A Timeless Lesson in Diplomacy Towards Muslim Nations

How to Pray with a Vizier

Today I came across this refreshing example of everything absent in our present era diplomats interacting with Muslim diplomats and officials from Islamic governments—erudition, self-confidence, courageous intellectual honesty, and even a sense of humor. These illustrative extracts describing Mr. Charles Alison’s exploits in Constantinople—a British diplomat respected by his Turkish Muslim counterparts—are from Sir A. Henry Layard’s autobiography. Layard (1817-1894) was a British polymath—an archaeologist, draftsman, art historian, author, politician, and diplomat, employed by Sir Stratford Canning, the British Ambassador to Turkey, in various diplomatic missions, from 1842-1845. Subsequently, Layard would serve as an envoy to Madrid, prior to returning to Constantinople as the British ambassador under Prime Minister Disraeli, from 1877 to 1880.

Sir A. Henry Layard,  Autobiography and Letters from His Childhood Until His Appointment as  H.M. Ambassador at Madrid,  Edited by the Hon.. William N. Bruce,  with a Chapter on His Parliamentary Career by the  RT. Honorable Sir Arthur Otway, in Two Volumes,  Vol. II., London, 1903.

Extracts from, Chapter III, “Politics and Society in Constantinople,” (1842-1845), pp. 75-80

Soon after my arrival at Constantinople I became very intimate with Mr. Charles Alison, who was then attached as Chief Interpreter, and afterwards became Oriental Secretary, to the British Embassy. The friendship which we then contracted lasted until his death, and was never clouded. He had real genius, and was singularly gifted. He was perhaps the man most highly endowed by nature that I have ever known. His qualities of head and heart were equally remarkable. He was generous, affectionate, unselfish, of the most amiable disposition and the most equal temper, and modest and retiring. He was an accomplished linguist, speaking and writing Turkish, Persian, Greek, and several European languages, with perfect facility, and having a sufficient knowledge of Arabic. He was a skillful musician, playing on several instruments, and would have been an accomplished artist had he given himself seriously to art. His memory was singularly tenacious, and, although he had not read much, he had retained all that he had read.

His remarkable talents were at once recognised by Sir Stratford Canning, who soon took him into his entire confidence, and made use of him in his most secret and delicate negotiations with the Turkish Ministers and the Porte.

A man of Alison’s character and original and somewhat eccentric habits was not likely to be a favourite at the Foreign Office. Although for many years, and under successive Ambassadors, he had had the almost exclusive conduct of the affairs of the Embassy at Constantinople, and had carried to a successful issue, by his extraordinary diplomatic skill, many questions of the utmost delicacy and moment, and had acquired the esteem and confidence of his chiefs, who had strongly recommended him for promotion and for employment in an independent position worthy of his abilities, and at the head of an important mission, it was not until 1860 that he was named H.M. Minister at Teheran, where he died in 1872.

In his intercourse with Turkish officials he maintained the same calm and equal demeanour as he showed in his intercourse with the Ambassador, was perfectly straight- forward and truthful, and scorned the petty intrigues upon which the agents employed by the foreign representatives at the Porte have generally relied to carry out the policy and instructions of their chiefs. This mode of dealing with the Turkish statesmen and officials pleased and gratified them, and enabled him to obtain far influence over them than any of his rivals. At the same time, he always showed a spirit of independence in his dealing with them, and made them feel that he was capable of resenting any attempt to deceive him. Many amusing anecdotes were current in Constantinople of his way of treating those, Mussulmans or Christians, who gave him cause of offence, and did not treat him with the respect which he considered his due.

Amongst them I remember the following. Sir Stratford Canning had sent him to transact some business of moment with the Grand Vizir, who was a Turk of the old school, notorious for his bigotry and intolerance. In the middle of a discussion the Prime Minister rose from his seat and proceeded to say his customary prayers on a carpet which an attendant had spread for him on the floor. He concluded them with the usual curse, very audibly and significantly uttered, upon all giaour, or infidels the name then given to all Christians indiscriminately and went through the motion of spitting over his right and left shoulders to show his horror of them ; he then resumed his seat, and renewed the conversation as if nothing had occurred to interrupt it. After a short interval Allison left the divan, and going into a corner of the room, began to repeat in Turkish an extemporary prayer in which he invoked similar curses upon the followers of Islam. The Pasha jumped up in a violent passion, and reminded him of the fate which, according to the Mussulman law, was reserved for those who dared to blaspheme the religion of Islam and its Prophet. Alison very quietly replied that, like the Pasha himself, he had only performed a duty by saying his prayers at that particular hour, and that he had no doubt that the denunciations they contained against Mohammedans were as much a matter of form, and of as little significance, as the curses which His Highness had a short time before launched against those who professed the Christian faith.

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