Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Legacy of Lepanto


For most people interested in history, the Battle of Lepanto, October 7, 1571, is an interesting footnote.  They’ve seen allusions to it, and may be vaguely aware of the various paintings, musical compositions, and literary works dealing with the battle, but the issues involved and even the people (except for the romantic Don Juan of Austria . . . often confused with the fictional womanizing Tirso de Molina character) don’t really excite or interest them.

Miguel de Cervantes de Saavedra
For the people of the late sixteenth century, however, it was the key event in history.  It broke the back of the Ottoman Empire.  As a result, the Ottoman Empire began its long decline until dissolving in the chaos of World War I with the Arab Revolt.  As Miguel de Cervantes said of his participation in the battle when someone mocked him as a cripple,

He charges me with being old and one-handed, as if it had been in my power to keep time from passing over me, or as if the loss of my hand had been brought about in some tavern, and not on the greatest occasion the past or present has ever seen, or the future can hope to see. If my wounds have no beauty in the eye of the beholder, they are, at least, honorable in the estimation of those who know where they were received; for the soldier shows to greater advantage dead in battle than alive in flight.”

This all sounds like pretty old stuff, but it has relevance today.  ISIS and the Ottomans bear a close resemblance to one another.

Sultan Selim the Drunk
No, ISIS doesn’t represent orthodox Islam any more than the Ottoman version of Islam did.  For example, the immediate cause of the Battle of Lepanto was Sultan Selim the Drunk’s desire to capture Cyprus so that he could have a monopoly on the supply of his favorite wine.

Orthodox Muslims rejected as a little self-interested the rather specious fatwas issued by the Imams at the behest of Selim declaring Islamic ownership of Cyprus.  They also rejected the Ottoman claim to be the carriers of true Islam.  That is one reason why it was so easy for Napoleon to manipulate the Ottomans in his fight against the British, and for the British to use Arab nationalism to defeat the Ottomans who were allied with the Germans and Austrians a century later.

Selim’s escapade in Cyprus was, however, only one incident in a long series of events leading up to Lepanto.  The sieges of Nicosia and Famagusta were so vicious and brutal (the defenders were promised immunity when they surrendered, but were instead tortured to death after degrading and disgusting humiliations were heaped on them) that they swung Venice, uneasy trading partners of the Ottomans, toward an alliance with the other European powers.  It even united Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and non-Ottoman Muslims in a crusade against the Turks.

The Siege of Szigetvár
The Ottoman conquest of Cyprus was the trigger of Lepanto, not the cause.  The 1565 Siege of Malta and the 1566 Siege of Szigetvár (“the Hungarian Alamo”) were a continuation of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s lifelong efforts to extend Ottoman hegemony into Europe after his failure to take Vienna, the Hapsburg capital considered the heart of Europe, in 1529.  Defenders at Malta and Szigetvár included both Jews and Muslims resisting the Ottoman version of Islam.

At the heart of Ottoman expansionism was the fixed belief that the empire could only survive if it continued to grow, and “growth” was defined as conquest for land, slaves, and gold.  The rapid growth of the Ottoman Empire as the principal Islamic power stopped virtually all technological advance and original thought in the countries they controlled and influenced — which meant pretty much all of Islam until 1918.  To most people, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, the Ottoman Empire was Islam.

The Battle of Lepanto
Unfortunately, the idea that economic growth could be achieved by other means, such as the trade and technological advancement that had often characterized Islam before the rise of the Ottomans, was alien to the Ottomans.  It was conquest or nothing.

Thus, at a time when Europe was beginning to develop the advanced financial and banking systems that financed growth and innovation, the Islamic world under the sway of the Ottomans began rapidly regressing.  Where the problem in Christian and Jewish Europe was that relatively few people were able to participate in economic growth, the problem in the Islamic world was that — compared to the explosive growth in Europe — the economic tide was receding instead of advancing.  A tide can lower as well as raise all boats.

Paradoxically, the solution in both cases is the same: expanded capital ownership financed with future increases in production instead of past reductions in consumption.  This is found in the Just Third Way, particularly the Capital Homesteading proposal.

#30#

No comments: