Imperial Archives

On numerous Muslim news sites in Turkey and now on social media, the document below is being celebrated as evidence of a timeworn relationship of solidarity between the Turkish people and the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

The document, taken from Turkey’s Ottoman Imperial Archives and released on Twitter by Deputy Prime Minister Fikri I??k at the beginning of September, is said to show that Rohingya Muslims provided material and emotional support to the Ottoman government during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

That may well be true, but taken in the context of the time, I personally arrive at a different conclusion.

The Turkish Relief Fund was established in Calcutta in 1911 by activist, writer and scholar, Mohammad Ali Jouhar, who is best known for his role in the Muslim League and later the Khilafat Movement in India. The fund was announced in his English-language newspaper, The Comrade, on 7 October 1911.[1. Takashi Oishi, An Enquiry into the Structure of Pan-Islamism in India: The Phase of the Italo-Turkish and Balkan Wars, 1911-1913, in Journal of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies, 8, 1996, p.88]

The document in consideration would seem to be correspondence from the Rangoon branch of Mohammad Ali’s fund, which formed part of efforts of Indian Muslims under British rule to organise a unified response to support the Ottomans in their war with the Italians and Balkan States. Mohammad Ali’s Turkish Relief Fund was established in competition with the Red Crescent Society, which was also setup in Calcutta with a branch in Rangoon and Bombay.[2. ibid p.77] As can be seen from this newspaper cutting from December 1912, the noted donation was by no means isolated or unique.

At that time, Rangoon (now Yangon) was the administrative seat of British colonial rule in Burma. Lower Burma and Arakan (now Rakhine State) were important farming regions for the British administration, taken over mostly to the cultivation of rice to satisfy high demand in Europe. With better wages than in other parts of British India, labourers were encouraged to migrate from West Bengal and beyond to farm these lands, undercutting and displacing Burmese farmers (whether Rohingya Muslim or Buddhist).

There is no indication in the correspondence released by the Ottoman Imperial Archives that it was written by or on behalf of Rohingya Muslims. Given the economic and political milieu of the time, I would hazard a guess that supporters of the Turkish Relief Fund in Rangoon were largely from settled migrant communities, who despite providing cheap labour for the British, had enough disposable income left over to support international causes.

This correspondence in fact forms part of a much bigger response from Indian Muslims under British rule to the crises of the Ottoman Empire in the run up to World War I. Numerous funds were established right across India in a grassroots effort to support and aid the Ottomans in their time of need. The reaction to current crises — of which there are many — are often rooted in the same kind of narrative. Just as today’s Neo-Ottomans yearn for the resurrection of the Ottoman Empire and the imagined glory of Islam past, so Muslim Indians under British rule projected their emotional and romantic visions onto the Empire at its fall.

There is much modern Turkish Muslims and their overseas supporters could learn from this fascinating period of history, if only they could move beyond simplistic binaries and search out the lessons of the past.

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