As April turned to May 100 years ago, the Middle East was torn by unprecedented violence. Armenians across the Ottoman Empire were ordered to abandon their homes for what proved to be death marches, while thousands of Turks fell dead and wounded defending the beaches of Gallipoli from Allied invasion. The Allies — Britons and Frenchmen, Indians and North Africans, Australians and New Zealanders — fell in their thousands, too.
Within a year, over 140,000 men would die at Gallipoli — 86,500 Turks and 56,000 soldiers from Britain, France and their overseas dominions. An estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million civilians died in the Armenian genocide.
All of that is well remembered. What is less appreciated is how many of those deaths, and how many more in battles that followed, can be traced to a gamble that the Ottoman Empire could turn the fortunes of war to their alliance’s advantage through jihad, or Islamic holy war.
“Throw yourselves against the enemy as lions,” Sultan Mehmed V, acting in his role as caliph, enjoined Turkey’s troops in November 1914, “bearing in mind that the very existence of our empire, and of 300 million Muslims whom I have summoned by sacred fatwa to jihad, depends on your victory.”
The declaration had been encouraged by sustained pressure from Germany, whose war planners knew, better than any other European power, the limits of the Ottoman Army’s ability to wage conventional warfare. One general, Liman von Sanders, had headed a mission to rebuild the Turkish infantry on the eve of war. In July 1914, he advised his government that Turkey, with a depleted economy and an exhausted army, was “worthless as an ally” and counseled against allying with it.
But influential advisers had persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm II that the Ottomans could weaken the Allies on the Western Front by provoking Islamic uprisings in their far-flung colonies. With 100 million Muslims under British rule in India and Egypt, and millions more under French and Russian rule in Africa and the Caucasus, these German Middle East experts argued that an Ottoman call for jihad would provoke mass rebellions, and that the mere threat of that in India would drive Britain to capitulate.
Remarkably, the British took the threat of this German-induced jihad as seriously as the Kaiser’s advisers, particularly after hundreds of Indian Muslim soldiers serving in Singapore mutinied in February 1915. It took the British authorities a week to restore order. Then, shortly after British forces stormed the beaches of Gallipoli that April, Britain redeployed all Indian Muslim troops to the Western Front out of doubts about their loyalty in a Middle East campaign. These precautions would prove overwrought; by the end of the Great War, a vast majority of the one million Indian soldiers — one-quarter of them Muslim — had served with remarkable commitment to the British war effort.
Ironically, the threat of jihad played more powerfully on the anxieties of British war planners than the call to jihad aroused colonial Muslims. Fearful that Ottoman battlefield victories might inspire colonial Islamic uprisings, the British and French were drawn ever deeper into Middle East battles.
For example, they had thought the Gallipoli campaign would secure a quick defeat of the Ottoman Empire. But it failed when the Turks proved skillful at defending their heartland. After eight months of campaigning, the Allies abandoned the campaign in January 1916 — raising new fears among British war planners that this Ottoman triumph might have enhanced the appeal of jihad. In response, they made a reckless attempt to conquer Baghdad — only to suffer a greater defeat at Kut al-Amara, when more than 13,000 British and Indian troops were forced into unconditional surrender in April 1916.
With each setback, the British redoubled efforts to defeat the Turks and contain the threat of jihad. That same year, they sealed an alliance with the highest ranking Muslim official in the Arab world, Hussein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca, to lead an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule with the assistance of his son Faisal and a British officer, T.E. Lawrence.
That famous campaign is best understood as an exercise in jihad damage control. In the process, it drew the British and French into a conflict in Arabia that even its supporters dismissed at the time as a “sideshow to a sideshow.”
The British laid their fears of jihad to rest only when they and their allies began to capture cities rich in Islamic heritage — Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, in the summer of 1916; Baghdad, ancient seat of the Abbasid caliphate, in March 1917; and Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city, in December 1917. With those in hand, British war planners no longer deemed the Ottoman jihad a threat. Yet the Allies were so engaged on the Ottoman front that they could not withdraw until they had secured total victory over the Turks. That would not come until late October 1918, when the Ottomans concluded an armistice, to be followed by a harsh peace treaty.
What had the call to jihad achieved? It no doubt played some role in stirring the fighting mettle of the Turks. All Ottoman wartime propaganda had been cast in religious terms. The dead were consistently referred to as “martyrs.” But in hindsight, it should have come as no surprise that the sultan-caliph’s call to jihad would have greater appeal to Turks than to other Muslims. The Turks, after all, were fighting not just for their faith but also for their sovereignty, much as Britons and Germans did (the belt buckles on German uniforms claimed “Gott mit uns” — God is with us).
There was a sinister aspect to the Ottoman jihad as well. In his memoir “Armenian Golgotha,” Grigoris Balakian, an Armenian priest who survived the genocide, recounted a conversation with a Turkish captain. The Turk claimed that “government officials” had sent gendarmes “to all the surrounding Turkish villages and in the name of holy jihad invited the Muslim population to participate in this sacred religious obligation” of massacring Armenians. It would not be the last time religion was used to turn civilians into a state’s willing murderers.
With the fall of the Ottomans after the First World War, the Arab world entered a century of conflict. Caught between foreign domination and the rival appeals of nationalism and Islamism, the Middle East has yet to emerge from the shadow of jihad.
But perhaps there is a caution in this narrative. In a striking parallel to events a century ago, the threat of far-reaching jihad — most recently in the name of the Islamic State — continues to play on the minds of Western leaders. But it does so far beyond any evidence of wide appeal among a vast majority of the globe’s Muslims. So Western leaders can learn from the experience of a century ago. When they overreact to the threat of religious war, they concede power to the very enemies they seek to overcome, with consequences impossible to predict.
Eugene Rogan, a fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a historian of the Middle East, is the author of The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East.