October 4, 2011 Faith Matters

The Tanzimat: Secular Reforms in the Ottoman Empire

Faith Matters is launching its paper that offers a brief insight into the secular reforms of the Ottoman Empire in order to analyse and debunk claims by extreme groups like Al Qaeda of it being an Islamic Caliphate, strictly governed by Shariah Law. The Ottoman Empire is often presented, by such groups as a model political system upon which to re-build a global Caliphate. Osama bin Laden marked the decline of the Ottoman Empire as the fall of Islam – that the Islamic world “has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years” and that “the righteous Khilafah will return with the permission of Allah”. Through the implementation of an Islamic legal and political system, extreme groups who mis-use the beauty of Islam call for the rejection of liberal values and the current systems in place which do not fundamentally clash with Islam.

The report authored by Hussain offers a new challenge to these claims, arguing that the Ottoman Empire bares little resemblance to the model proposed by such groups. In focusing on the period known as the Tanzimat (1839-1876), Hussain shows that the Ottomans were in fact attempting to secularise their laws and state institutions rather than implementing religious laws into State laws.

These are some of the key findings in the report which show that:

  • Homosexuality was decriminalised
  • Ottoman society in general moved away from punishments such as stoning
  • The death penalty for Apostasy was not implemented

Extremists often bypass these facts and use a warped interpretation of history in order to weave their own narrative into mainstream debate; using their own projected picture of a perfect Ottoman society living under a deeply rigid mis-interpretation of Shariah Law in order to argue for the building of a modern day Islamic Caliphate. Those who spin this historical account help to prop up a narrative used as an ideological basis for extremism. The attacks of 9/11 were even marked by Bin Laden as “a great step towards the unity of Muslims and establishing the righteous Caliphate”. Until now, their account has been met with little intellectual resistance.

This important paper is the first of its kind to expose and dismantle such a historical account of the Ottoman Empire. Alongside the Government’s new Prevent Strategy focusing on extremism in schools, online and at universities, Hussain creates a vehicle upon which to tackle extremists who adopt this historical narrative in order to justify their intolerant and right-wing ideology.

By debunking one of the fundamental layers of these narratives, this paper provides an opportunity for debate and discussion within the public sphere. It also supports those civil society organisations and policy makers who defend liberal democratic values that underpin communities in Britain and also provides another tool for Muslims to counter the extremely small yet vocal groups who espouse such a warped interpretation of the Ottoman Empire and the Khilafah. We also hope that it counters those who lump all Muslim communities together and who undermine the history of majority Muslim countries as places where pluralism was alive and thriving. Extremism comes in many shape and forms and affects many communities. We hope that our work can continue to counter it, whether Far Right (including groups like the English Defence League and the British National Party) and others like Al-Muhajiroun.