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I came by a certain sentence which is quite difficult for me to comprehend. It goes:

"To the extent that being caliph had any more purchase than being Caesar for the Ottomans in the late nineteenth century, it was largely the result of a political campaign on the part of Sultan Abdulhamid II to rally anticolonial sentiment around the Ottoman state and to boost his own domestic legitimacy".

What exactly was the result of the political campaign? The fact that being caliph was more important than being caesar? If so, then the phrase "to the extent" is superfluous, or even confusing. Can someone rewrite the sentence in a way more easy to understand?

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The construction to the extent that X, Y is a "hedge". It claims that

  1. the "extent" of the truth of the proposition X is uncertain: X may be entirely true, it may be only partially true, it may not be true at all.

  2. the applicability or relevance of proposition Y is proportional to the truth of proposition X.

X in your quotation is the proposition Being caliph had more purchase than being Caesar—that is, the title 'caliph' provided the Ottoman Sultans more influence than the title 'Caesar'.

The author says that to the extent that this was true (which is uncertain), that extra influence should not be attributed to the title per se but to Sultan Abdulhamid II's political campaign, which attached widespread anticolonial sentiment to the title and thus enhanced the domestic legitimacy of the dynasty which possessed the title.

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Context is everything: this excerpt is from an article by Nick Danforth in the 11/19/15 issue of Foreign Affairs, "The Myth of the Caliphate, The Political History of an Idea." You have to read what precedes the excerpt. I summarize: ISIS is enamored of the idea of re-establishing something called "the caliphate," a Muslim state, so called because the ruler of such a state holds the title of caliph. There isn't such a thing today because in 1924 Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern state of Turkey, officially abolished the caliphate that had been the Ottoman empire. The empire as a political unit had been destroyed by its choosing the losing side in World War I.

That last caliphate (there had been others) had a good run of over 400 years, having been established by Sultan Selim the Grim in 1517. Selim took control of the Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca and declared himself the protector of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage of the faithful to Mecca. This type of unified political and religious power is what animates the nostalgia of ISIS for a caliphate.

Danforth asks us to view the idea of the caliphate with this fact in mind:

To put the title grab [of Caliph] in perspective, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered the Byzantine capital of Constantinople 64 years before Selim conquered Egypt, he [Mehmed] had claimed the title Caesar of Rome for his descendants.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was a bit fanciful for Mehmed to call himself "Caesar of Rome," since the Western Roman Empire (with Rome as its capital) had fallen to the so-called barbarians in 476. But "Caesar" wasn't an entirely ahistorical title.

Now we can make sense of the excerpt:

To the extent that being caliph had any more purchase than being Caesar for the Ottomans in the late nineteenth century, it was largely the result of a political campaign on the part of Sultan Abdulhamid II to rally anticolonial sentiment around the Ottoman state and to boost his own domestic legitimacy.

This says that perhaps it was better for Abdulhamid II to call himself Caliph as opposed to using the title of Caesar that his long-ago predecessor had adopted, but Abdulhamid's success as a ruler came from exploiting anticolonial feelings. (During Abdulhamid's rule the Russians had encroached on Ottoman territory in the Balkans; the British, in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.)

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Insofar as being caliph was any different to being Caesar, the difference was the result of a political campaign by Sultan Abdulhamid II to rally anticolonial sentiment towards the Ottoman state and to boost his own domestic legitimacy.

My sentence isn't great but it took me ages to think of a way your example sentence made any sense whatsoever without context. Apologies if this doesn't help.

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Thank you all for your quick and very helpful answers. It's true that a context is always useful, if not necessary, and I apologize for not posting it. Deadrat was kind enough to actually search for it, while the other two commentors did their best without it. I think I understand now. Thank you again.

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