The "Eastern Question"
The wider Napoleonic Wars cast a long shadow over the Islamic heartland. Although fundamentally European in nature, they shaped Europe’s relationship with the Islamic world for the next century. The Ottoman Empire found itself the target not only of Russian imperial ambitions, but also of French, Austrian, and British designs that contributed to its continued territorial losses and the emergence of the "Eastern Question". Moreover, the similarities between Napoleon’s rhetoric and methods and those used in twentieth-century Western interventions in the Middle East underscore the long-term impact of his legacy.
In 1810-1812, a century before "Lawrence of Arabia", Napoleon’s agents were seeking to encourage Arab tribes in Syria and Iraq to unite in revolt against the Ottomans. And later French governments realised Napoleon’s vision of a French colonial empire. In 1830, French troops, some of them veterans of the Egyptian campaign, invaded Algiers on the basis of contingency plans developed under Napoleon two decades earlier, and laid the foundation for a period of French colonial rule that lasted until 1962.
Iran, its own empire a thing of the past, endured an equally painful fate, becoming a pawn in the hands of European powers. Double-crossed by both France and Britain, Iran suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of Russia, which acquired Georgia and south eastern Caucasia by 1813 and all but supplanted Iranian influence in the region.
The Napoleonic Wars revealed glaring inefficiencies in the Ottoman and Iranian states, and highlighted the growing military and economic imbalance between them and the leading European powers. The wars thus ushered in an era of state-sponsored reforms, as Ottoman, Egyptian, and Iranian political leaders sought to remake their administrations and militaries in a European image.
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Western-influenced reforms challenge the Islamic status quo
Herein lies one of the most enduring Napoleonic legacies in the Middle East. Reform-minded rulers such as the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, Mehmet Ali of Egypt, and Iran’s Crown Prince Abbas Mirza did not question the cultural norms or social structures on which traditional order rested. Instead, they believed that European-style military and administrative reforms would enable them to consolidate their domestic power and protect their states more effectively from outside threats.
But these reforms entailed the introduction of Western practices into Islamic societies and posed challenges to existing power structures, because they inserted the central government into the daily lives of its subjects more directly and pervasively than ever before. That is why many groups – including the ulema (religious leaders), the Saudis in central Arabia, Ottoman janissaries, and Iran’s traditional elites – reacted so negatively, rejecting even those modernising changes that could have better protected their respective states.
This confrontation increasingly came to be seen as a struggle for the very essence of the Islamic way of life. And its profound effects, along with other aspects of Napoleon’s legacy, continue to reverberate in the Middle East today.
Alexander Mikaberidze is professor of history at Louisiana State University and recently published "The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History"