Thursday, 21 February 2013

Baghdad: Worth a Mosque?

The Kaiser; aka "Hadji Wilhelm Mohammed" (Source: Wikipedia)
World War I is usually associated with the trenches on the Western Front. You know; shelling, gassing, the Somme, the Battle of Verdun... But as Germany knew right at the outset; the Allies' weakest spot was not the French border. No, the soft, unprotected underbelly of the Allies was Britain's Achilles heel – India (why, yes, I do like mixing my metaphors – why do you ask?).

Germany had long groomed Turkey for the (officially un)express(ed) purpose of getting a foothold in Asia. When the rest of the world refused to have any truck with the late Sultan Abdul Hamid after his brutal crushing of the rebellion by the (Christian) Armenian minority, Germany had taken Turkey's side against the outraged Russians. Germany had even helped Turkey arm itself by offering military advisors and arms. In return, Germany only wanted a small thing – a railroad, running straight from Berlin to Baghdad. That way, Germany would be well prepared to open up an Asian front in case of a conflict with Russia and Britain without risking that her troop movements were impeded by Russia and her Slavic allies in Eastern Europe.

In order to affirm the friendship Germany felt with the Islamic world, Kaiser Wilhelm even declared himself the protector of the Muslim world. During a state visit to Turkey in 1898, he made speech to that effect which was repeated on postcards that were spread from Kabul to the Bosporus. Islam's cause, Germany declared, was also Germany's.

Example of the postcards described above, with the German text on the left and the same in Arabic on the right

When war finally broke out, Germany urged the Sultan as the leader of the Islamic world to declare a jihad, a holy war, on Britain. The idea was that the vast Muslim population in India would then rise up against its British masters and throw them back into the sea from whence they came. Without India, Britain would be little but a puny island kingdom whose bark was considerably worse than its bite.

Germany was not content to rely entirely on the sultan, however, considering the rather bad relationship between the Ottomans and many Islamic peoples. No, Germany was going to take it one step further and try to persuade India's closest neighbours, Persia and Afghanistan, to join their cause. In order to do so, Germany sent several expiditions in order to treat with the Shah of Persia and the Emir of Afghanistan, as well as to proselyte among the local tribes.

The full story of Germany's jihad is too long and complicated to relate here, but one of the more absurd aspects of it was the claim that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam and gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. His name, therefore, was given as "Hadji Wilhelm Mohammed", a rather shameless, not to say blasphemous, attempt to exploit the genuine religious feeling of the Muslims. Meanwhile, Germany coldly planned to lay claim to most of the land under Ottoman control as soon as Britain and Russia had been defeated.

It didn't work though,  and perhaps it never could have. Perhaps Germany underestimated her Muslim allies' ability to see through her rather feeble ruse, or maybe they simply overestimated the religious ties and underestimated the political and ethnic tensions within the Islamic world.

Nevertheless, forgotten as it is today, the affair of the German Jihad without a doubt managed to further increase the gap between Christian Europe and Muslim Asia and helped contribute to the dichotomy so strongly and painfully experienced in the century that followed World War I.

(This post was originally posted on my old blog)

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