The European Colonization of the Middle East
The decline of the Ottoman Empire has been attributed to several different factors. Some of these include a growing debt to Western European Empires and increased nationalism within the Empire that led to failed restructuring. These factors opened the door for the Great Empires to exploit the resources and the leaders of the Ottoman Empire for their own gain. However, this was not a colonizing exercise as the Ottoman Empire had been in existence for many centuries. Although there were differences in religious and ideological beliefs between the West and the Ottomans, it does not mean that these are the sole reason for the West to turn towards the Middle East. In this essay, I will explore whether the European colonization of the Ottoman Empire was driven by geopolitical or ideological pursuits, or both. To do this, I will focus on the 19th century when social changes were taking place within the Ottoman Empire and the Western European were on the ascent. It is also to point out that this essay will explore religious ideology in this essay for the period in focus.
The period between the late 18th century to the early 20th century was the rise of the Eastern Question by the Empires of Western Europe as concern mounted for the declining state of the Ottoman Empire. This decline encompassed the military, political and economic power of the Ottoman Empire at time when the British, French and Russian Empires were becoming modern global powerhouses. It is against this background that the reasons for the Western Empires ingress in to the Middle East can be examined.
From a geopolitical viewpoint, it made sense for the West to assist the Ottomans and reduce the rate of decline as it was a valuable source of trade. With Russia’s growing interest in the Mediterranean region, it was also a region that provided a level of safeguard against any territorial gains in to the area. These aspirations led to the Crimean War that saw Britain and France both side with Ottoman. The Crimean War was not only about land but also the protection of the Christians within the Ottoman Empire. Russia had three opportunities during the 19th century to reap rewards from confrontation with the Ottomans but failed on all occasions due to a perceived fear of further Western retaliation. Following the Russian defeat, a new sense of a united Europe emerged and how geographically Europe may look. The Crimean War key to the geopolitical landscape that emerged in the second half of the 19th century as it redefined a certain theoretical view of what Europe was and that all European countries had a clear understanding of their relationship to each other. This geographic question was a relatively new concept for the Muslim world as they had been used to territorial states based on ethnic and regional differences and subject to the ruler who ruled in the name of Islam. This new paradigm also meant that a state that was not part of Christendom was no longer an issue but that they did abide by the rules of modern, or Western, politics. The ongoing tension between Islamic and Western European countries would have existed regardless of religious or ideological opinions as the longue durée of geopolitics in region has and still exists.
The Ottomans were however conscious of maintaining good relationships with the other European Empires as it was crucial in the survival of their state. Unfortunately, the Ottoman Empire lacked the resources and ability to modernize and keep step with the rapid growth in the West. This opened the doors for the European Empires to become intrinsic in all aspects of the Ottoman economy; from trade, mining, transport and communications. The capitulations that were given to foreign merchants further weakened the Ottoman economy and provided the West with more opportunities to exploit the markets in the Middle East and give additional privileges to their proteges within the Empire.
A growing debt to foreign states and losses of territory, Algeria to France and Greek independence, mean that the Ottoman empire was becoming unable to maintain its periphery and generate internal revenues to pay back loans. Through the Council of Ottoman Public Debt Administration, representatives of the West were able to work closely with the government of the Ottoman Empire, furthering their own agendas. This ever-growing presence of the European Empires in multiple aspects of the Ottoman Empire also led to the Western notion of nationalism gaining a foothold which in turn created schisms within the Ottoman Empire that would lead to more issues for the Empire from within.
It would be the end of the First World War that saw the victorious European states eventually dismantle the Ottoman Empire as they sought to pursue their interests in certain geographic locations throughout the Middle East.
To turn now to the question of ideology and whether it was the cause of European colonization within the region. From a modern-day perspective, you could say no as Islam is still the dominant ideology in the region. However, there is some evidence that at one time it was an issue for the region. The Greek War of Independence gives an insight in to some of the ideological differences that had been simmering in the Empires. There was a belief by those in the West that the Greeks had a right to rebel against the Ottomans based on them being Christian and Greece as the birth place of much of Western culture. This led to the Russia, Britain and France all fighting on behalf of the Greeks as the Ottomans were seen as being external to Europe and not connected with the history of Greece. This contrasts with why the Crimean War was fought. Although Christians were at the forefront of the reason for it, it ultimately became a way of stopping Russia gaining territory. European colonialism already had a track record of subjugating Muslim rule in many other parts of the world and resulted in three out of four Muslims living in European Empires by 1900.
There was no doubt an element of racial and moral superiority when it came to the Western Empires and their view of the Ottoman Empire. This superiority manifested itself as the ‘good empire’ being that of the British and Islam being an ideology set on world domination. Even the efforts of the Ottomans through the capitulations was rationalized in the West as their inability to live under Islamic law. The Tanzimat reforms were also an effort by the Ottomans to provide equality to all non-Muslims living in the Empire. This removed any opportunities for the European Empires to ‘save’ any of the Christians from being subjugated. However, as the Middle East was seen as a trading partner and a market for the products from the West and the growing dependence on European debt assistance, the ideological differences moved to the background over the course of the 19th century.
The Ottoman annexation of Yemen in 19th century does highlight that there were concerns within the Empire of the threat to Muslim territory by the British ‘Christian’ colonists as they sought to protect their interests in India and the broader region. Many of the ideological concerns from the West dissipated in the latter half of the 19th century as Ottoman reforms and Western European dominance of the trade and economy of the Middle East took over.
Although there are elements in the European colonization of the Middle East that are ideologically based, these do appear to have been resolved by the end of the Crimean War and the reforms implemented by the Ottomans. Islam never lost its place as the dominant religious ideology in the Middle East even though Christian territories, such as Greece, came in to the European fold. The dominant involvement of the West is predominantly centered on geopolitics. Whether the West was using the Middle East as a buffer against the Russian Empire, exploiting it economically through trade or positioning themselves to take advantage of the impending decline and end of the Empire, foreign policy played a major part in their colonial ambitions. The events that occurred through the course of the 19th century eventually fell in to the hands of the West following the end of the First World War as the victors carved up region.