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Sultan Abdulhamid II’s Pro-American Policy and Its Impact in the Far East

M. AHMET KARABAY*

Today is Sunday. I will take you on a journey starting from the so-called Middle Ages, extending to two years before the 20th century. I believe it will be an intriguing journey about recent history, enriched with abundant sources. But this is only for those curious about where the information comes from, which will be mentioned below. Those who want to read like an adventure will witness how Sultan Abdulhamid II followed a pro-American policy against Muslims in the Far East.

With the exploration movements starting in the 15th century, the world became bipolar. The two poles were Spain and Portugal, today neighboring countries. Spain established dominance over such a vast area that its territories spread across five continents. In today’s terms, Spain (Imperio Español) was the world’s first global empire.

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In this context, the first Spanish settlement in Cuba was established in the early 16th century, in 1512. If you visualize the American continent, you’ll notice Cuba’s small size. But its strategic importance becomes evident if you want to use it as a depot or base.

After remaining a Spanish colony for centuries, Cuba’s first uprising started with the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). After its suppression, the Cuban War of Independence took place from 1895 to 1898. The story of how this war reached the USA and Sultan Abdulhamid II actually starts here.

The last three months of this independence war involved the USA, hence known as the Spanish-American War. (1) The relationship between the two countries deteriorated after Spain sank a US Marine warship anchored in Havana Bay. Consequently, the USA blockaded Cuba.

Businessman and writer Andrew Carnegie, remembered today for his foundations, summarized the situation as, “A child named ‘Cuba’ was left at America’s doorstep.” The USA, acting on the principle of “Progressive Imperialism,” intervened in the Spain-Cuba issue and landed on the island following Congress’s decision to ensure Cuba’s independence.

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With the Paris Treaty of December 10, 1898, Spain renounced all its rights in Cuba. Additionally, Spain transferred the Western Indies and Guam in the Marianas to the USA. The Paris Treaty was also critical in ending Spanish dominance in the Far East and beginning American dominance. (2)

Orientalists say the Ottoman Empire’s caliphate was not very influential in Far Asia. However, Western politicians did not hesitate to use this tool when it suited them, as we understand from developments. Especially Sultan Abdulhamid II’s use of Pan-Islamism (Ittihad-i Islam) for political purposes is well-known.

The Ottoman ruler’s approach was attempted to be exploited by both Muslim leaders in the region and the region’s invaders. Embassies in Istanbul from Russia, Britain, and Germany tried to prevent Muslims living in their colonies from contacting the Ottoman Palace. In particular, the Aceh Sultans under Dutch domination sought Ottoman protection in response to Dutch Christianization efforts, but neither Sultan Abdulhamid II approached this nor did the Dutch colonialists permit it.

Eventually, Filipino nationalist Emilio Aguinaldo declared the independence of the entire region, except for today’s capital Manila. News that “the Philippine Islands fell into the hands of the insurgents after the Spanish defeat” reached Istanbul. The information stated that Aguinaldo “declared dictatorship and martial law in the Philippines,” and Aguinaldo “refused to submit to the American government” and “wanted to establish an independent administration in the Philippines.” (3)

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With the Paris Treaty, the entire Philippines were handed over to the USA, but the Muslim population never accepted American rule. (4) The Muslim community requested Ottoman assistance against US occupation. Muslim groups even expected the Ottoman to send a fleet to support their independence.

The US administration expected the Filipinos, wanting to escape Spanish rule, to embrace them. When those trying to establish a new state under Aguinaldo’s leadership did not support the USA, Washington sought a solution.

A Washington newspaper reporter shared with US Secretary of State John Milton Hay the idea of requesting assistance from the Ottoman Empire. Upon embracing this idea, US Ambassador to Istanbul, Oscar Solomon Straus, was asked to arrange a meeting with the Palace.

Ambassador Straus asked Sultan Abdulhamid II to persuade the Moro Muslims in the Muslim region of the Sulu Sultanate in the Philippines to end the uprising and lay down their arms. This meeting and its notes are recorded in the Ottoman archives as follows:

“The population of the islands near the Philippine islands and known as the Hawaii islands is about two million, all of whom are Muslim…” “…the Muslim population of these islands have increased relations with His Majesty the Caliph…”(5)

In his memoirs, Ambassador Straus describes this meeting:

“In the spring of 1899, I received a letter from (Secretary of State) Hay’s office. It included an article by William E. Curtis, a reporter for the Washington ‘Chicago Record’, along with Curtis’ article. Curtis was one of the best-known writers of his time, well aware of what was happening in official and unofficial circles in Washington. After an interview with an official from the Turkish embassy, Curtis learned that since the Greco-Turkish War, the Sultan had regained respect and authority among Muslims worldwide. Curtis thought that due to the current minister’s and Turkish government’s good relations, the Sultan could influence Muslims in the Philippines. If the Sultan sent a message to the Sultan of Sulu Island, it would establish peaceful and harmonious relations between American officials and the island’s Muslims, a significant achievement for America.” (6)

The part where the US ambassador describes how he prepared for this meeting is noteworthy. When he received instructions from Washington to meet with the Palace about the Philippines, he knew very little about the Philippines, and he couldn’t find details in the libraries in Istanbul. He obtained a copy of the Paris Treaty and, following a colleague’s suggestion, acquired the works of French geographer Jean Jacpues Reclus, learning that the Muslims in the Philippines were not Shia like in Iran, then proceeded with his plan.

During the meeting, the Ottoman Sultan had little knowledge about the Philippines and the Sulu Muslims. The developments after learning from the US Ambassador that the Muslims in the region were Sunni are reflected in the memoirs:

“I thought the Sultan might seek some assurance about our Government’s attitude towards Muhammadanism (Muhammad’s religion) and that it would reassure him. I prepared a translation of Article XI of the treaty signed between America and Tripoli in 1796.”

This article ensured that the United States was essentially not founded on a Christian basis. Hence, it had no malice or hatred towards Muslims’ religion, Sharia, and peace. (7)

Straus notes that Sultan Abdulhamid II’s face brightened when he read this article, “He said he would be pleased to act according to my suggestion for two reasons, for humanity and to help America.”

Sultan Abdulhamid II and Ambassador Straus discussed how the sultan’s message would be delivered to the region. They decided to prepare a telegram to find out if any Sulu Muslim chiefs were in Mecca during the pilgrimage season. The telegram text was prepared, and its translation was read to the ambassador.

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Ambassador Straus

Immediately after receiving information that two Sulu chiefs were in Mecca, Ambassador Straus was invited back to the presence. They jointly prepared a new telegram. The ambassador describes the content of the telegram they prepared with Sultan Abdulhamid II:

“They explained that their religion would not be disturbed if they came under the control of the American army. The Sultan advised them to return to their people as soon as possible to prevent any bloodshed due to his deep concern for their welfare and instructed them.” (8)

The ambassador recommended sending a telegram to Secretary of State Hay after sending this telegram to the Sulu Muslim chiefs in Mecca, informing General Bates, the American commander in the Philippines.

These contacts bore fruit shortly. Three months later, Aguinaldo, who had initiated an independence movement in the Philippines, sent a representative to the Sulu Muslims. However, the Sulu Muslims refused to join Aguinaldo, fighting for the region’s independence. They responded that they recognized American sovereignty, being under the protection of the American army.

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Nazan Çiçek, “The Beginning of Ottoman Empire and Cuba Relations”, Ottoman Empire Latin America (Early Period), Edited by Mehmet Necati Kutlu, et al., Fatma Öznur Seçkin, Ankara University Latin America Studies Research and Application Center Publications, Ankara 2012, p. 64. William G. Clarence-Smith, “Middle Eastern States and The Philippines under Early American Rule, 1898-1919”, From Anatolia To Aceh Ottomans Turks and Southeast Asia, Edited by A.C S. Peacock & Annabel Teh Gallop Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 199. “The Spanish and American Battle in the Philippines”, Tercüman-ı Hakikat, 28 July 1898. Göksoy, ibid., pp. 84-88. BOA, Y.PRK.UM., 45/40. (Presidency State Archives Directorate Ottoman Archive) Oscar S. Straus, Under Four Administration: From Cleveland to Taft, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1922, p. 143. This article provided assurance that the US is a secular state, guaranteeing that international negotiations would be based on law, not Christian faith. Straus, op. cit., pp. 145-146.

*M. AHMET KARABAY is columnist at TR724.com.

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