The Magazine

A Sultan with Swat

Remembering Abdul Hamid II, a pro-American caliph.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By MUSTAFA AKYOL
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At the beginning of his reign, Abdul Hamid observed the centennial of American independence by sending a large number of Ottoman books to be exhibited at Philadelphia and subsequently donated to New York University. Later, he was the first foreign head of state to receive an invitation to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, to honor the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America. Although he did not personally attend, a total of one thousand people from Jerusalem alone visited the exposition. The World Parliament of Religions held its inaugural meeting in Chicago at the same time, and the sultan's representatives exhibited a large number of Ottoman wares and built a miniature mosque.

Because Abdul Hamid believed that American prosperity had resulted partly from a good accounting of the population and efficient management of national resources, he asked Samuel Sullivan Cox, the American ambassador in Constantinople and the organizer of the first modern U.S. census, to introduce the Turks to the study of statistics, one of the first of the exact sciences to be established in the Ottoman Empire.

Beyond such cultural exchanges, actual Ottoman-American cooperation in foreign policy took place in the face of the Muslim insurgency in the U.S.-occupied Philippines. The American ambassador to Turkey Oscar S. Straus (a Jewish diplomat, incidentally, who was welcomed by the Abdul Hamid regime at a time when his colleague, A.M. Keiley, was declared persona non grata by the Austro-Hungarian authorities simply for "being of Jewish parenthood") received a letter from Secretary of State John Hay in the spring of 1899. Secretary Hay wondered whether "the Sultan under the circumstances might be prevailed upon to instruct the Mohammedans of the Philippines, who had always resisted Spain, to come willingly under our control." Straus then paid a visit to the sultan and showed him Article 21 of a treaty between Tripoli and the United States, which read as follows:

As the government of the United States of America . . . has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmans; and as the said states never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the partners that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony between the two countries.

Pleased with the article, Abdul Hamid stated, in regard to the Philippines, that the "Mohammedans in question recognized him as Caliph of the Moslems and he felt sure they would follow his advice."

Two Sulu chiefs were in Mecca at the time, and they were informed that the caliph and the American ambassador had reached a definite understanding that the Muslims of the Philippines "would not be disturbed in the practice of their religion if they would promptly place themselves under the control of the American army." Later, Ambassador Straus wrote, the "Sulu Mohammedans . . . refused to join the insurrectionists and had placed themselves under the control of our army, thereby recognizing American sovereignty."

This account is supported by an article written by Lt. Col. John P. Finley (who had been the American governor of Zamboanga Province in the Philippines for ten years) and published in the April 1915 issue of the Journal of Race Development. Finley wrote:

At the beginning of the war with Spain the United States Government was not aware of the existence of any Mohammedans in the Philippines. When this fact was discovered and communicated to our ambassador in Turkey, Oscar S. Straus, of New York, he at once saw the possibilities which lay before us of a holy war. . . . [H]e sought and gained an audience with the Sultan, Abdul Hamid, and requested him as Caliph of the Moslem religion to act in behalf of the followers of Islam in the Philippines. . . . The Sultan as Caliph caused a message to be sent to the Mohammedans of the Philippine Islands forbidding them to enter into any hostilities against the Americans, inasmuch as no interference with their religion would be allowed under American rule.

Later, President McKinley sent a personal letter of gratitude to Ambassador Straus for his excellent work, declaring that it had saved the United States "at least twenty-thousand troops in the field." All thanks to the caliph, Abdul Hamid II.