The former Ottoman province of Egypt managed to go some way down this path, after obtaining de facto autonomy in the early nineteenth century. Between 1860 and 1930 it had three Christian prime ministers. The Arab states that emerged from the Ottoman Empire achieved a degree of religious harmony; some still have it. Where persecutions have happened, they have proven—like their grim precedent—to bring only harm to the nations that have perpetrated them.

The Ottoman Empire surrendered in October 1918. Its land was parceled out to various ethnic minorities by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. But this was one more colonial map that would mean nothing in practice. An officer called Mustafa Kemal (later styled Atatürk) recruited a Turkish Muslim army, repudiated the treaty, and established the borders of modern Turkey by force. He also abolished the position of sultan in 1922, keeping only the Caliphate. Then in 1924 he abolished the Caliphate as well.

It was a controversial step. The Economist in March 1924 commented that Muslim minorities in countries like India and Russia might particularly lament the fall of the Caliphate because it “carries a message of salvation through an international Muslim solidarity…. We are possibly on the eve of a profound cleavage of policy within the Muslim world.” So it happened, with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood springing up in the aftermath of the Caliphate’s demise, trying to recreate it and, with it, a lost Islamic unity that had not, in fact, truly existed since the death of the Prophet nearly thirteen centuries before. Except for a brief campaign in 1924 by the sharif of Mecca (ancestor of King Abdullah of Jordan) to have himself recognized as caliph, no candidates came forward. Until, that is, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preached to a Mosul mosque in July last year, claiming to do so as caliph of a new Islamic State.

It is hard to lament the Ottoman Empire, which slaughtered the Armenians. Nor was its treatment of its Arab subjects much milder: those who sided with the British faced mass execution. Its religious tolerance, too, has been greatly overstated. The massacres of the Armenians were not unique, but were preceded by an attack on the Yazidis in the 1890s just as ruthless as ISIS’s last year. It is tempting, though, to look back at that moment between 1922 and 1924 when the Muslim world technically had a religious leader with no political power. Might such a figurehead have provided unity to a fractured Muslim world? Might he have had the religious authority to put down upstarts like Baghdadi?

It has become common in Western circles, infused by the Whig interpretation of history, to speak of the need for a Muslim Luther to induce liberalism in Islam. The troubles of the Muslim world, however, are not those of pre-Reformation Europe, but rather of the Reformation in full swing. Hundreds of splintering congregations are seeking to suppress the accretions of popular religion, and return to the letter of the original scriptures, denouncing and warring with one another and the resurgent hierocrats of Shia Islam in Iran. Nobody speaks for all Muslims, and political power is sought on the back of religious piety. If one is to engage in the prescribing of solutions for Islam—a presumptuous excursion into the realm of the hypothetical, and to be done with due humility—then the fall of the Ottomans inspires a different thought: perhaps we should encourage our Muslim friends to seek not a Luther but a pope.