Ayşe Hür
Dec 23 2017

Fahreddin Pasha or Erdoğan's strategy of distraction

A war of words broke out between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey after UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahayan retweeted a comment calling the last Ottoman governor of the holy city of Medina a thief and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as his descendent.

Erdoğan predictably hit back, saying the governor, Fahreddin Pasha had sent the artefacts from present-day Saudi Arabia to the Ottoman capital Istanbul to protect them from enemy British forces during World War One.

“While Fahreddin Pasha was defending Medina, where were your forefathers?” Erdoğan asked.

The altercation took both those who are not very familiar with the region's history and those who are not up to date with Middle Eastern politics by surprise. Who is Fahreddin Pasha and what did he do? Why would Nahayan tweet something like this?

Those sensitive to Islamic issues focused on the "sacred relics" that Fahreddin Pasha sent from Medina to Istanbul and now on show at Topkapı Palace Museum.

Before delving into the history, I would like to remind readers how talented Erdoğan is in using historical events to further his political agenda. In other words, when he gets involved, Erdoğan’s words about history are mostly about current events, rather than the past.

First, I'll try to explain, as a historian, who Fahreddin Pasha was.

Fahreddin Paşa
Fahreddin Paşa

Fahreddin Pasha was born in 1868. He joined the Ottoman army as a staff officer in 1891 and was stationed in present-day eastern Turkey until 1908. He fought the Battle of Tripoli in 1911, in the First Balkan War of 1912, and was stationed in eastern Anatolia during the Armenian deportations and massacres there in 1915. He was then appointed commander of Ottoman forces in Medina in 1916.

When Hussein, the emir of the holy city of Mecca revolted against the Ottomans in June 1916, Fahreddin Pasha fought off Arab forces also trying to seize Medina. Arabs see the conflict as a patriotic struggle to rid their land of Ottoman rule, but Turkish nationalist historians see the rebels as "British collaborators" who "stabbed the Ottomans in the back".

Fahreddin Pasha carried out some restoration in Medina during his time as governor, for example, repaving the roads leading to the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb. In August 1918, he sent about 750 historically important manuscripts and Islamic artefacts from Medina's libraries to Istanbul.

Fahreddin Pasha is most famous however for his defence of Medina. The British officer T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – called Fahreddin Pasha the “Tiger of the Desert” for refusing to surrender despite extreme weather conditions, outbreaks of Spanish fever and scurvy, and shortages of ammunition, food, and water, especially after the British cut railway supplies.

The story of how Fahreddin Pasha fought food scarcity is well documented. According to his intelligence officer Naci Kâşif, the commander reminded his soldiers of a hadith that says: "two types of dead meat and two types of blood have been made lawful for our consumption". Pasha told his soldiers that “two dead” in the hadith were fish and grasshoppers, and the two types of blood were spleen and liver. He convinced his soldiers that it was fine to eat grasshoppers. The soldiers followed his lead and roasted grasshoppers, used crushed grasshopper flour to bake bread and snacked on grasshoppers.

Even after the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice agreement with Allied forces on Oct. 30 1918, Fahreddin Pasha refused to surrender. Special orders were sent by the Grand Vizier Ahmed İzzet Pasha, then from Sultan Vahdettin, ordering him to surrender to the Allies. But, he famously said: "Rather than handing over the keys of Medina to a British captain, I'll die fighting."

But cornered by the Allies, on Jan. 5, 1919 he issued a farewell message to his troops and on Jan. 7 he signed an agreement to surrender. On the night of Jan. 8, Fahreddin Pasha destroyed essential documents and weapons and the next day visited the prophet's tomb. He left his sword at the monument and refused to leave the grounds. Shouting, "I will not let my flag down", Fahreddin Pasha was seized by his own officers, and, 67 days after the Armistice, he finally surrendered.

The British took Fahreddin Pasha to Egypt. After being kept as a prisoner of war there for eight months, he was transferred to Malta. Following negotiations between Turkey’s emerging new leaders and the British, Fahreddin Pasha was released in 1921, returned to Turkey and served as a general until retirement.

Fahreddin Pasha was the representative of the Turkish Government in Afghanistan between 1922 and 1926. In 1934, he adopted the surname "Türkkan" (“Turkish blood” in Turkish). He died in 1948 and was buried in Istanbul.

This is the historical background of the controversy. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I believe this squabble has more to do with current events than this historical episode.

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2016 file photo,Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, shake hands before a meeting in Istanbul. Erdogan is railing against al Nahyan who re-tweeted a post that accused the Turkish leader's Ottoman "forefathers" of mistreating Arabs and stealing manuscripts from the holy city of Medina.(Yasin Bulbul/Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2016 file photo, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, shake hands before a meeting in Istanbul. (Yasin Bulbul/AP pool)

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of supporting terrorism in their counties since the group won elections in Egypt in 2011. Saudi Arabia and the UAE alleged recordings emerged in Libya after the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi proving the Brotherhood’s designs for regime change in their countries. According to these recordings, Gaddafi and Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani had attempted to organise a conspiracy against Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Hamad stepped down in 2013 and a crisis was averted. But this year, the tension has re-emerged and escalated once again. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have all cut diplomatic ties with Qatar.

In June 2017, the UAE sent a message to Ankara asking Turkey to "remain neutral". The UAE also requested Ankara to close its military base in Qatar and extradite members of Islamist groups seen as close to the Brotherhood such as al Shabaab, the Taliban, and al Qaeda.

But Turkey’s government cannot remain neutral because the Muslim Brotherhood is still well received in Turkey, and because it base in Qatar is the only Turkish military base in the Middle East. Moreover, Turkey has committed to investing $19 billion in the base in Qatar in 2018. When the world oil price increased due to the tension, Turkey had no choice but to put strain on its relations with UAE to support Qatar.

Turkish pro-government media has quickly fallen into line, accusing the UAE of fomenting political changes from Egypt to Tunisia, from Somalia to Serbia and for financing 2013 protests and last year’s failed coup in Turkey. Moreover, they claim that the UAE is advocating a "Gülenist Sufi conspiracy" against "Wahhabi jihadism" of Saudi Arabia.

As a final word, Turkey's exports to the UAE rank second in the Middle East. The gold trade accounts for 60% of these exports; $4.6 billion by 2015. Analysing these claims is not my job as a historian. But I can say this; the squabble between the UAE and Erdoğan cannot be interpreted without taking Turkey-Saudi, Turkey-UAE, Turkey-Qatar, UAE-Qatar, UAE-Saudi and Saudi-Iranian relations into account. Nor it can be understood without taking into account Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman, Neo Islamist (irredentist) politics.