Lessons from the Ottoman Empire on accepting minorities

When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they soon found a new homeland where they could settle and flourish for the next four centuries. The status of the Sephardic Jews turned out to be a group of brothers that were longed for, not an unwanted, shunned community.

The ruling Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II placed all the Jews under the protection of the Ottoman Empire, the superpower of the time. We recall this part of our history since the 4th of March is celebrated as the arrival of the Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman lands and the issue has been rekindled by Spain deciding to give citizenship to the ancestors of the expelled Sephardic Jews.

Ferdinand II, the King of Spain, enacted an imperial order in 1492, commanding all the Jews in Spain to abandon the country, and he said, “We were compassionate to them, so only sufficed them with a punishment of expulsion.” This part of history is well known in general; in point of fact, Spain recently invited the Sephardic Jews that were exiled 522 years ago back to the country and in this way brought the matter on world’s agenda once again.

The Ottomans and minorities

However, not everyone knows how a Muslim state like the Ottoman Empire embraced these Jews at that time. The Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II even sent ships to Spain to prevent any impairment to the Jews during their burdensome journey, thus providing safe travel for them with no loss of lives. Furthermore, he issued a decree to the provinces declaring that the Spanish Jews should be received heartily, and any one ill-treating the immigrants would be penalized.

There have been many mistakes of the Ottoman Empire in history, and we all take lessons from those errors. However, its policies towards minorities, and qualities like not assimilating ethnic groups through compulsion or harassment, or being on the side of the oppressed regardless of their religion or race at all times, are exemplary for the entire Muslim world today.

But where does this pluralist attitude come from? Did the Ottomans develop it just as a political move to keep the empire on its feet for 650 years? No. They were good in many ways but they were not that good. The first example of acceptance (not tolerance) towards Jews in a Muslim majority society comes from the times of Prophet Mohammad.

The Medina constitution was the first pluralist constitution in the world in which both Muslims and non-Muslims were given the same rights and were treated equally. Our Prophet married a Jewish woman and praised her lineage. In Islam, Jews are referred as the People of the Book and the companions of Prophet Mohammad carried on trade activities with the Jews in Medina, Yethrib and many other Arab cities.

After its capture by Hazrat Umar in 673, Muslims, Christians and Jews in Jerusalem lived together in peace and tranquility for hundreds of years. Muslims never compelled anyone to convert.

Lessons from the past

A great many of my Jewish friends ask the question, “Would today’s Turkey do the same thing for the Jews, if (God forbid) they were expelled today?” There are so many examples from recent history to be given as a response to this query. Today’s Turkey accepted the Kurds fleeing from the massacres of Saddam Hussein's regime at the end of the Gulf War without a doubt.

Turkey’s approach towards Syrian refugees is applauded by the entire world. In addition to these, according to a report of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Turkey is second on the list of countries accepting the highest number of refugees. Would Turkey act the same way if the Syrian refugees were not Muslims? Yes. We can understand this once we see how Christian groups are embraced when they ask for refuge in Turkey.

There have been many mistakes of the Ottoman Empire in history, and we all take lessons from those errors. However, its policies towards minorities, and qualities like not assimilating ethnic groups through compulsion or harassment, or being on the side of the oppressed regardless of their religion or race at all times, are exemplary for the entire Muslim world today.

Ceylan Ozbudak

When the Syriac Christians who fled Syria settled in Antioch, they brought up their aspiration for reviving the antique community in the historic monastery of Antioch. Upon this, the monastery was hastily renovated by the state and a new road was constructed.

Despite all the diplomatic issues with the Israeli state, the AK Party government has emphasized time and again that they have no problems with the Israeli people and they regard the Jews as their brothers. Following the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey was the first country that sent emergency aid to Israel for putting out forest fires raging in Israel. In terms of the Turkish public and Turkish politicians, Israeli citizens have been kept out of political tensions and continue to be regarded with affection by most Turks.

Shas Party founding member and Knesset Member Nissim Zeev, three-term Cabinet minister Shimon Shetreet, Shas Party secretary Tsvi Jacobson, Turkish former Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış (AK Party) and Former Minister of Health Halil Şıvgın (ANAP) came together on the live TV program of Harun Yahya in the Istanbul studios and heard the words of Former Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış, “In the Genesis part of the Torah, Harran is mentioned.

They have gone to Palestine only after staying in Harran for 20 years. Consequently, the relationship of the people of Israel, the B'nai Israel, and the Turkey of our day goes way back to the time before B'nai Israel has gone to the place now we call Israel, which was called Palestine back then. In this way, we need to take our shared history to four thousand years ago… If we have to act in a way befitting this common history, instead of exaggerating incidents, we need to scale them down.”

This statement reflected the general outlook of the entire Turkish nation. And Mr Yahya concluded: “From time to time, we might have some slight breezes, but there will never be a fall out in the basis of our friendship. We all are the children of the Abraham, we all are. We all are the children of the Jacob, we all are the children of the Noah. And first and foremost we all are the children of the Prophet Adam, for that reason we all are brothers.”

Turkish sentiment towards Israel

Turkish Muslims, like others, experience life in diverse locations, moving between countries. In the process, they are naturally shaped by diverse cultures. This also has an effect on Turkish society’s outlook on today’s Jewish people or the state of Israel in terms of following a trend.

One should not be confused by the words used in the public discourse. For instance, if you ask a random Turkish citizen: “Do you think Jews have a right to live in the Promised Land?” they will most probably say “Yes, of course.” If you continue and ask, “Do you believe in Zionism?” they will most probably say: “No, of course not.” This often creates confusion for outsiders and helps foster a perception that Turks in general oppose the existence of the state of Israel.

This, however, is not true. There is a reason the rate of tourism between the two countries increased by 80% since 2011, and it is because Israeli people feel welcome in Muslim Turkey more than many other places they visit in Europe. They are often invited to pray in mosques when it is prayer time and moreover, from Istanbul, both Mecca and Jerusalem are in the same direction.

There is goodness in everything. “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it,” said Confucius. Of course we would not like to see Jews continuously being expelled from countries, especially by European Christians. But this incident still plays a role in warming the hearts of Turkish society for the Jewish people all around the world even to this day.

The anti-Semitic tendencies of some European and Arab communities may have affected a minority inside Turkey too, but in general Turkey will always stay as a safe haven not only for Jews but also for every one in need.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. As a representative of Harun Yahya organization, she frequently cites quotations from the author in her writings. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:41 - GMT 06:41
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.