Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.
Recently, I watched Islam & Democracy: A Clash of Civilisations? featuring Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Noah Feldman. During his opening speech, Yusuf referred to an exchange which took place in 1899 between US ambassador to Turkey, Oscar Straus, and the last Ottoman Caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid. I decided to follow up this incident because Yusuf’s citing it as an example of enlightened Muslim statesmanship struck me as problematic, although unsurprising (since Yusuf is a white person), from an Islamic counter-Racist perspective. I will explain why shortly. However, it is first necessary to understand the nature of the exchange and in this connection, the following extract, taken from an article entitled What “What would the Caliph Do?” by Mustafa Akyol which originally appeared on his website, The White Path, on December 18, 2005, provides a useful summary:
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 Abdulhamid 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 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, Abdulhamid 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 who were in Mecca at the time were informed that the caliph and the American ambassador had reached a definite understanding that the Muslims would not be disturbed in the practice of their religion if they would promptly place themselves under the control of the American army. Subsequently, 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 thanks 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, Abdulhamid II [emphases added].
Both Mustafa Akyol and Hamza Yusuf praise Sultan Abdul Hamid for his actions. However, from an Islamic counter-Racist perspective, one wonders what the Philipinos who were being colonised thought about his decision to legalise a US colonialist invasion. Did Sultan Abdul Hamid even bother to ask them? Or was he too pre-occupied courting US interests and too ‘bamboozled’ (to borrow a term of the late Macolm X) by Article 21 of the treaty between Tripoli and the United States to do so? Either way Sultan Abdul Hamid legimitised US colonialism and de-legitimised (Islamic) ‘insurrection’ [=jihad]. Apologists/’moderates’ (sic) might argue that this was a case of the maslaha (benefit) of saving lives – whose? American and/or Philipino? – outweighing the mafsada (harm) associated with armed resistance to – ‘insurrection’ against – an invading colonialist power. However, I’m not persuaded by that line of argument because that kind of (il)logic might be used to block liberation struggle (jihad) per se which is Islamically unacceptable.