The Jihad Legacy of World War I 

By Wolfgang G. Schwanitz
via the the Foreign Policy Research Institute web site

Known as a pious Muslim, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said in 2015 that it is most difficult to change religious rhetoric and how people use their faith. The outcomes will take many years: “Radical misconceptions [of Islam] were instilled 100 years ago. Now we can see the results.” He may been referring to the German-Ottoman jihadization of Islamism in the early 20th century. So, what happened in World War I?

Historians deal often with European powers—particularly, the Triple Entente or Allies and their empires—but not many focus on the Central Powers and their actions in the Middle East. This essay discusses the background of the German-Ottoman axis, the change of the jihad doctrine, and the call for a “partial jihad” to ignite “war by revolts” in the Allies’ Muslim-majority colonies.

From Berlin to Istanbul

SULTANKaiser Wilhelm II riding with Sultan-Caliph Abdul Hamid II in 1898.As the German Reich emerged in 1871, its British, French, and Russian neighbors were growing their colonies into empires. Rivalry between the empires intensified, and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck led his primary policy toward building the German empire. To maintain the status quo in the Middle East, he followed a secondary policy without seeking colonies. The “German Mideast founding years” began in 1884: three decades of commercial, cultural, and peaceful expansion. But von Bismarck kept the question of which powers would get parts of the fading Ottoman Empire open in order to avoid hostile pacts forming by neighbors in Central Europe.

In 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II retired the Chancellor. The monarch feared that Germany’s neighbors would import soldiers from abroad and use them in Europe against Germany. The Kaiser developed a new policy: align with the Ottomans, and, in case of an all-out war in Europe, turn Muslims against their colonial masters. In 1896, Max von Oppenheim, his diplomat in Cairo “to watch Islam,” pointed him to the prophet Sayyid al-Kailani of Baghdad’s al-Qadiriyya Brotherhood. He allegedly had “a huge sway in India” and could ignite an Islamist revolt. The Kaiser need only to give the signal: If London loses India, then its global might will end.

Before the Kaiser visited Istanbul’s Sultan-Caliph Abdul Hamid II in 1898, von Oppenheim’s Report #48 (of 467 until 1909) told him about a pan-Islamic Afro-Asian movement with anti-Christian brotherhoods against colonialists. Should the Sultan turn defensive jihad to an offensive one, empires could crumble as the al-Mahdiyya Brotherhood had demonstrated in Sudan. Pan-Islamists wanted to end any Christian’s rule, so the Sultan was a worthy ally for Germany. As a result of von Oppenheim’s advice, the Kaiser vowed to be the “protector of the 300 million Muslims” in Damascus.

In 1900, a pan-Islamist movement was not only a matter for Germany with its 57 Orientalist lecturers at 21 universities. The Italian Iranist Italo Pizzi wrote on Islamism and jihad L’islamismo e la guerra santa and Islamismo. At Cambridge, scholars debated the Sultan’s role. George P. Gooch argued since he did not descend from the prophet, he was no true caliph. Nevertheless, Muslims accepted his power to proclaim jihad against “infidels.” His army had 750,000 men and “gained power by telegraph.” In the 1890s, his men killed Armenians. Jews lived there, too. Edward G. Browne defined pan-Islamism as a union for a theocracy. He stressed Berlin’s “intrusion” with the reform of the Ottoman military, railway building, and sympathetically leaning to Islamists. 

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