THE ECONOMIST 1924: The abolition of the Caliphate

The Economist Archive
Mar 8th 1924 | Europe

THE REPUDIATION of the Caliphate by the Turks marks an epoch in the expansion of Western ideas over the non-Western world, for our Western principles of national sovereignty and self-government are the real forces to which the unfortunate ‘Abdu’l Mejid Efendi has fallen a victim. Both by tradition and by theory, the Caliph is an absolute monarch over a united Islamic world, and it is therefore almost impossible to find a place for him in a national state (whether it be called a republic or a constitutional monarchy) in which the sovereignty is vested in the parliamentary representatives of the people.

The banishment of even the “spiritualised” Caliph (as contrasted with the “temporal” Caliph-Sultan who reigned at Constantinople down to the autumn of 1922) is the logical consequence of the policy which has been steadily pursued by the Turkish Nationalist (or “Defence of Rights”) Party since its foundation in the summer of 1920. Mustafa Kemal Pasha and his associates have always had two main ends in view: that the Turkish nation should be absolute master in its own house, and that it should retain neither pretensions nor liabilities outside what it regards as the proper boundaries of its own “national home”. This policy has the merit of being definite in its purposes and limited in its aims, and it has undoubtedly arisen out of the Turkish nation’s painful experiences in the past.

Under ‘Abdu’l Hamid—and, indeed, for a full century before that skilful exploiter of the Caliphate ascended the throne—the Ottoman Government had ruled over broad lands, both in Europe and in Asia, and over numerous peoples, both Muslim and Christian, outside the Turkish territories and the Turkish population which were the foundations of its power; and at the same time its rule was everywhere ineffective, its sovereignty imperfect, and its power a shadow.

Between these two phenomena, the Turkish Nationalists are now convinced that there was a profound logical connection. The Ottoman Empire, they maintain, was top-heavy, and the Turkish nation was attempting an impossible task in trying to support it, like Atlas, on its unaided shoulders. The nation was bowed down, and its vitality was exhausted, while the Empire continued to crumple and crack. What is the use of sacrificing oneself for an unattainable object? The Turkish nation will only be able to stand erect and to exercise its limbs when it has flung the useless burden of empire from it, and it should therefore divest itself of Sultanate and Caliphate, and should thank its enemies for having relieved it already of the Arab provinces and Macedonia.

On the other hand, for its proper national domain, and for the nation’s complete sovereignty within that domain, it should fight to the last drop of its blood, for this is the national heritage on which depends the national future.

This is the new orientation of Turkish Nationalism since 1920, in which it departs completely from the policy pursued by the Committee of Union and Progress between the Revolution of 1908 and the Armistice of 1918. The Union and Progress group, who are now in opposition, made the Revolution in order to save the empire; they differed from ‘Abdu’l Hamid on questions of method and constitution, but not in ultimate aims. They pursued (and this far more actively than he had done) the policy of “Ottomanising” the Macedonians, Albanians and Arabs, and their opponents claim that their record during these ten years sufficiently proves the bankruptcy of their programme.

The Nationalists are, therefore, not impressed by the present opposition of the Unionists to the repudiation of the Caliphate. They regard this as a continuation of the Unionists’ general policy of grandiose “Ottomanism” as opposed to limited Turkish Nationalism, and as being just as wrong-headed as the other points in their programme. The Unionists, however, retort with some justice that the Nationalists are regarding the problem purely from the internal point of view, without considering its bearings upon Turkey’s relations with the rest of the Muslim world.

The banishment of the Caliph will not, perhaps, prejudice the friendship between Turkey and such countries as Egypt, Persia or Afghanistan, where compact and fairly homogeneous Muslim peoples are just now awaking to national consciousness, and are following Turkey’s example in reorganising their political life on national lines. For all these peoples the Western idea of nationality is in the ascendant, and the Caliphate is losing its power over the imagination.

But what of the vast Muslim populations in India, Russia, China, and the African colonies of the Western Powers, who are “dispersed abroad: among the Gentiles” and subjected to alien rule? For these Muslim subject minorities the spread of nationalism throughout the world means submergence if not extinction, while the Caliphate carries a message of salvation through an international Muslim solidarity. This is the explanation of the Indian Muslim’s distress at the Turkish Nationalists’ action. We are possibly on the eve of a profound cleavage of policy within the Muslim world.

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