The Decline: or what do America and the Ottoman Empire have in common

The Decline: or what do America and the Ottoman Empire have in common

I’ve been reading a book on the history of the Arab peoples conveniently titled, A History of the Arab Peoples
by Albert Hourani.  I’m a little more then half way through. I’ve basically just finished the section on the European take over of the Arab world in 1700s. I wanted to write about it because of the relevance to what is happening to America right now. All in the spirit of the famous maxim – those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Ok – so, The Ottoman Empire was flourishing. It had control over basically most of the Arab and Islamic worlds for several centuries. There were a few exceptions. But it was definitely the big dog empire. It controlled trade over large stretches of North Africa, Asia and Europe. It’s arts, sciences and culture were emulated everywhere. And then, when it wasn’t looking, Europe started to develop. Europe entered the Renaissance and started learning and developing and innovating. Some people in the Ottoman Empire took notice and warned that unless the Ottomans also invested in education and innovation their armies would not be able to compete with the European ones. These warnings were ignored. Supporters of the Ottoman system argued that the Ottoman Empire was the best empire ever; it had nothing to fear from the Europeans. They were after all the defenders of the one true faith and their God wouldn’t allow them to falter.

This argument prevailed until, of course, the European armies started to defeat the Ottoman armies. It was now clear the Ottoman system of government and warfare was falling behind.

At this point a decision had to be made. Would the Ottomans embrace innovation and start investing in infrastructure, education and technology?  Or would they stick their heads in the sand? The Ottoman Empire was a religiously motivated empire and so they decided they would rather stick their collective heads in the sands then change social/religious customs that were hindering their development. 

Here’s what happened. A religious claim was made that the reason the Ottomans were falling to Europe was because they had strayed to far away from the pure religion. The solution to this perceived problem is almost always to double down on your religious efforts. Which is what the Ottomans did.  Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work, mostly because such religious efforts never work. The Ottomans were routed and they were gradually forced to cede more and more of their authority to the European merchants and governments and they basically lost all control of trade in the area. What is amazing is that today, in the Islamic world, this very same argument is being made to this day!

American vs. Ottoman Exceptionalism

Here’s where the lesson for modern America comes in.  Like the Ottomans, we have enjoyed a period where we were the top dog. Our culture and arts and educational system have been emulated pretty much everywhere. And like the Ottomans, we are currently in a period where we are starting to fall behind other parts of the world. Whether it is in health care, or energy or education. Doesn’t’ matter. Americans are now facing competition in a wide range of areas that we hadn’t before.

Additionally, just like in the Ottoman Empire, there are people all across our country trying to warn us that we need to invest in education and innovation or we are going to fall behind. And, again, just like in the Ottoman Empire, we have a very vocal and very powerful religious group telling us that we are an exceptional country in God’s eyes and that as long as we stay true to this God, we will not loose our position or prestige.

And, again, just like in the Ottoman Empire, as the obviousness of the fact that this religious exceptionalism strategy isn’t working, those very same vocal and powerful religious leaders are arguing that the problem isn’t that they were wrong. The problem is that we weren’t doing it right. What we need to do now, according to them, is to double down on our religious efforts because we just weren’t being religious enough or in the right way.

Here’s the basic argument being made. Because America is exceptional and because we are God’s blessed country, the only reason He would allow us to fall behind is if we were failing to worship and obey Him properly. In order to regain God’s continued blessing, we need to go back to a more pure form of religion. In our case the religion happens to be Christianity and the “pure” form being preached, as our course to salvation, is a particularly nasty form of Calvinism. In layman’s terms: they think their god wants total and complete submission to his chosen leaders and as a result they are advocating that we abandon all ideas of Democracy and individual rights because that is what they think their god wants. (Check out:, for an example)

Don’t believe me – why do you think the Republicans are attacking unions despite the backlash? It’s because they believe unions are inherently evil because they represent a refusal to submit to your god-chosen leader. Why did they just vote in Michigan to give the governor there dictatorial powers including the right to dissolve locally elected governments?  It’s because they are on a religious crusade and they require total submission of the people to their religiously inspired agenda. Is this inherently anti-democratic and therefore anti-American?  Yes, of course it is. But these are religiously motivated people. They aren’t acting as rational political players. They aren’t concerned about Democracy. They are only concerned with making their god happy. And right now they think that their God is mad. (Check out:

What to do

Ok – back to what we need to do as Americans.  Well, I’m a Humanist. My belief is that if we decide to ignore reality in favor of fantasy, we are going to find ourselves sidelined. So I’m in favor of investing in education, infrastructure and innovation to make sure we can continue to compete.

This isn’t going to happen though if we continue to allow the extreme religious elements of our society to dominate our public policy. We can’t make the choice between reason and religion until we recognize that that is what we are discussing. Acknowledge that and then we can finally decide whether or not our fiscal policy is best addressed through a rational analysis or a religious analysis. I personal would prefer we use reason.

So, the next time you hear a politician talking about his faith as if it were relevant to the political discussion, understand this. It isn’t. If you want your public policy to be based on rational analysis, don’t vote for the religious candidates. And the way to do this is to reject candidates who are supported by the religious right. It’s really quite simple.