::Roundtable:: History of Islamic International Law: “Ottoman Empire and Eurocentric Law of Nations” by Cemil Aydin

Summarized by Cem Tecimer

This post is part of the Roundtable on the History of Islamic International Law.  It is a summary of Cemil Aydin‘s contribution titled “Ottoman Empire and Eurocentric Law of Nations” to volume eight of the Cambridge History of International Law series, co-edited by Intisar Rabb and Umut Özsu.

Cemil Aydin’s chapter on “Ottoman Empire and Eurocentric Law of Nations” explores the history of how the Ottoman Empire navigated and negotiated its simultaneous inclusion and unequal status in a Eurocentric international world order. Aydin argues that the Ottoman Empire was gradually integrated into a Eurocentric world order on the terms of a Eurocentric international law, which positioned Ottomans as inferior to European nations because of the former’s perceived status as “uncivilized” or “semi-civilized.” In response to their second-class treatment, Ottoman politicians, diplomats, and intellectuals formulated robust arguments from within, reasoning that it was a violation of European powers’ own notions of international law for them to treat the Ottoman Empire as hierarchically inferior. Aydin further demonstrates that Ottomans pursued a deliberate policy of Pan-Islamism, accompanied by an emphasis on the Ottoman Sultan’s role as caliph and spiritual leader of Muslims worldwide, not to jettison international law altogether to then replace it with a form of Islamic international law, but rather to respond to and reform the Eurocentrism embedded in the prevailing understanding and application of international law.

Aydin begins his exploration of the Ottoman Empire’s encounters with international law in reverse-chronological order by a brief discussion of the Treaty of Lausanne (July 1923) – a multilateral treaty that concluded a multi-year war of independence fought by the Turks against Western powers and resulted in the international recognition of present-day Turkey (and therefore in the recognition of its predecessor’s – the Ottoman Empire – demise).[1] Aydin argues that while the Treaty of Lausanne dealt with significant and concrete issues of its time, including resolving a multitude of border disputes, such disputes were being resolved against a greater and more comprehensive backdrop: a long history of Ottoman political and intellectual attempts to integrate into the European international world order on equal terms and the equally long history of European skepticism against the image of the “terrible Turks”[2] – an undeserving member of the concert of European nations because of its uncivilized status.

The author then traces the genealogy and evolution of this tension, by dispelling two misconceptions at the outset. The first of these, Aydin argues, is the misconception that the Ottomans approached international law as a world of two binaries, either the law of great European powers or Islamic law. Ottoman intellectuals who advocated for stronger integration into the European world order, and who were therefore opposed by their more traditionalist counterparty, in fact did not approach the issue of integration with unadulterated naïveté to see it as a two-option menu to choose from. Rather, they fully recognized the need for military strength and solidarity with other Muslim nations to ensure that international law – international in name, but European in application – would be applied fairly to the Ottoman Empire. By shattering the image of the naïve Ottoman intellectual and statesman eager to accept European imposition of a Eurocentric international law, Aydin not only critiques conventional accounts by infusing them with a far more realistic understanding of the average Ottoman intellectual – one aware of and fairly acquainted with Europe in many respects[3] – but also bestows on the Ottomans a degree of agency: instead of passive consumers of a Eurocentric international law, Ottomans were, from the very beginning, key players in the formulation of international law, which enabled them, through time, to renegotiate and reform (or at least to attempt to renegotiate and reform) its Eurocentric premises. Ottoman intellectuals and statesmen were acutely aware of European hypocrisy that enunciated the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the one hand, and constantly interfered in Ottoman domestic affairs, on the other, on the pretext of showing solicitude to the non-Muslim minorities of the Empire.

The second and related misconception Aydin criticizes is the notion that Ottoman policies of Pan-Islamism, which arguably reached their peak during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909), were in the service of creating and consolidating an alternative, anti-European world order. Aydin argues, instead, that Pan-Islamism was an Ottoman response to rectify and neutralize the racialized (European) roots of international law: by invoking the Ottoman Sultan’s role as caliph and by extension, his role as the spiritual leader of Muslims worldwide, Ottomans did not aim to revive a medieval Islamic distinction between dār al-Islām (abode of Islam) and dār al-ḥarb (abode of war) – crudely put, dominions in which Islam could be practiced without persecution, on the one hand, and lands not under Islamic rule. On the contrary, Aydin argues, Pan-Islamism was a rhetorical and political tool deployed by Ottoman political elites to draw attention to the plight of Muslim minorities under Christian rule and to thereby parallel and counter similar and long-lasting demands by European powers concerning the rights and freedoms of non-Muslim minorities living under Muslim (and in this case, Ottoman) rule. In short, Ottoman Pan-Islamism was not a turning away from the international world order. If anything, it was the opposite: it was an Ottoman attempt to further solidify its commitment to international law while simultaneously trying to cast itself as a Muslim imperial power with agency within the European international world order to articulate extraterritorial demands concerning Muslim minorities under Christian rule, thereby also attempting to de-racialize an otherwise fairly Eurocentric international law.

To Aydin, there are a multitude of reasons that Ottomans chose to integrate into the European international world order in efforts to reform it and its vision of international law from within. The author partially credits the Ottoman intellectual world’s long-rooted interactions with the West and partially points to  the absence of an alternative – particularly an alternative hegemonic Islamic – world order to which the Ottomans could subscribe. As a consequence, Ottomans gradually integrated into the European international world order and accepted its international law, as evidenced by Ottoman diplomatic history replete with references to law of nations (hukuk-i milel) and existing law of nations (hukuk-i meriye-i milel), among others. The establishment and expansion of Ottoman embassies in Europe, the reformation and reorganization of the Empire’s diplomatic staff, along with the Empire’s new Ministry of Foreign Affairs founded in 1836 all collectively facilitated and hastened this process of integration. These efforts, combined with international exigencies, culminated in the official recognition of the Ottoman Empire, at least on paper, as a full and equal member of the law of states during the Paris Peace Conference of 1856.[4]

Ironically, though, this culmination point in Ottoman integration coincided with a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe, resulting in a distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized” nations. Ottomans resisted to this second-class appellation and Ottoman political and intellectual elites, in response, had to reposition themselves in the face of increasing animosity against them.[5] Aydin refers to four moves by the Ottomans to navigate and respond to European efforts to cast them as an uncivilized or semi-civilized nation: (1) expose European hypocrisy by drawing attention to the plight of Muslim minorities under European rule; (2) criticize capitulations (also known as unequal treaties) that gave preferential treatment to foreigners in Ottoman land, including, in some instances, by establishing foreign courts throughout the Ottoman Empire, because the European powers believed that local courts were not sufficiently sophisticated and impartial to adjudicate claims involving non-Ottomans, and acquire capitulations for Muslim minorities, to the extent possible; (3) having observed how semi-autonomous and autonomous regions of the Empire, nominally under Ottoman rule but otherwise controlled by European nations (as was the case in Egypt, under Britain’s de facto control), inevitably secede from the Empire, criticize the notion of autonomous regions in the Empire and advocate for more centralized governance policies; and (4) more aggressively assert Ottoman international interests using the prevailing terminology of international law of the day, as in the unsuccessful case of arguing for Ottoman influence in Africa, based on the Berlin Conference’s hinterland doctrine, which basically gave European powers the right to assert influence and control in African lands adjacent to territories already held by them. These responses were coupled with increasing ties and correspondences with Muslim powers – partly a result of a heavy emphasis on Pan-Islamic policies pursued by the Ottomans – beyond Ottoman control, including with the Aceh Sultanate and Iran.

In the end, Aydin demonstrates that the Ottomans did not envision themselves in a position to topple or even counter the European international world order. Simply put, the Ottomans integrated and then navigated: they accepted the law of nations but simultaneously sought to de-racialize the Eurocentric emphasis of that law. As Aydin succinctly writes:

We should see the gradual universalization of the idea of sovereignty and states of equal status constituting international order as the culmination of efforts of non-Western states, often with unexpected strategies, such as the anti-Western notion of revolutionary caliphate, rather than simply the contagious expansion and spread of Eurocentric norms through Westernization of knowledge in the rest of the world.


[1] For the English version of the Treaty of Lausanne, provided by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, see “Treaty with Turkey and other Instruments signed at Lausanne,” Republic of Turkiye Ministry of Foreign Affairs, n.d., https://www.mfa.gov.tr/treaty-with-turkey-and-other-instruments-signed-at-lausanne.en.mfa.

[2] The stereotypic image of the “terrible Turk” has been historicized in a number of scholarly publications. See, for example, M. Hakan Yavuz, “Orientalism, the ‘Terrible Turk’ and Genocide,” Middle East Critique 23, no. 2 (2014): 111-26. See also John M. Vander Lippe, “‘The Terrible Turk’: The Formulation and Perpetuation of a Stereotype in American Foreign Policy,” New Perspectives on Turkey 17 (1997): 39-57.

[3] This is a theme Aydin has explored in his other scholarly works, including, for example, Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought (Columbia University Press, 2007), 16-18.

[4] See also Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press, 2017), 37: “The Ottoman Empire was a de facto member of the European club of empires, with assurances of its sovereignty over millions of Christians.”

[5] As Aydin writes elsewhere, “[o]bserving the new anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from […] the center of the European international society, Muslim reformists felt they were being pushed away by the very Europe they were trying to emulate.” Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia, 40. See also ibid., 41: “Ottoman intellectuals, like those in other parts of the Islamic world, reassessed their understanding of the relationship between Western civilization and universal modernity[.]”

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