Under the Shadow of the Crescent Moon

A made up history of the modern Middle East where the Ottomans solved everything

Nick Danforth
4 min readOct 15, 2020

In a recent essay for Aeon, Ussama Makdisi argues that “European colonisation put an abrupt end to [Ottoman] political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab world.” The following account envisions what would have happened if those experiments had been allowed to succeed.

Anyone searching for the start of the much-discussed “Middle East Miracle” might well begin with the Ottoman restoration of 1924.

In June of that year, the now famous Veli Pasha assumed the throne in Istanbul and declared that the centuries-old Empire would henceforth be reconfigured as the Ottoman Constitutional Caliphal Confederation. While in hindsight this appears to be an obvious outgrowth of earlier Ottoman reform efforts, we must remember how startling it seemed at the time. Veli Pasha was an unlikely reformer as well. He had been relatively unknown even to his countrymen before his army’s dramatic recapture of Rumelia made him a household name throughout the world. Born to poor parents in the humble town of Yozgat, few imagined he would rise to reshape the 20th century — defeating European imperialism, reforming Islam, discrediting the concept of the nation state and remaking modernity in a fundamentally more humane way.

Those practicing military or diplomatic history might be interested in the details of how Veli Pasha upended centuries of geopolitics and enabled the Ottomans to emerge more powerful from the chaos of World War One. But for our purposes, we will focus on the more important subject of what his success meant for the Middle East and the world.

What proved so brilliant about the Ottoman Empire’s new model of constitutional caliphal confederation was that it simultaneously solved all the basic problems that had vexed both Western and non-Western political thinkers since the end of the medieval period. As constitutional Caliph, Veli Pasha maintained religious legitimacy in the eyes of his Muslim subjects and gave them the space to forge an authentic form of Islamic modernity untainted by radicalism. By doing this without resort to problematic Western conceptions of secularism, he also avoided creating any form of fundamentalist backlash. More importantly, the constitutional Caliphate also gave the Empire’s Christian subjects full freedom as co-equal citizens. Because of the Empire’s ecumenical tradition, they understood that the Caliph could be the defender of Islam and their constitutional rights at the same time. Some Christians even aspired to become Caliph themselves. In Veli Pasha’s famous formulation, the Sultan would be a Muslim ruler to those who demanded a Muslim ruler and a non-Muslim ruler to those who did not.

The confederal aspect of the new Ottoman administrative system followed a similar logic. When members of the empire’s ethnic minorities appealed for self rule in order to promote their own languages and cultures, Veli offered them a form of local autonomy that satisfied this wish without in any way encouraging more radical separatist demands. As importantly, he ensured that each ethnic group would exercise their autonomy in a manner which members of other ethnicities would not resent. The local parliaments in each of the Empire’s reconstituted vilayets, for example, were free to allocate their own budgets in areas such as education, but could not do so in a way that promoted their own languages or cultures over others. By encouraging cultural diversity while rejecting the foreign ideology of nationalism, the Ottoman Confederation squared a circle which had ensnared countless other countries.

Imperial harmony was also facilitated by the careful geographic delimitation of these autonomous regions. Instead of drawing their borders with no regard for the identities or wishes of the inhabitants, Veli Pasha drew them in a way that took these identities into account but did not in any way reify them. By doing so judiciously, Veli’s Ottoman Ethnicity Commission created a series of largely homogeneous regions out of the Empire’s diverse ethnic geography, ensuring each village ended up in the region it preferred without creating a complex patchwork of enclaves and exclaves that would subsequently be condemned as cynically impractical by their inhabitants.

The enduring vitality of the new Ottoman system, sometimes called centralized decentralization, was proven time and time again over the ensuing decades. Where European democracies saw their unity destroyed by class conflicts, the Ottoman model of alternate modernity steered the state through a turbulent period of industrialization without any destabilizing ideological divides. Where some European leaders consolidated power by blaming minorities for the disruptions brought about by modernization, Ottoman modernity simply avoided these disruptions, thereby preventing the rise of populism, fascism and right wing authoritarianism. This meant that by the second half of the twentieth century, the Ottoman’s pre/post-nationalist model of tolerance was so consolidated that it was only strengthened by the many waves of immigrants drawn by the Empire’s economic success.

The results of this success are obvious. Today, hundreds of millions of people live happily under the shadow of the crescent moon. From Bitola to Basra, the flag of the Ottoman Constitutional Caliphal Confederation stands as a constant rebuke to the benighted people of the West. Its elegantly curved forms remind us that we could have solved the world’s problems if only we had rejected all the ideologies that originally seemed like solutions to them.