Dr. Ussama Makdisi:
Thank you very much, Mohammed and I’d like to thank everyone here as well and anyone who is listening. Of course, I’d like to thank the Jerusalem Fund and I would like to thank the staff in particular. Everyone here has been amazing and there are several names, well you know yourselves from the staff, but thank you so much for everything you’ve done and of course thank you to each and every one of you for coming out on a Monday afternoon or a Monday noon to listen to a history lecture. I’ll try, now of course what happens is that as I get older I have to make the font larger so the talks are the same but the length, the length is the same but the font is larger.
Anyway, I am of course deeply honored and I’m very proud to be in a library named after the late professor Hisham Sharabi. And even more honored, honestly, that my aunt Aida Armaly has taken the time and effort to come here to listen to her nephew speak and so, Aunty Aida, I’m really very, very honored and proud and of course I am deeply honored to deliver the Edward Said Memorial Lecture. Everyone here of course knows or knew Edward Said. Many of you know that he was my uncle and Edward of course was a, you know, a paragon of humanism and of extraordinary scholarship and the author of many brilliant books on the humanities. His most famous book is Orientalism that was published in 1978; it’s a book that scholars and students around the United States and around the world still read in many different languages. To me, it’s not just humbling to be here, it’s with admiration and affection that I want to, in the memory of my uncle. And in the memory of a great scholar I’d like to share with you and recount with you a history of the modern world, the modern Arab World, or at least a turning point in the modern Arab World, 1919, the end of the first World War, and this commission of inquiry that was sent off or out to the Middle East called, informally known as, the King Crane Commission. I’ll talk about that and its significance but I’m convinced that Edward himself, I hope, would have appreciated [that] this turn to history because as Edward in all his works never tired of pointing out, the Middle East and the Arab East, in particular, was a part of the world or was one of the last parts of the world that was colonized after the first world war. And he might have added that it was the first place in the world that I’m aware of that was colonized in the name of self-determination.
The turn of the Arabs of the Mashreq, the Mashreq being sort of what we can loosely think of as Syria, the Levant, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, today, Egypt of course and then we could think more expansively to include Iraq. The turn of the Arabs of the Mashreq to be colonized, in other words, followed the turn of the Americas, South, and Southeastern Asia, Africa. So, the Arabs are the last major group to be colonized by the Europeans after the first world war. When the European powers and specifically Britain and France, and this is a history that many of you probably, I am guessing, probably know, when the European powers led by Britain claimed to abandon or eschew rapacious violence that marked, for example, the Belgians in the Congo, they ruled, the British and the French, after World War One, through euphemism. They called and created a so-called mandate system that was dominated by so-called advanced powers, themselves of course, that were meant to aid less able nations, this was their attitude, less able nations around the world to achieve an independence. But in this achieving of independence, these less-able nations, these “less-civilized nations” had no choice but to accept one or another of the advanced powers, so Britain, France, and initially, at least initially they thought America as well, to aid these less-abled nations, again keep these in sort of scare quotes, less-abled nations achieve independence after a period of open-ended mandatory tutelage. Perhaps most importantly, this late colonialism claimed to respect, and this is really the crucial point that still lives with us until today, and I think still haunts the Middle East, this late colonialism, this last colonialism, claimed to respect and put into effect the ideals enunciated by President Woodrow Wilson of the United States who is often thought of to be the presumptive father of the ideal of self-determination by colonized peoples around the world.
So, it was in 1919, almost exactly a century ago, that an American Commission of Inquiry known informally as the King-Crane Commission, received Wilson’s support to investigate the political aspirations of the inhabitants of the former Ottoman Empire in line again with this idea of “self-determination”. This commission was led by Henry King who was then the president of Oberlin college, which had, as some of you may know, radical abolitionist roots and who had headed the American Red Cross in Paris during the first World War. His fellow lead commissioner or head commissioner was Charles Crane who was a well-connected philanthropist and industrialist and who sat on the boards of various missionary organizations and had ties to missionary organizations both in Asia Minor, in Constantinople, as well as in China. They, these two men, King and Crane and their fellow commissioners, arrived in British Occupied Palestine in July of 1919. They conducted a grueling tour of Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. They visited Jaffa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron (El-Khalil), Beersheba, Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Nazareth, Haifa, Akka, Damascus, Dara’a, Amman, B’albak, Beirut, Jubeil, Batroon, Sayda, Soor, Einab, B’abda, Zahleh, Tripoli, Alexandreta, Lad’ieh (Latakia), Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Tarsus, Mersin, and Adana in just over a month. It was an extraordinary tour, they received an astonishing number of telegrams and petitions and letters, over a thousand, that overwhelmingly revealed how the vast majority of the Arab inhabitants of the Mashreq here wanted, desired, and demanded independence.
The commissioner made several key recommendations to president Wilson about Syria and Palestine. Namely, and this is like the essence of the story, namely, that the Arab region of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine should remain a single state because the people there spoke the same language, more or less overwhelmingly, shared similar customs, and voiced common political aspirations. When it came to Palestine, they specifically and urgently recommended that the Zionist project which was still in its beginnings at that moment to create a Jewish State in a multi-religious land of Palestine had to be or should’ve been severely curtailed or modified, because, they said it was antithetical to self-determination. They submitted their final report to President Wilson in August of 1919 and yet their report fell on deaf ears. Its findings were suppressed or at least not published, and the recommendations were not only ignored by the major European powers, Britain and France, they were actively and systematically undermined.
So, at one level the story of the King-Crane Commission, when Americans saw Palestine in 1919, is one that’s become quite familiar, I am sure, to many of you in this room because it has been repeated so many times in the past century. When Americans or anyone else for that matter, understand the situation in Palestine, appreciates its history and humanity, they have often been defamed, censored, intimidated, or silenced. I need not remind you that Edward Said himself was disgracefully dubbed a “professor of terror”. Today, of course, Representative Ilhan Omar is being defamed; indeed, the Trump administration’s Department of Education is right now threatening to cut federal funding from Middle East Studies programs at Duke, UNC, their consortium, because of what they claim is this program’s alleged “pro-Islam bias”.
So, rather than tell you a story that most of you already know, about the injustice of colonial Zionism in Palestine from the perspective of the indigenous population, about the European partition of the Mashreq along sectarian lines, and about the reality of deep anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in this country, I want to try to push in a slightly different direction. I want to pick up a different thread of the story, one that specifically places the tragedy of Palestine within a broader history of the late Ottoman Empire, of which the Arab East, the Mashreq, was a vital part, and this is a shameless plug of my new book, which is called Age of Coexistence that’s coming out in three-weeks. [This is] because I really believe that to know this history and to understand how to situate the conflict and the struggle over Palestine in a wider Arab and Ottoman context, I think, will help profoundly in contextualizing and in understanding not just the tragedy of Palestine, but how it fits to the wider Arab region.
It’s in this late Ottoman history, by late Ottoman history I mean the mid-nineteenth century till the end of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, that Arab and other Ottoman subjects—the Arabs were part of this empire, and that’s the empire, sort of, at its very end but if we go back one slide you get a sense of the empire as it was being withered away across the 19th century—but it’s in the mid-19th century that Arab and other Ottoman subjects and citizens actively and deliberately contended with an urgent question that we still grapple with today, which is basically how to organize a modern political community given the reality of religious difference. This is an obvious issue that haunts people in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, across the region in fact, and of course, it’s a question that haunts this country if you flip religious and put racial difference. So [the question is] how to organize a modern society given diversity.
One answer at the time in the 19th century was to see religious difference as a reality, but nevertheless, of course, to understand that it is real there are different religious denominations and different religious communities – Muslim and Christian and Jewish in the Levant, in the Mashreq – but also to understand and to believe and to hope that these difference could be transcended in an overarching anti-sectarian political community. So, that’s one way, the idea of an anti-sectarian ideal that you aspire to. The second way, however, in the 19th century as well, was to sectarianize this religious difference; that is to say to make this religious difference the essential basis upon which separate political communities ought to be built. So, there are two different ways: I would say again an optimistic way and a pessimistic way if I am generalizing grossly, but that’s basically what I am trying to say. There is these two different antithetical ways, and this choice about how to determine what kind of modern political society one wants to live in was a quintessentially 19th-century Ottoman question.
My larger point then is this, the last Western colonialism in the world—something that we often think, and we don’t actually stop and just think about how important it is to understand that this is the last Western colonialism in the world—the last Western colonialism in the world not only destroyed the Ottoman empire, it also interrupted, what I describe, as I said I am going to shamelessly plug my new book, in my new book, a vibrant age of coexistence, hence the book’s title, and a vital anti-sectarian and ecumenical Arab cultural and political trajectory that had begun to take shape in the last century of Ottoman rule and that was in plain evidence in the Arab Mashreq including of course in Palestine. It is this anti-sectarian and ecumenical Arab frame, this nascent tradition even, of people who are trying to say, “How is it that we as Ottoman Arab subjects, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, can organize, come together, and create a community that transcends our differences without denying these differences.”
How to do that? It is this anti-sectarian and ecumenical Arab frame that we need to recover to dispel, I think, the absurd idea that the Middle East, the current Middle East is only a place of age-old sectarian conflicts, whether between Muslim and Christian, or between “Arab” and “Jew”, or between “Sunni” and “Shia”, all in quotes, and to situate the tragedy of Palestine within a broader historical drama that involves the entirety of the region. So, an Arab Palestine was destroyed during the Nakba in 1948, or as a result of the Nakba in 1948 the dream of an ecumenical and sovereign Arab society, greater than the sum of its communal parts, was given a massive setback. There was a massive setback to this dream, which itself was born in the flux of the late 19th century Ottoman Empire.
To be sure, I want to be clear in the beginning, we’re not at the beginning now, but somewhat through this talk that I don’t intend here to glorify Ottoman rule. I am perfectly aware that Ottoman rule was an extraordinarily complex phenomenon with very massively different variations in different parts of the empire. But I do believe that the threads of a now discarded Ottoman-Arab past need to be rewoven to illustrate a far richer reality that we often lose sight of in our despair today. The final Ottoman century promised a new age of coexistence as equality, so there had been coexistence before, but in the 19th century the idea of coexistence among equal subjects and citizens was new. And at the same time, the same century also ushered in ethno-religious nationalisms which were new, wars among different nationalist groups, and oppression of different groups that were alienated in the shadow of both Ottoman modernization and Western domination.
So, the latter part of the story Western colonialism over the Middle East, I think, is fairly well known. It is the former part, this coexistence, this age of coexistence as equality and the struggle of men and women in the Mashreq to build a society greater than its communal parts that is barely known at all. So, to understand the full implications of the Palestine catastrophe of the 20th century, the Nakba and what comes after, all the way to our own moment today, one has to and one needs to appreciate how Western backed colonial Zionism imposed itself on an already dynamic Middle Eastern history that had taken major steps towards elaborating what I call in the book “an ecumenical culture”, “an ecumenical frame”. The very idea of Muslim and non-Muslim being equal as citizens was completely unimaginable in this empire at the beginning of the 19th century, yet by the end of the century and especially in the Arab Mashreq in places like Palestine, and Lebanon, and Syria, what we call those today, the same idea became normalized. And by the mid 20st century, by the time of the Nakba of 1948, this idea in fact was unremarkable, to the point where people take it for granted that of course you can be equal citizens of different faiths, but my point is that this was hardly imaginable at the beginning of the 19th century. And that is what made the advent in Palestine of colonial Zionism, with its obviously European origin and reading of the world, and its insistence of separating Jews from non-Jews in the name of building a separate Jewish State in what was a manifestly, as I said, multi-religious Palestine, so ironic and so tragic.
Now, almost along with every non-western polity, empire, state, or society, the Ottoman empire was in the 19th century faced, and I think this map gives you a good sense of that, with tangible and relentless European intrusion and encroachment that began, that historians of the modern Middle East say begins, with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, which is also incidentally where Edward Said dates the beginning of modern Orientalism, continued with the Greek revolt of the 1820s against Ottoman Muslim rule, and then gathered steam with the French colonization of Algeria in 1830. It was formalized by the congress of Berlin in 1878, don’t worry, don’t take notes you don’t need to know this, that stripped huge, if you just look at the map, look at 1878, that stripped huge swaths of territory from the Ottomans, continued with the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, and culminated with the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911, and the murderous Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, and finally of course, the First World War itself. Now, the remarkable fact that a friend of ours, Dina Virginia Aksen, Professor Aksen, often points out is that the Ottomans were at war in virtually every decade of the 19th century. So, if Ottoman rulers fretted on how to preserve the territorial integrity of their once great empire, the Ottomans also invested in different ways, in reforming and refashioning their empire in almost every way, from military to politics, to architecture, to society. The empire had long discriminated, as most scholars will tell you, between Muslim and non-Muslim in the name of defending the faith and honor of Islam. This was one of the central ideological planks of the empire, historically. It had also discriminated against heterodox Muslim sects. Over centuries it had built an imperial system that enshrined Ottoman Muslim primacy over all other groups. Yet, in the nineteenth century, faced with internal rebellions and external European imperialism, the empire found itself under constant European pressure to reform itself, in the name of civilization and in the name of joining the so-called “concert of Europe”, sort of in gross terms, again, the idea that the Ottomans were with Europe as opposed to completely alien from the major European and so-called civilized powers of their day.
The empire responded to this pressure by fitfully refashioning itself as a civilized and ecumenical Muslim Sultanate that professed equality of its Ottoman subjects irrespective of religious affiliation. So, for instance, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish subjects adopted the red fez as a sign of their shared modern Ottomanism. So, the irony is that today we think of the red fez as a sign of tradition, but in fact, it was a sign of a very new kind of way of being Ottoman. During the Tanzimat era, which is, again historians date this between 1839 and 1876, there was a series of major secularizing reforms, Ottoman reforms. The empire officially espoused a policy of non-discrimination between Muslim and non-Muslim in this period. So that the empire said, “No matter what the past is, henceforth because we are a civilized power, we do not discriminate between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects.” And so, this is what I call an ecumenical idea. The ecumenical idea of this new Ottomanism was rooted in an idea of equality between Muslim and non-Muslim in the empire. The idea acquired the force of social sanction on law with the promulgation of an Ottoman constitution in 1876 that declared formally the equality of all subjects as citizens irrespective of religious difference. And the Ottoman 19th century opened, so if the Ottoman 19th century opened with discrimination being the norm, by the mid 19th century, the official mantra was non-discrimination, and by the close or the turn of 20th century, outright equality of Ottoman citizens, a new category irrespective of religious affiliation, was in principle at least the law of the land.
Yet no matter how the Ottomans, and again I’ll talk about how uneven this was, but no matter how the Ottomans attempted to secularize and reform their empire, Britain, France, Austria, and Russia demanded more concessions of them. It sounds familiar because the same thing is happening today in the Middle East, not with the Ottomans but with other states. The European powers, in other words, sectarianized the religious diversity of the empire. Each European power claimed to protect, or many of the major European powers, claimed to protect one or another of the native Christian or other minority communities in the empire. Each coveted a part of this empire and yet each jealously sought to negate the influence of other powers in this empire. This is the diplomatic wrangle that we call the Eastern question. Just as importantly, the breaking up of the ideological and legal privileging of Muslims over non-Muslims in the empire was bound to elicit a bitter reaction resistance in some quarters in the empire. And it’s not at all surprising if you just think about any change of this magnitude in any part of the world [that] elicits reaction. Look at our own country today. Especially because European powers consistently intervened on behalf of non-Muslim communities.
The Ottomans, after all, abolished the jizya tax, the tax that marks non-Muslims but pledged to Europe in 1856 to respect the “privileges and spiritual immunities” of Christian churches at the same time. They effectively exempted Ottoman Christians from military service at the same time as they conscripted Muslim subjects. They opened Ottoman markets to an influx of European goods and tolerated western missionary proselytization of the empire’s non-Muslims. So, all these factors, and many others besides, led to a massive anti-Christian riot that took place—and I’ll relate it to Palestine, don’t worry—in July of 1860 in Damascus and this is the largest single anti-Christian riot that takes place in the Mashreq in the Ottoman period, so, this is July 9th to 11th. Despite the Ottoman edicts promulgating non-discrimination, a Muslim mob rampaged through the city, pillaging churches and terrorizing the city’s Christian inhabitants. Newspapers in London and Paris, and missionary societies condemned what they described often as “Mohammedan fanaticism”. The French emperor Napoleon the third sent an army, a French army to the orient, allegedly to aid the Sultan to restore order in his Arab provinces. European powers then set up a commission of inquiry in 1860, in international commissions, to investigate the massacres of 1860, why and what to do. It was the very first such international commission of inquiry to examine events that I am aware of, again in the Ottoman empire, or in the non-western world in fact. And I should stress, that there was no corresponding commission formed to investigate the US oppression and persecution of people of African descent in this country, or the US extermination of Native Americans, or decades of French colonial terror in Algeria, or the British suppression of anti-colonial uprisings in India in 1857, for instance.
So, the Ottomans, of course, were singled out. And despite being singled out by western observers, as a peculiarly non-western and even Muslim problem—this is how it was often framed, this massacre of 1860—the issue really is Islam and Muslims and the relationship to civilization and equality. So, despite this European, western, singling out of the Ottomans, the reality is the massacres of 1860 could be thought of as reflecting a genuinely universal and global problem: how to reconcile equality, diversity, and sovereignty in any area of the world, especially given the fact that none of these are neutral terms. What does it mean to have equality when you have Europeans who are constantly intervening on behalf of X community or Y community, and so on, and so forth? What does it mean to talk about equality when you don’t have effective sovereignty? So, my point is that, yes, the massacre of 1860 is a major event that needs to be studied and alas, we don’t study it enough. On the other hand, to look at the Ottomans and say [that] they are the problem and to ignore the fact that there are massacres that take place in this country, at the same time, before and after, and as well of course in Europe and other parts of the world, is again to peculiarize and Orientalize this problem of 1860.
So while the Ottomans were facing a genuine crisis on how to reform and maintain their grip over a heterogeneous, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and multi religious population, halfway across the world, the United States was simultaneously fighting the deadliest war in the 19th century western world, over slavery, racism, and questions of citizenship, in other words a civil war. Therefore, it is important to bear this in mind before we judge the Ottomans completely. The Damascus riot occurred just after, in fact, the very last illegal cargo of enslaved and brutalized Africans was unloaded off the Alabama coast in July of 1860. So, that coincidence serves as a reminder to us to think, “Yes, we need to study the problems of the East, and we need to study intolerance in the East, but we have to bear in mind that we need a wider frame of reference.” Otherwise, we end up saying that the problem is only there as opposed to understanding it as part of a global problem.
My point ultimately, my other point is not just that, my other point is that while the Damascus riots were indeed terrible and worthy of study, and need to be studied in fact far more in depth than scholars and historians have done so until now, they also reflected only one aspect of the contemporary Ottoman Empire. Far less noted than episodes of violence that were sensationalized in Europe was a noticeable and widespread accommodation, if not active embrace, by many Ottoman subjects of and to the secularization and modernization of their empire. My point is in the last century of its existence and contrary to lets say Balkan nationalists or Arab nationalists myths about the constant oppression of the Turks against the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire in fact, if we open our minds a little bit to this, constituted a vital laboratory for the complexities of coexistence and modern coexistence between Muslim and non-Muslim that had, as far as I can tell, no parallel in any part of the world. And nowhere was this coexistence more in evidence as a lived experience than in the cities of the Arab Mashreq, Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Haifa, Jerusalem, Damascus, Jaffa, Baghdad, Aleppo, where Ottoman Arabs of all faiths shared a common language and harbored no major political ambitions to separate from the Ottoman Empire.
The opposite [was true] in fact. For example, soon after the terrible massacre of 1860 that I’ve talked about too much here, a protestant Christian convert by the name of Butrus al-Bustani opened the very first, so-called “national school” in the Ottoman Empire in the city of Beirut (Al-Madrasa Al Wataniya) that was both explicitly anti-sectarian in its founding. His idea was, “We need to create an anti-sectarian national school,” and one that was actually explicitly respectful of religious difference. So, to be anti-sectarian is not to be anti-religious as much as to be anti-the-mobilization of religion in the name of sectarianism. And his in fact was the first of a series of such schools that appeared across the Levant, including Khalil Sakakini’s Al-Madrasa Al Dustooria in Jerusalem. In other words, there were many such schools that opened up.
And, it’s also important, again I always point this out to my students, I’ll point it out to you, at the same time as Africans, Arabs of the Maghreb, Asians were doing gross racial subordination in European empires, at a time where Jews were being subjected to the pogroms in Russia, and when white Americans in the South where I teach at Rice University were embracing racial segregation—and remember the segregation is described as “separate but equal”, so again this idea of equality but a racist interpretation of equality and of course an undermining of equality—and while Asians were being excluded from citizenship, US citizenship, and Native Americans were being herded into reservations, the Ottoman Empire encouraged, or at least did not stand in the way of, the opening of these new inclusive “national schools” in the Arab Mashreq, municipalities, newspapers, journals, and theatres in which Arab, Muslims, Christians, and Jews actually cooperated.
All these reforms were made actually more urgent by successive Ottoman military defeats against Russia and in the Balkans. And of course, they were made more urgent by the Ottoman Sultan Abdelhamid II’s resistance to constitutional reforms. So, the young Turk revolution of 1908, some you have heard of this, deposed the Sultan and promised a new constitutional period of Ottoman liberty and fraternity. In principle at least, the revolution of 1908 promised a new era of genuine equality, as opposed to just the proclamation of non-discrimination and fraternity amongst various Turkish, Armenian, Albanian, Jewish, Arab elements of the Ottoman Empire, not simply, as I said, the absence of discrimination. So, there is a huge difference between saying, “I don’t want to discriminate,” and actually saying, “Lets create a society of equals.” Perhaps unsurprisingly most of these secularizing reforms were far more enthusiastically pronounced than practiced.
And again, in my new book Age of Coexistence, I explore at great length the tensions and contradictions between, for example, Islamic and secular interpretations of what it means to be a modern Ottoman. Reforms were implemented unevenly and piecemeal across the empire. Reforms were also, I admit, always in the service of the Ottoman state and imperial sovereignty. In other words, for the Ottoman, for the state as opposed to subjects, for the state it was never equality as such that Ottomans wanted as a principle, it was a revitalized sovereignty. And in so far, the two worked together it was great but as soon as sovereignty trumps equality, that equality is pushed away as I’ll explain in a second. The Ottoman reformation from a state perspective was a means to an end.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the events 1860, many Arab Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Mashreq could and did invest in the idea, and this includes Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, places like Baghdad, Aleppo, and other places, they invested in the idea that they were participating in an ecumenical renaissance. The word in Arabic is nahda, that could be expressed in different Ottoman, Arab, religious, secular, political, and cultural terms. They believed collectively, despite their disagreement about specifically what is the essence of, you know, how it should be expressed, with the religiously or a more secular, renaissance, they believed collectively that they were heading into a brighter more scientific, more “civilized” future.
So it’s really important to understand how in the Arab Mashreq in the 19th century had a, at least at the level of the nahda, this idea that something could be done and something was being done by people themselves on the ground to improve their society, that this was a society going places. To be sure of course, from Egypt to Iraq this nahda was dominated by urban and educated men who believed that they spoke for their respective nations, so there were class biases, gender biases, there are all these biases that are part and parcel of this nahda and of course we need to acknowledge that and explore that. But Muslim and Christian, and also the last point I want to make about the nahda is that this was a renaissance in the making as opposed to talking about it as an accomplished goal or even as a unitary political or social or economic project, because it wasn’t. Different people had different ideas about what a renaissance actually meant. But almost all these Muslim and Christian and Jewish Arabs who worked under an Ottoman sovereignty did so consciously. They accepted for the most part that they lived under an Ottoman rule. Muslim and Christian and Jewish nahda luminaries believed that they belonged to a common Ottoman nation even if they did not necessarily agree, as I said, on the precise contours of this nation, any more than Americans, today or then, agree about what constitutes a representative American.
The balance, in other words, between the ecumenical thrust of the Ottoman reformation of the 19th century and the harsh imperative to maintain effective sovereignty, was always in play, was always delicate. The Eastern question politicized, as I said earlier, the future of non-Muslim communities that we eventually would call minorities, because they became simultaneously non-Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman empire, simultaneously objects of European solicitudes and pretexts for political and military encroachment upon the Ottoman domains.
The emergence of ethno-religious nationalisms in the Balkans, in the northern part of the empire—in Greece, Bulgaria, and so on, Serbia—exacerbated the problem when Christian Greeks, Serbian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian nationalists appealed to European, Russian, Austrian, or British support seeking to break away from Ottoman control. Ottoman leaders, so by the end of the 19th century, increasingly regarded the Turkish speaking Muslim population as the essential core of their empire. So, when in the last quarter of the 19th century Armenian activists and clergymen sought to emulate the Balkan Christian contemporaries and appeal for European support to achieve independence, or at least that’s what the Ottoman state thought, the Ottoman state responded with massive persecutions. So, beginning in the 1890s and then culminating eventually in what is known as the Armenian genocide of 1915.
The paradox of Ottoman modernity in the shadow of Western colonialism was that it could be both powerfully ecumenical, it could actually unite Muslim and non-Muslim on the one hand, and it could be uncompromisingly violent [on the other hand]. It promised both a multi-ethnic and multi-religious sovereign future, on the one hand, and a xenophobic world without minorities on the other. So, if in the Balkans and Anatolia, I generalize here and I admit it, the imperative of sovereignty clearly trumped the commitment to ecumenism, to eco-existence, in the Arab Mashreq, ecumenical Ottomanism blossomed until the end of the empire. So, in the Balkans, Christians often became implacably opposed to Muslims and other Christians, amid clashing ethno-religious nationalisms, while in the Mashreq, Arab Christian, Muslim, and for a while at least, Jews, far more easily made common cause in the absence of separatist Arab or Jewish nationalisms. [We see this in] the availability of a common Arabic language, and as I said, the presence of a still viable Ottoman empire, though Britain, of course, did occupy Egypt in 1882. Arab Christians and Jews, in short, played leading roles in the Arabic press, the new Arabic press, theatre, professional and women’s associations, and municipalities across the Mashreq. The leading Egyptian daily Al Ahram, for example, was founded by a Syrian Christian emigre in Egypt, while as the Princeton scholar Lital Levy has noted, the Jewish Esther Moyal could freely advocate for ecumenical eastern Arab identity with which she readily identified. This is all before the end of the empire.
One could, in other words, be an Arab Jew in this period, just as much as one could be an Arab Christian in this moment. That is to say, the gradual alienation, which is ironic for me as a scholar–of this moment–is that the Armenian genocide, the alienation of the Armenians, takes place roughly at the same time as Arab Christians are flourishing. You have to bear that in mind, not because of hypocrisy, or contradiction necessarily, but because the empire is so different and different factors produced different outcomes in different parts of the empire. So, the decimation of the Armenian Christian community of Anatolia unfolded at the same time as Arab Christians and Jews coexisted with our Muslim brethren in cities, as I said, such as Beirut, Aleppo, Baghdad, and, of course, British Occupied Cairo and Alexandria.
The tragedy–and here I come back to King Crane–the tragedy was that what had begun as a promising age of coexistence during the late Ottoman period ended in the calamity, or with the calamity of the First World War. It is, I think, undeniable that wartime Ottoman Turkish rulers–and there’s a lot of work being done by Ottoman scholars on this–callously turned their back on the ecumenical spirit of Ottomanism, at the same time as they magnified its darker statist side. So, again, in the name of a revitalized sovereignty, in the name of national survival, these Ottomans commenced, as I said, genocidal policies against their erstwhile Armenian subjects and citizens in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman empire. They also hunted down–as people who live in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine know–what they regarded as Arab nationalists and hanged them in Beirut and Damascus. And they were helpless, if not complicit, in the famine that ravaged Mount Lebanon. This is all during the first World War, while they were unable to prevent a British invasion of Palestine. Jerusalem fell to the Ottomans in December of 1917, and almost a year later the empire surrendered.
When the victorious Allies statesmen of Britain, France, and the United States assembled in Paris in 1919, they had, of course, little intention of maintaining the territorial integrity of the defeated Ottoman empire. So, from the very beginning they knew they were going to partition this empire. The victors of the First World War, more to the point, totally ignored the ecumenical heritage of the Ottoman Arab Mashreq. Instead they sensationalized the empire’s obvious defects, especially its appalling treatment of Armenian citizens and were determined, as I said, to divide it up. In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson blessed a disastrous weak invasion of Izmir that set off a bloody war that led eventually to the overwhelming victory of a new Turkey under the leadership of a former Ottoman officer, Mustafa Kamal, known, of course, as Ataturk. In 1923, Turkey concluded an agreement with Greece blessed by the new League of Nations to forcibly evict, the euphemism that they used was “exchange ”, over a million Greeks from the new Turkey, and Greece in turn, evicted hundreds of thousands of Greek speaking Muslims to the new state of Turkey. The new Turkish republic then suppressed dissenting Kurds whom the stated designated as Mountain Turks and it prescribed eventually their language and their culture.
The Allies, in the meantime, decided the future of the Arab Mashreq. So, while the war taking place in the northern part of what is Turkey, and there’s a population exchange between Turkey and Greece blessed by the League of Nations, the Allies decided the future of Arab Mashreq. The fruits and the bitter harvest of those discussions, Allied discussions, play out, obviously, until today. As early as 1915, Britain had pledged to support expansive Arab Hashemite ambitions to rule an independent Arab kingdom across much of the Arab East. So, from the Hashemite perspective this was meant to be an Arab kingdom under their control with borders that are massive, like these massive borders that reflected Hashemite ambitions, grossly exaggerated ambitions, one should add. From the British perspective it was an Arab facade, “We’ll use these people against the Ottomans, so rise up against the Ottomans and you’ll get an independent state, a kingdom; we’ll define the borders later. Thank you very much.” A year later in 1916, Britain and France concluded the secret, sort of, agreement, the Sykes-Picot agreement, where they divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between themselves. Again, direct and indirect control, this while the Ottoman was still a functioning empire. And then in 1917, of course, there is the Balfour Declaration, which the British government issued in response to persistent Zionist entreaties in England. And this Balfour Declaration pledged, as everyone here knows, no doubt, the creation of a Jewish “national home in Palestine” despite the fact that the country was overwhelmingly Arab.
To add insult to injury, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Britain and France blocked native Egyptian, Syrian, and Palestinian Arab nationalists from presenting their own cases independently to the Peace Conference. They permitted, however, the Hashemite Emir Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein, to plead with the Allies to fulfill specifically their wartime pledges to his father. They also allowed European Zionists to present their vision for colonizing Palestine and transforming it into a Jewish state. In other words, their vision to transform Palestine into a Jewish state led by settlers from eastern and central Europe among other places.
It was left to an American missionary, actually an American educator, Howard Bliss, to sort of rain, as it were, on this colonial parade. As the son of a famous American missionary, and the president of the Syrian Protestant College, which of course today the American University of Beirut (AUB), the well-connected Bliss–the Bliss’ were connected to the Dodges, who were connected to Wilson–was allowed to speak on behalf of the inhabitants of Syria. Syrians were not allowed to represent themselves, but Bliss was allowed to speak on their behalf and he went to Paris and he presented his case, or his view/vision, of the future of the Mashreq to the great leaders, the great powers—to Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George. Bliss was, as I said, the head of the American University of Beirut, he was going to die a year later, but he was predictably paternalistic. He talked about the Syrians being a defective race, but he said they have potential. They have potential to achieve self-determination. But, at least, for all his flaws–we could dwell on his flaws and his paternalism, and his racism, and whatever you want to call it–we should talk about that and not deny that, but for all those flaws, he, at least, was sensitive to the political mood in the Mashreq. The most important part for our story is that he recommended, at least he strongly endorsed, an impartial fact-finding inquiry be sent to document the political aspirations of the inhabitants of the Arab Mashreq in accordance with the idea of self-determination. So, in a sense, he was the one who said go find out what people believe.
The French, as you can imagine, were horrified by this idea because they had already decided what to do. They were going to partition this, and they wanted to take what would eventually be called Lebanon and Syria. The British, such as Lord Balfour of the Balfour Declaration, was also not exactly pleased. He was embarrassed because neither he nor the British nor the French had any intention of granting actual independence to the people of this region. And the documents and the archives are overwhelming on this point. But President Wilson himself, who was hardly an anti-colonial figure because he was also deeply racist in his own way and extraordinarily paternalistic, but he was at least a bridge between two forms of colonialism: the old form of total outright domination, and the new form of colonialism by euphemism that is to say the mandate system I talked about in the beginning of my talk. He was deeply sympathetic not to the people of the region, but to the missionaries in the region, the American missionaries in particular. So, he endorsed, apparently, Howard Bliss’s idea and this brings me back to the King Crane Commission with which I began.
Neither King nor Crane—and this is an uprising in Egypt that the British suppressed [pointing to his PPT on the screen]—were anti-colonial in a revolutionary sense, but they both genuinely believed that they had a duty to record accurately the wishes of the indigenous populations of the Arab East. To that extent, this Commission, which beings in Jaffa goes up through what is today Jordan and Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and ends up in what is today Turkey, and as I said, they conduct hundreds of interviews with various religious and secular figures and they receive many, many, many petitions, over a thousand petitions and documents from people in the region. They were not anti-colonial, but they believed they had a duty to record the wishes of the indigenous populations of the East and at the same time to be faithful to the League of Nations’ mandate system. They’re not anti-revolutionary, they are actually quite paternalistic in their own way.
But the fact that the Commission was sent to actually document the political aspirations of people in this region does make it a watershed in international affairs. It was the first, as far as I can tell, such international commission that actually asked indigenous populations how it was that they envisioned their own political future, as opposed to the 1860 commission that I told you about earlier, where the British, French, Austrians, Russians decided this is what you’re going to do in Syria and in places like Mount Lebanon. So, here they’re actually asking people, recording, listening. At the same time, however, as I said, the commissioners repeatedly stressed that they were bound by the idea of the League of Nations’ mandate system, so that there was going to be no immediate independence for the populations that they were listening to. So, they were sort of struggling with this contradiction: on the one hand they’re there to record ideas about self-determination, on the other hand, they knew full well that they were never going to actually lead to immediate independence in this part of the world.
But, it’s because of this caveat that the King Crane Commissioners were, in fact, between two forms of colonialism and they repudiated the old violence of the old-style colonialism and were genuinely invested in Wilsonian self-determination with all its limitations. Its findings, the King Crane Commission’s findings, are even more interesting when it comes to Palestine.
So, I’ll explain what I mean. To scholars of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the King Crane Commission report is relatively well-known, I’ve already summarized the major findings: a unified state in Greater Syria; Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan should be one state because they all speak the same language and have more or less similar political aspirations. And the other major recommendation is on Palestine: do not endorse extreme colonial Zionism because it is going to inevitably lead to a denial of self-determination and to violence.
So, as I said, scholars know this report, but they rarely read it carefully or fully because the report actually has two major sections. One on Armenia because the King Crane Commission thought they were going to be a part of this moment where there would be an Armenian mandate created in what is today Turkey, that they hoped would be under American supervision. And they were quite harsh. They said that the Turks were brutal and because of the brutality of the First World War towards the Armenians and because of the forms of Ottoman rule, they recommend that the northern part of Turkey should be created as separate mandates. And the Armenian mandate under US control in what they call historical Armenia should be created, and in fact they also suggested, the King Crane Commission suggested, that the Kurdish and Turkish populations should be removed, moved. So, it’s not exactly that they were brilliant guys, but their idea was that the reason for that is because the Armenians are native to this region and because the Armenians had suffered genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. They didn’t use the word genocide, of course, but that’s what the King Crane Commission said, as far as the north was concerned.
As much as the King Crane Commissioners were critical of the Ottoman Empire and sympathetic to the Armenian cause, and as much as they fundamentally accepted the colonial logic of Article 22 of the League of Nations—remember that’s the article that says you’re independent provisionally but you need our tutelage for essentially open-ended tutelage—when it came to Syria and Palestine, they adopted what can only be seen, as far as I can tell, as an effectively anti-colonial position. Partly, this is due to the fact they were cognizant of the scale of the catastrophe that had befallen the Armenians in the north, but partly this is because they spent far more time in Palestine, [and] in Syria than in Anatolia and were faithful to what they had witnessed. In other words, their eyes did not deceive them when it came to Palestine.
At the outset, by their own admission, King and Crane understood that there was genuine American Protestant sympathy for the Biblical idea of a Jewish restoration in Palestine. They also admired and said that they acknowledged that there was a powerful modern Zionist movement that wanted to create a Jewish state. In fact, they both said, if I’m not mistaken, they were initially sympathetic to Zionism. The Commissioners nevertheless could not and would not accept that a Jewish state should come at the expense of the native population of Palestine. They rejected two basic assumptions that undergirded colonial Zionism in Palestine. The first was that Arabs were not politically relevant: King [and] Crane said, “No, they are in fact relevant, that is part of what our mission is.” And the second [assumption is] that European Jews had a claim to the land by virtue of being Jewish that was superior to that of native Muslims and Christians who had lived in Palestine for centuries. They saw no relationship between the European anti-Semitism and the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. At least they didn’t make any mention of that. And they recognized, despite their American Christian backgrounds, that European Jewish Zionists could in no contemporary legal sense be considered indigenous. They insisted, finally, that if the Wilsonian principle of self-determination was to be taken seriously, the fact of an overwhelming Arab majority in Palestine had also to be taken seriously.
But what’s equally important is to remember that the commissioners did not just come to count an Arab majority, and this is almost what all the studies of the King Crane Commission forget. They came face-to-face with articulate Arabs in cities and towns across the Mashreq, across this tour that they did. They entered into, in other words, a modern ecumenical landscape that had been in formation for over a century, for at least a century. They witnessed amongst the earliest attempts to nationalize the nahda, to transform the significance of an ecumenical world in which Muslim, Christian, and for a while at least, Jewish Arabs, came together to make a specific case for an Arab community that transcended religious difference. In other words, they come into a world that had already been transformed in the Ottoman 19th century. They came into a world where there was already a living reality of Muslim, Christian, and for a while, as I said, Jewish solidarity, not [in] an ecstatic sense or an inevitable sense, but an historic one, in the sense that the idea of being Arab in a modern way, whether you’re Muslim or Non-Muslim, Christian, Sunni or Shia, or whatever you are, this idea is a very modern idea. But that doesn’t mean it’s false, it doesn’t mean that its artificial. It means it’s historical, it’s being built just like the idea of being American irrespective of whether you’re black or white or any other race is also a modern idea. It certainly is not something that’s inevitable or that goes back centuries in this country for sure, everyone knows that, of course. In other words, you have to fight for these ideas then and now, and so too in the case of Palestine.
So, that Muslim, Christian Arab solidarity develops and changes over time, and it is rooted in the Ottoman Empire, and when King and Crane arrive in Palestine they see and encounter, not just this passive Arab majority, but an active Arab citizenry, people who actually had already been involved in politics, in culture, in newspaper production, in any number of what we would call civic activities. They had worked in an Ottoman framework and now they worked in this new post-Ottoman world of 1919. And so, as I said, it’s important to note all of this because even before the King Crane Commission had set foot in Palestine, the British had already received petitions from places such as Nablus in January of 1919 that openly rejected the claims of Zionism and that insisted that as Muslims and Christians they worked together to create, they wanted to hold onto a different idea of Palestine. And then, of course, in 1918 and 1919, so-called Muslim Christian Associations–again, note the name–sprang up across Palestine sent Petitions to Paris and insisted on the rejection of colonial Zionism on the one hand and, implicitly at least, actually explicitly through their name, on the idea of a multi-religious Palestine being the thing that has to be preserved.
British officials such as Arnold Toynbee, who would later become a very famous historian, but at the time worked for the British government as an advisor reading these notes, or at least the translations of these notes, wondered what to do with these petitions that were sent both to the British government and eventually to the King Crane Commission itself. He described them as “formidable documents” because the anti-Zionist testimony in them had an ecumenical character. So, this idea of Muslims Christians working together in different Palestinian towns and cities, speaking about a Palestine that is a multi-religious land as opposed to just a Muslim land or just a Jewish land is what Toynbee recognized as something formidably new. And when the American commission showed up to Palestine in June and July of 1919, the inhabitants of Palestine and Syria delivered very similar pleas to those they had previously submitted to the British government, again, equating Zionism with religious and political injustice, religious fanaticism, and a negation of the ecumenical character of Palestine.
Like so many other people around the non-Western world, they put their faith in American Wilsonian self-determination, thinking that president Wilson cared about protecting the so-called weak nations from the despotic strong ones. And like so many people around the world, probably in fact more so than any other people around the world, they were to be bitterly disappointed. There were many Americans in Congress, at the time, and outside of Congress who were simply not prepared to hear such Arab voices. Even a couple of members of the King Crane Commission notably Captain William Yale, insisted that the Jewish claims to Palestine trumped, pardon the word, the reality on the ground in Palestine–a theme that has been at the heart of Western support for Zionism for over a century. Captain Yale suggested that the Jewish people constituted a unique race. He believed, and I’m paraphrasing his understanding, he believed that Jews were more civilized than Muslims and Christians in the orient. They had a deeper, he said, historic connection, an attachment to the land because it was, he said, their ancestral land. And thus, above all, he said they can’t be assimilated to the West. He said all these things. And he said, if we come to the question of self-determination you cannot just look at Palestine alone. You can’t just count the people who are there, you have to count the Jewish people around the world because then you will see that actually self-determination favors, he said, the Zionist case.
Now, the lead commissioners, King and Crane, dismissed this and in their final report it reflected this dismissal. They said this is absurd, this idea that you shouldn’t take into account the people on the ground in this land as the basis for self-determination, makes a mockery of—they didn’t say this, but this what they intimated—and they did not avoid the unprecedented civic Arab mobilizations that they had witnessed across Palestine and Syria. And in their final report that I described at the outset, that they issued to President Wilson in August of 1919, they describe a Palestine at the crossroads. They wrote that the colonial Zionists was impractical and manifestly unjust if one took seriously the idea of the humanity and the history of the Arab majority in Palestine, which is what Captain William Yale did not. They wrote that, if again, President Wilson’s idea of self-determination and a new world was to be taken seriously, then there was no way to ignore the fact that the vast majority of the population of Palestine was Arab and was deeply opposed to Zionism. They said something else, they said in 1919 that colonial Zionism, the Zionist project, in other words, enacted against the will of the indigenous population of Palestine, could only be accomplished through violence, they said. And they wrote in one of the most stunning, sort of, sentences I’ve ever read as a scholar of this region, “Decisions requiring armies to carry out are sometimes necessary, but they are surely not gratuitously to be taken in the interests of a serious injustice. For the initial claim often submitted by Zionist representatives that they have a right to Palestine based on an occupation of 2000 years ago can hardly be seriously considered.”
So, like the Arabs of Palestine and the Mashreq, for whom they served as witnesses at one level, King and Crane were ignored. As I indicated at the outset of this talk, their report was effectively suppressed and their conclusions were not only dismissed, as I told you, but they were actively undermined by Britain, France, and, of course, the Zionist movement in Palestine. The United States repudiated any emancipatory anti-colonial interpretation of self-determination, for Wilson himself had never believed in the idea that all peoples were equal or immediately deserving sovereignty. It’s a myth. He never accepted that idea.
Britain and France proceeded to partition the region precisely as if the King Crane Commission had never been sent to begin with. The British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour, of the Balfour Declaration, of course, was at least candid on this point: “The inhabitants of Syria,” he said, “may freely choose,” these are his words, “but it is Hobson’s choice after all. France was going to rule Syria and Lebanon, and Britain,” he added “was going to open Palestine to colonial Zionism.” His words were actually, “For in Palestine,”—he wrote this in August of 1919 at same time as King and Crane submitted their report—he said, “in Palestine, we do not propose to even go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American (i.e. King Crane Commission) has been going through the form of asking what they are.” So, whatever King and Crane say and do doesn’t matter, we’ve already decided what is going to happen.
No matter how intently this last colonialism of the world sold itself as a purveyor of self-determination, its Western proponents, such as Balfour, knew from the very outset how hollow was this claim. The real tragedy, of course, lay not in the deceit—typical—but in the divisions that this deceit exacerbated and engendered. Colonial Europe claimed to arbitrate age-old religious difference in the Middle East, but at the same time actively sectarianized the landscape of this region. And they created states, such as Lebanon, as a Christian-dominated state. They divided Syria, you can’t see it on this map, but they divided Syria into various Alawi, Druze, and then Syrian Arab states, they called them, of Damascus and Aleppo. And, of course, the British legitimated Zionism in Palestine, thus creating, or thus putting into effect, effectively a brand new conflict between so-called Arabs and so-called Jews.
Just at the moment when, in the Arab Mashreq, the idea of Muslim and non-Muslim appeared to have reached a kind of resolution at the end of the Ottoman empire, well, here you had an entirely new conflict that eventually ends, or doesn’t end, but leads to the destruction of Palestine in 1948, the Arab Palestine at least—the Nakba, the ethnic-cleansing of Muslim and Christian Arab Palestinians—and, of course, the effective end of Arab Jewish communities in many parts of the Mashreq. And, the point at the end, is not to say which is right and which is wrong, or which is greater and which is worse, that’s the wrong kind of question to ask. The question is, what is the relationship between all of these and how are they two sides of the same bitter harvest of the last colonialism of the world? Thank you.