America and the Ottoman Empire
Currently, the United States and the Islamic world are at odds over many issues, and while the policy of the U.S. is to find ways of finding areas of agreement with Islamic countries, there are still basic differences between the two areas and the religions they support. Islam is a hierarchical religion, and to a great extent, the political and social realm in Islamic countries is also hierarchical. The U.S. is a democracy. One area of agreement is found I the origin of each society, for both came into existence as part of an effort to achieve religious freedom and to escape from religious oppression. The two have not always recognized this area of agreement, and in part have been at odds from the first precisely because they also represent different religious traditions. The West as a whole has been suspect in the Islamic world since the time of the Crusades, which were undertaken as a religious war against Islam as an infidel religion. The founders of the United States also had doubts about Islam and saw the Otoman Empire as a threat to be contained or eliminated. Many of these attitudes color relations to this day.
The Ottoman Empire
The history of Islam can be divided into distinct phases — the period of emergence extended from 610 to 661; the period of classical elaboration, or the Golden Age, from 661 to 1258; and the era of repetition and scholastic fragmentation from 1258 to 1800, followed by a time of reactivation and political militancy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Arkoun 3). Islam began with Muhammad and the revelations he made to his followers and others. The first Muslim was Khadija, the Prophet’s wife, and the second was either his freed slave or his teenage cousin. In a short time, he had about 40 converts. The new doctrine took shape in Mecca, and the number of converts rose to 100. A period of persecution followed, leading to the Hijra, or emigration to Medina. In time, the ideological struggle between the Meccans and the Muslims developed into an armed conflict, beginning when Mohammed raised a party of 300 to set an ambush at the well of Badr on the road to Syria:
The Battle of Badr is a landmark and had far reaching consequences. It sanctioned a concern for material existence and the use of force as a means of survival, and both were built into the foundations of Islam… The victory was interpreted by the Muslims as a sign that the city of Mecca would fall and that all Mohammed’s opposition from Christians, Jews and pagans was in the wrong. Mohammed henceforth saw his task as overcoming all opposition. (Roberts 19)
At the beginning of the 7th Century, the Near and Middle East was divided between Byzantium and Persia, after some three centuries of struggle. After the death of Muhammad there was a sort of constitutional crisis that was solved by the imposition of Abu Bakr as sole successor to the Prophet. He was the head of the region, with executive powers and an army. He first countered military action among the tribes known as the Ridda, a word that means apostasy. The war with the Ridda developed into a war of conquest leading far beyond the boundaries of Arabia to Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Initially, each of these invasions constituted an expansion of the Arab nation, not of Islam. The role of religion in the conquests was overestimated by early writers. The Arabs took over only state lands and the lands of enemies of the regime. The Muslims did not interfere with the internal civil and religious administration of the conquered peoples. Islam was identified by this time with Arabism, and this was apparent as non-Arab Muslims flocked to the faith. During the reign of ‘Uthman there was a breakdown, with Medina a center of opposition internally and Egypt attacking externally. ‘Ali came to power in Medina and marched on Kufa, which he made his capital. The Caliph successfully undercut ‘Ali’s power, and Mu’awiya was named Caliph in Syria and was soon generally accepted all over the Empire (Lewis 92-94).
At the time of Muhammad, Mecca and environs was in a state of fermentation that was aggravated by social injustices resulting from discontent with the system of privilege benefiting those with the right connections. One of the unifying political structures that emerged from the rule of Muhammad and that would continue to be of vital importance during the Golden Age and beyond was the caliphate, and the first to follow the Prophet was, as noted, Abu Bakr. The caliph was a ruler and also the commander of the faithful and the imam, or guide, of the community:
The caliphate in its heyday was a powerful instrument working for the solidarity and coherence in Islam. The caliph enforced legal decisions, safeguarded the divinely revealed restrictive ordinances, maintained the armies and guarded the community of Islam from external attack, enforced order and security, meted out justice, received and distributed the zakah and other alms, maintained the Friday services and public institutions, decided between disputants, served as supreme judges in matters bearing legal claims, married minors who had no guardians, distributed booty gained in war, and generally catered to a variety of needs brought before him by the faithful. (Farah 155)
In the ‘Abbasid period, from the ninth century on, the caliph became more withdrawn from public accessibility and was replaced by a bureaucratic machine, and the caliph was then relegated to the position of a ceremonial figure.
By the end of the tenth century, an Islamic world had come into existence that was united by a common religious culture expressed in the Arabic language and that was joined by human links forged by trade, migration, and pilgrimage. This world was divided into three broad areas, each with its own centers of power, and with three rulers claiming the title of caliph, in Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. These and other political changes did not destroy the cultural unity of the Islamic world, which “grew deeper as more and more of the population became Muslims and the faith of Islam articulated itself into systems of thought and institutions” (Hourani 87).
In the period of expansion and growth, the majority of peoples coming under the sway of Islam accepted the new religion either because it had a simplicity that appealed to them or because they were taking the way of least resistance and accepting the faith in order to claim equality of status with the new rulers. Arabs and non-Arabs were thrown together in a new society which was completely different from what had existed before. Many of the civilizations that came into contact with Islam were ancient civilizations, and often the Muslims did not make any radical changes in these new territories. Indeed, these extant civilizations had an influence on the Islamic world so that soon there was not the unity there had originally been. Instead there were new sects within Islam:
The Arabs had their own traditions, their own outlook on life. The non-Arab Muslims had their own traditions and their own outlook on life. Between the two there was conflict, struggle, and tension. (Iqbal 82)
Afzal Iqbal emphasizes this tension as dividing the Muslim world, but in fact it also served to reinvigorate that world with an infusion of new ideas and with encouragement for inquiry into a variety of fields. The Islamic world in its developmental and expansionist phase during the Golden Age was open to ideas from outside just as it disseminated ideas to the outside world through open contacts. In the Islam of the time, scientific inquiries were encouraged as much as philosophic inquiries, and this had a basis in the Quran as that work persistently invites the faithful to examine the created world in order to appreciate the greatness and the power of God. Scientific knowledge of nature, the stars, the heavens, the earth, the flora, and the fauna therefore only reinforces the faith, and there was also a literature of mirabilia, or the miracles of nature, halfway between scientific observation and religious contemplation. The people of Islam developed mathematics, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and arithmetic; astronomy; botany; pharmacology; zoology; geography; physiognomy; and psychosomatics to a high degree, and the West was the beneficiary of this knowledge from the twelfth century on. The growth of this and other fields of learning within Islam, however, came to a halt as Islam retreated:
As in the case of philosophy, this great scientific movement came to a halt not as a result of theological supervision comparable to that exercised by the Christian establishment in the West but rather because of the new social and political environments for knowledge that developed in the whole of the Muslim world starting in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (Arkoun 79)
Against the Reconquista in Spain, the Crusades in Palestine, and the Turkish and Mongol hordes in Iran and Iraq, Muslims needed an orthodox, dogmatic, and rigid but ideologically effective Islam to rally around.
The Crusades would shape Islamic attitudes toward the West for centuries, so much so that it was noted that George Bush should never have used the term with reference to the War on Terror because of the bad feelings involved. In the eleventh century, much of the Moslem world was under siege from the Seljuk Turks. The Moslems were in control of the Holy Lands, the seat of Christianity, and in the eleventh century European Christians undertook the Crusades to recapture the Holy lands, notably the city of Jerusalem. The Crusaders saw their opportunity because of the dissension within the Moslem world itself. There were divisions within the Christian world as well, notably the splitting off of the Byzantine Empire as the Holy Roman Empire disintegrated. The Greeks were in power in the East, and the remnants of the Latin factions were in power in the west. The Church had divided into eastern and western factions, and to many in the West, Greek Constantinople was as suspect as the Moslem world (Finucane 7-9). The Byzantine Greeks played a role in the Crusades that reflected both the divisions within the Christian world and some of the elements that held that world together.
The division of the Roman Empire into two factions left the Byzantine half in the East dominated by Greek culture while the Church in the West was dominated by Roman culture. Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the seat of the Byzantine Church. The Byzantines were threatened by the Seljuk Turks beginning in the late eleventh century, and in the meantime they had taken over Jerusalem and related regions. Finucane notes that the Byzantines were anxious about the Moslem threat and aided Pope John X in defeating the Moslems in 915. Western Christians had also fought the Moslems for some time in Spain, France, and Italy. Throughout this time, the Church helped prepare the way for the Holy Wars that were to come.
As the era of the Crusades approached, the Byzantine Empire was in some turmoil and would come to its doom after more than 1,000 years of rule because of several factors. There were gradual alterations in the social structure that had bound all classes of society to the country, and these changes lessened those bonds. There were also external forces helping to bring about the downfall. The West was becoming more competitive in trade, and there were also more frequent clashes between the Western Church at Rome and the Eastern Church at Constantinople. In the long run, these things worked to the disadvantage of the Byzantines. The Moslem Turks proved to be the greatest threat, and it was the Turks who erased Constantinople as both an independent and a Christian power. This threat was not readily apparent in the middle of the eleventh century, however. The west was becoming more interested in Byzantium. The Italians made commercial inroads, while the Normans proved to be militarily aggressive. Relations between the two churches worsened as a consequence. There were theological differences between the two, but there were also political disputes. By the end of the eleventh century, the Moslem threat was clear, and the defeat of the Byzantines by the Turks at Manzikert would prove to be a turning point. It was from this victory that the Turks went on to capture the Holy Land from the Arabs, and in the West the idea of a crusade to liberate the Holy Land began to grow. The Roman papacy now looked upon the land of Byzantium as something to be “saved” (Sherrard 161-164).
Moslems generally treated Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land well, but the capture of Jerusalem by the Turks restricted access. In 1095, Pope Urban II called on Latin Christians to direct their arms against Islam and to free the Holy Sepulcher, as a means of attaining complete atonement. His call was met enthusiastically, particularly in France. Many sought to attain a remission of their sins, but serfs also hoped to escape from bondage, adventurers wanted to make fortunes, and malefactors wanted to evade punishment (Franzius 304).
Development of the Empire
The Ottoman Empire passed through two incarnations. The Ottomans first ruled one of a number of Turkoman principalities, and the first Ottoman Empire occurred as the Ottoman expanded into Southeastern Europe because of the collapse of Byzantine resistance. This expansion was easier than going up against the more powerful Muslim and Turkish neighbors. The Ottomans were successful because of this lack of resistance and because they were able to attract as warriors thousands of nomads fleeing the Mongols. The Ottomans were successful as well because they were fighting a religious cause against the infidels of Europe. The first Ottoman Empire had both economic and religious motives. The First Ottoman Empire would show both the strengths and the weaknesses that would affect the later Ottoman Empire. The religious component and the ability to take advantage of the weakness of other regions helped propel the Empire to success, but the attempt to continue the expansion and to maintain its status as conqueror led to the downfall of the first Empire:
The Ottomans extended their reach across southern and central Europe once more and annexed not only the European territory but also the lands of the Islamic caliphates in the Middle East and through much of North Africa. The Empire reached its peak in terms of territory in the sixteenth century. In the long run, the Ottomans declined because of their very success. They had succeeded in conquering a huge amount of territory, but they always had to continue to develop militarily if they were to maintain their territory. Much of the decentralization and decline that took place in the Empire derived from within the Ottoman Empire itself, but there were also external influences at work. The nation-states of Europe were gaining power, and their political, economic, military, and cultural advances made them far stronger. The Empire had to regain what it had lost and also to advance if it was not to be left behind. The process of decay was gradual and infiltrated the body politic over centuries. Ottoman decline was not visible to Europe until the seventeenth century. The sultans in the meantime had gained a sense of false confidence, and therefore when they realized the need for reform, it was already too late. The decline was hastened by political, military, social, and economic factors. Economic disruptions were brought about as the economic system of self-sufficiency weakened and inflation increased. Efforts were made to control many of these factors, but as noted, reform efforts were too late (Mansfield 27-28).
The settlement of North America covered thousands of miles of coastline and islands. The different regions were settled by different groups, often with different religious backgrounds, such as the Puritans of New England or the Catholics in Maryland. Different European groups were also involved, with many being British, with the Dutch settled on the Hudson in New York, with the French to the North and the Spanish to the South. In the first few decades after settlement, the North-South divide began to develop with the line between Massachusetts and Carolina:
The New England North has an all-class, mobile, and fluctuating society, with an irresistible upward movement pushed by an ethic of hard work. It is religious, idealistic, and frugal to the core. In the South there is, by contrast, a gentry-leisure class, with hereditary longings, sitting on the backs of indentured white laborers and a multitude of black slaves, with religion as a function of gentility and class, rather than an overpowering inward compulsion to live the godly life. (Johnson 64)
The emerging country was not simply divided into two parts, however, but into many parts as different groups were developing, and while the country was still overwhelmingly English, a multiethnic picture was also developing. In the central section in particular, different groups had staked out their claims to different regions. The Dutch expanded into Pennsylvania, along with the Quakers under William Penn. The influx of Quakers made Pennsylvania a wealthy region because so many were people of property from Bristol and London (Johnson 65). Puritan rule remained strong in New England, and while this region seemed to be developing a form of theocracy, in truth the people expressed themselves in democratic terms and countered any attempt at stifling individualism (Johnson 67-68).
While many of these groups came to Northern America to escape religious persecution in Europe and to achieve religious freedom in America, they often tended to see religious freedom more in terms of their own freedom than the freedom of others.
One of the more contentious issues embodied in the Constitution is the separation of church and state. The Founding Fathers included the provision in the Constitution, placing it as part of the First Amendment and covering the issue in a few words, along with several other important rights:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
There are thus two parts to the provision regarding religion, the first known as the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The second assures that the government also will not interfere with “the free exercise thereof.” Still, these few words have been open to wide interpretation, raising the questions of what the Founding Fathers are likely to have meant by these words.
Of course, one faction in American society repeatedly calls for the interpretation of the Constitution on the basis of original intent, as if it is manifest what the original intent was. In truth, the issue is not that clear and remains open to argument. Frederick Mark Gedicks notes that there was little argument about the meaning of these phrases until American society became more secularized in the 1940s, and since that time there has been much conflict over the meaning and extent of these phrases in American life. Gedicks also notes that the meaning intended by the First Congress is ambiguous at best:
At a minimum, the Establishment Clause was directed at preventing the newly created federal government from granting to any denomination the political and governmental privileges enjoyed in England by the established Anglican church. On the other hand, it is clear that the clause was not intended to do away with religious establishments then existing among the new American states. It is likely that most of the framers meant only to outlaw national religious establishments while leaving the question of state religious establishments to the political judgment of the states (Gedicks 717).
Colonists were particularly antagonistic to the Anglican church, which is why there was a firm refusal to allow any Church of England bishops to reside in America. Bishops at the time had enormous political as well as religious power and were thus officers of the state. (Gaustad 31)
The second clause is known as the Free Exercise Clause, and there are similar ambiguities regarding its historical meaning:
Many of the framers hoped that the clause would prevent the governmental persecution of dissenting religions that was permitted in England under the Anglican establishment. Some framers also understood the clause to require that religious believers be released from the obligation to obey federal laws that violated their religious beliefs. (Gedicks 717)
Even then, this did not mean that the federal government did not try to pass such laws and enforce them.
Robert Boston considers the history of church-state relations before the writing of the Constitution and notes how the colonies were moving toward separation. Massachusetts had been founded by the Puritans and was closely allied with that sect. The Puritans did not believe in religious liberty as it is understood today:
Church and state were melded into one. By law, only members of the Puritan church, which ultimately became the congregationalists, could vote or serve in the state assembly. Heavily influenced by John Calvin, Puritan leaders looked to the civil leaders of the government to enforce religious dictates. They argued that if government did not curb sin, society would fall apart. (Boston 50)
This theocratic form of government was not emulated by the other colonies. The separation in Massachusetts began after the separation in Virginia, a state closely tied to the Anglican church. Various harsh laws were passed which angered the colonists, especially as Anglicanism was becoming a minority religion while still requiring the people to pay money to support it.
The idea of religious liberty in a different sense was promoted by James Madison. When several men in another county were imprisoned for publishing religious views at odds with the orthodoxy of the state, Madison became a leading proponent of religious liberty and so of preventing such abuses. Madison and others were influenced by the early writings of john Locke and other European philosophers, and Locke said that churches were voluntary associations that should be free from coercion by the state. Madison would be one of the delegates to the Virginia convention to write a declaration of rights and a body of laws for the territory, and he found that George Mason, another delegate, shared his view of religious liberty. They drafted language that would assure religious toleration, and Madison suggested language going even further by stating that “all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of religion.” This is the language that was finally adopted: “Madison also sought to add language disestablishing the Anglican Church in Virginia, but the convention rejected it” (Boston 57).
Madison and Jefferson later worked together in another attempt to end church establishment in Virginia. It was not until Jefferson’s religious freedom bill in 1888 that the task was accomplished. Madison then worked on the Bill of Rights, the addendum to the recently written Constitution in order to satisfy the concerns of the Anti-Federalists. One of the key issues raised concerning the first Amendment as written was the inclusion of the word “national” in it, a move some saw as doing no more than preventing the government from establishing a national church, not providing for church-state separation. Boston calls this a weak argument and cites constitutional scholar Leonard Levy to that effect, who says that the word “national” was added “in order to make it clear to the states that the prohibition was limited to Congress” (Boston 63). The word was removed during the debate over the language of the amendment, and James Madison put it back because “he believed that people feared that one religious denomination might assume prominence in the United States or perhaps two powerful groups would join together to establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform” (Boston 63). He added the word in order to make it clear that the amendment would specifically prevent this sort of thing from happening.
Religious tolerance and separation of church and state are two different concepts. Tolerance is the belief that conflicting religious beliefs should be tolerated buy law and custom. Separation holds that government should not be involved with religion (Andryszewski 10). Both principles would become enshrined in the First amendment in the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. These clauses, as noted, long applied only to Congress and not to the states, and many state legislatures did make laws that intervened in religious matters. This idea was challenged with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which stated,
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, of property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
This was originally intended to end laws on slavery, but it has come to mean much more than that:
It has come to mean that state governments, no less than the federal government, must respect the freedoms and rights specified in the Constitution — including the clauses concerning freedom of religion. (Andryszewski 13)
America and the Ottoman Empire
In spite of what some claim today, America was not founded as a religious state and was instead based on tolerance of all religions, even if the ideal was not always matched by behavior as the different religious factions at times demonized one another while claiming to be the one true religion themselves. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, did use a religious basis for its political life and for the most part continues to do this today. As Michael Bourdeaux writes,
One must not forget, for instance, that the Islamic establishment today is the equivalent of the Christian establishment of the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The Muslim world has not gone through the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, it has not gone through the Enlightenment; it has not developed any of the attitudes that formed the minds of the founding fathers of this country, including deism and a measure of skepticism in matters of religion which permitted the kind of tolerance which we all seek today. (Berger, Kazemzadeh, and Bourdeaux 246)
The United States began as a naval trading nation, with 20% of this trade with the Middle East. The early American presence in the region was largely in North Africa, seeking imports ot carpets, nuts, and figs. The trade routes to North Africa also included attacks from Barbary corsairs, and European nations paid many of these pirates to protect their traders from attack. Thomas Jefferson and other officials were opposed to this sort of bribery and so sought to build a naval force to protect U.S. interests. John Adams spoke for those who preferred payoffs to building a navy, but the Jeffersonian approach was to prevail and caused a move for a stronger federal government to raise funds for just such a naval force: “From that early period until today, the American presence in the Middle East has revolved around three themes: faith, fantasy, and power” (Owen para. 3). Power was used in the pursuit of tangible American interests in the Middle East, a pursuit that “began right at the creation of the United States, and the complications associated with such an enterprise became apparent almost immediately. The first American hostage crisis occurred as early as 1787, when more than a hundred sailors were held captive by Algerian pirates. Meanwhile, nearby Morocco was the first foreign country to recognize U.S. independence in 1777, and one of the first treaties made by the new U.S. government was with the Bey of Morocco. Finding the right balance between friendly and adversarial power relations with Middle East players has challenged American leaders ever since” (Owen para. 3).
Diplomatic relations do not mean approval of the regime involved, of course, and while the two regions were similar in their desire for freedom from religious persecution, this did not mean the same thing in the two regions. Tolerance was an ideal for the American system, even though it has been an ideal often missed, while the Islamic world wanted freedom from persecution for its people while asserting the absolute right to shape its political and social system around its religion and to make any denial of that religion a criminal act. Both regions had a lengthy history on which to base the system it created. The Ottoman Empire emerged from the caliphate and accepted the hierarchical nature of that sort of rule, making its religion and its social order hierarchical as well. The American reaction to the controls of both the Catholic Church and the Church of England produced a shift to a more tolerant ideology and to a less centralized vision of religion. That idea would also infuse the political system created on the basis of various theories of the Enlightenment era as detailed by Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes, among others. The divisions between the two regions remain in place to this day, with the freedoms of the American system perceived more as license by Muslims, and with the hierarchy of Islamic life perceived as a sort of religious dictatorship by many in the West.
Andryszewski, Tricia. School Prayer: A History of the Debate. Springfield, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 1997.
Arkoun, Mohammed. Rethinking Islam. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994.
Berger, Peter L., Firuz Kazemzadeh, and Michael Bourdeaux. “The State of Religious Freedom.” World Affairs, Volume 147, Issue 4 (1985), 238-253.
Boston, Robert. Why the Religious Right Is Wrong about Separation of Church and State. Amherts, New York: Prometheus Books, 1993.
Farah, Caesar a. Islam: Beliefs and Observances. New York: Barron’s, 1987.
Finucane, Ronald C.
Soldiers of the Faith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Franzius, Enno, History of the Byzantine Empire. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1967.
Gaustad, Edwin S. Church and State in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Gedick, Frederick Mark. “Religion.” In the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, Kermit hall (ed.), 717-726. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York: Time Warner, 1991.
Iqbal, Afzal. The Culture of Islam. Lahore: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1981.
Johnson, P.R.. A History of the American People. New York: Harper, 1997.
Lewis, Bernard. The Arabs in History. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
Mansfield, Peter. A History of the Middle East. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Owen, Michael. “The History of U.S. foreign Policy in the Middle East.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (2007, March 28). April 24, 2008. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/print.php?template=C05&CID=2578.
Roberts, D.S. Islam. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981.
Sherrard, Philip. Byzantium. New York: Time Incorporated, 1966.
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