Ottoman Reform and the Question of Minorities

The two biggest challenges of preparing for classes as I continue trying to move from narrating to problematizing: first, figuring out what the central issue will be, and second, trying to come up with a question or format for engaging it.  Today I knew that I wanted to focus on the changing status and roles of non-Muslims in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire and the ways that Europeans exploited their own perceptions of Muslim oppression to intervene directly in the Empire.  They are reading two accounts of the 1860 Damascus massacres and they needed some context.

But my students have a very clear notion of “minority.”  In the south (I suspect in most of the US), “minority” is about race.  I once had a student who wanted to write his seminar paper proving that race was the most important division in the Middle East because, growing up in NC, he couldn’t imagine anything else.  So how could I get them to think about broader issues of identity, membership and belonging in the Ottoman Empire?

My solution was to ask students to rethink “minority” be redefining it as outsider status.  I asked them to think back to some time when they had the sense of being an outsider, and try to figure out what criteria had divided those who belonged from those who didn’t.  I wanted to illustrate the changing definition of belonging (or “majority”).  Not wanting to spend  much time listening to middle school trauma, I tried to extrapolate from the first few specific incidents they mentioned.

Defining who belongs is context-specific and changes over time.  Being an outsider can bring suspicion of alternative loyalties (e.g. fear that JFK would be devoted to the Pope’s needs instead of Americans’).  It can be much more complicated than one might expect (I showed a chart– on which I had spent far too much time– illustrating the proliferation of Christian groups in the region).

I introduced Christian Rassam, the British Vice Consul in Mosul during the middle of the nineteenth century, to describe the ways that Christians had become privileged as Europeans gained power over the Ottoman Empire, and quoted Eli Smith, a US missionary in Beirut in 1835, “The Christian community apparently escaped all of the fears of sudden arrest and conscription experienced by Muslims and Druzes.  Indeed, there was a certain amount of conversion by the latter to escape conscription.”  (from Khalaf)

I left class worrying that they might have heard me justifying the massacres they had read about as being the result of Christian privileges that resulted from European meddling.  I realized I would have to introduce them to the notion of a historian’s split screen.


My welcome video today showed the celebrations of the first anniversary of January 25 in Tahrir Square.  The obelisk with the names of martyred Egyptians allowed us once again to consider the role the ancient past plays in defining the present.

Muhammad Ali provides a wonderful window through which to view the kinds of challenges facing the Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century, so I used him in the same way I had used Hurrem.  Muhammad Ali successfully fought the Wahhabis (reform movements; significance of protecting pilgrimage from attack) and the Greeks (growing nationalism at the edges; role of Europeans) before invading Syria and threatening the very core of the empire.

I reviewed the list of Ottoman defeats from Tuesday, and asked them to think about their reading (Tanzimat documents and excerpts from nineteenth-century Ottoman thinkers) and come up with an explanation: What caused Ottoman decline?  Their list was comprehensive and impressive.  They clearly reached back to the list they had created about what Muhammad Ali needed as they worked to diagnose the problems confronting the Ottoman Empire.  And they seemed to understand the variations in the ways nineteenth-century scholars saw the role of Islam in facilitating or obstructing change.

But when I asked them to propose remedies to reverse the decline, they were unable to imagine nineteenth-century realities.  Their remedies sounded like they could have come from the previous night’s State of the Union address.  Comic relief was provided by auto-correct: “reverse feline” evoked images of armies of backward-marching cats.

Muhammad Ali and the Ottomans

When one of my students dropped my seminar because it was not his “learning style” (he prefers lectures), I wondered whether these 200+ undergraduates were really disappointed that I wasn’t telling them what to write in their notebooks.  Conversations with my writing group have me reconsidering: if some need to be told what to think, is my job to tell them, or to insist that they figure it out?  If students have different “learning styles,” where is the balance?  I found myself at the end of a really exciting class wondering how many considered it a waste of time.

We began today with my efforts to answer all the questions they had asked at the end of the previous class.  Their questions on Poll Everywhere are enormously helpful, both in figuring out what I left out and in showing me where they are.  And they sometimes really challenge the way I’ve been thinking about something.  One of the most reassuring things: they often predict the next lecture in their questions.

The project today: introduce Muhammad Ali and the Ottoman Empire.  I asked them, based on their reading about Egypt at the time of Napoleon’s conquest, to write down five things Egypt’s new ruler would have to do to create an effective military force.  After a few minutes to compare lists with classmates, one of the Teaching Assistants typed on the PowerPoint slide while another circulated with the microphone.  Soldiers and equipment, they responded.  As I pressed them–what would be necessary for training the soldiers?  How could equipment be manufactured and moved?  How would officers learn new tactics?  How could these be paid for?–they came up with a comprehensive list of what would really be necessary for Muhammad Ali to create the kind of military force he desired.  It was clear that building an effective military would require dramatic changes in education, infrastructure, political structures, and economy as well.  I was struck by how much less efficient the process is, but it seemed (at least at the time) that they really began to understand the ways in which military change required broader transformation. Muhammad Ali was a governor serving the Ottoman Empire, and my mini-lecture  described some of its basic institutions, largely through the character of Hurrem  (Roxalena to the Europeans).   She was concubine (slavery) and lover (letters to husband Suleyman the Lawgiver/Magnificent at the front trace Ottoman military engagements); she established waqfs (social institutions and urban development), at least some of which were designed by the great architect Sinan (slavery and architecture history).

But the Ottoman Empire began losing battles and territory, and people both inside and outside the empire were talking about decline.  I became so focused on the question of “decline” that I forgot to post the poll for their questions at the end of class.

Frenchmen and Egyptians

Technical  issues kept me from opening with Steve Martin’s “King Tut” clip from Saturday Night Live.  In addition to just their amusement, I wanted them to recognize the continuing interest in ancient Egypt that began with Napoleon’s scientists.  Actually, it had begun before their arrival, so that French soldiers had a clear idea of what “Egypt” would be like.  What they found, they believed, showed more than ever that local people needed “liberation” from the Mamluks who had caused the country to fall into such ill repair.  (Juan Cole’s blog has wonderful primary sources).

I began instead with the question of knowledge and power, describing the role played by French scholars in formulating and translating Napoleon’s speech into Arabic for distribution among local elites.  What were the goals of the scientists accompanying Napoleon?  What is the role of scholars in the foreign policies of their countries?  When one of the students asked me directly about my own view, I found myself wishing I could quote the medieval Muslim scholars  who generally agreed that scholars and rulers should not be spending their time together.

I returned to the question of what the French found when they arrived, describing the varieties in the lives of the population and the ways in which the Mamluks had influenced local life.  I focused on pilgrimage as a way to understand the intersection of faith and government, and as a vehicle for introducing some of the most basic of Muslim institutions.  Pilgrimage was, after all, hugely important as a way of legitimizing the ruler, and Napoleon’s efforts to be patron of the pilgrimage to Mecca infuriated some of the local people.

This was the logical transition to one of our course’s central issues, contacts between the region and outsiders.  Some had asked for “slides with facts,” so I offered them a set of dates.  After briefly asking what they could understand from the list of dates with battles, we set out to interpret them.  These “facts,” I emphasized, meant nothing without an interpretation that gave them meaning.

I explained, for example, that, although only 24 days had elapsed between the landing at Alexandria and taking Cairo, the French had lost huge numbers of troops.  Some died as a result of the tremendous heat and the lack of water–poor logistical planning.  But in addition, local people refused to sell or provide food and water.  They often took everything with them when they fled–to deny the invaders access.  And any troops who separated from the main body were killed.  This wasn’t a welcoming population!

And with the destruction of the French fleet days later, and French realization that they could not leave, the French began to act like Mamluks, exacting large sums and demanding mansions in order to make life tolerable in the absence of any assistance from abroad.  The French were stuck and their response made the resistance even worse.  Napoleon’s efforts to claim local loyalty were unrequited, and he absconded to France, leaving his troops behind.

What, then, were the consequences of Napoleon’s invasion?  A continually-growing European fascination with ancient Egypt, a solid base of scholarship that meant historians for generations focused on the history of Egypt (instead of elsewhere in the region), a legacy of resistance to invasion, and the coming to power of one Muhammad Ali.

Encounters: Napoleon in Egypt

It is so difficult to figure out how to approach Napoleon, or even to figure out why I had decided to begin my Modern Middle East survey course with his invasion of Egypt in 1798.  I resist the notion that Europe imported “modernity,” or that invasions are the best way to create cultural contact.  Besides, there had already been extensive contact, as we know from one  of the reasons the French invaded: the Mamluks had begun to privilege British merchants in Egypt over French trade.

I had scheduled two lectures on Napoleon’s invasion, and would have to include a lot of introductory information in the process.  I relied heavily on Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt.

Tuesday’s class had to do two jobs: to explain why the French had invaded, and to describe what they found when they arrived.  I asked the students to do the first: talk to your neighbors and decide why Napoleon invaded Egypt.  The responses on the poll everywhere site were both consistent and cynical: it was all about defeating the British.  But, I pointed out, I the French had just had a revolution!  In the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity!  How could they then want to invade and occupy another country?

As one of the TA’s circulated with a microphone, students struggled with the ways in which liberty and empire could be reconciled.  Their responses were fascinating, as they explored how ideological notions of freedom  intersected the state’s need to dominate;  the urge to spread the new ideology; and the desperate need to strengthen the country in the face of the huge losses that had followed 1789.

Of course, they had articulated all of the things on my own list, except the desire among some elites to keep Bonaparte out of France.  I was able to read off the elements of my own list as a summary of the previous ten minutes’ discussion.

On we went to what those French troops encountered, but, sadly, there was not enough time to do it justice.  I think my mini-lecture on the history of the Mamluks (I had to include Shajar al-Durr!) emphasized the wrong things and confused them.  Sure enough, the Poll Everywhere Question slide showed the need for clarification.

History, Causality, and Evidence

I left the second class with that sinking feeling.  I had over-prepared the specifics and had not brought home the main ideas in the compelling way I had hoped to.

I had wanted to spend this first week engaging students in the current situation, challenging them to think about evidence and argument, and setting the stage for new kinds of processes in the large lecture arena.  In the past, I had launched into background information about Islam and early Muslim history.  Over time, I have been unable to rationalize this.  I want to emphasize the role of economy and society and politics and global issues in the history of the Middle East, and I see religion as an element of many things.  But focusing on Islam at the very beginning of the course implied something entirely different–the primacy of religion in the region.  I have wondered whether my US History colleagues begin their courses with an intro to Christianity.  This year I would experiment with beginning in the present.

The first class had really exciting, and this time, I wanted to get specific.  What kinds of explanations had been offered for the so-called Arab Spring?  How was someone to judge among them?

I spent a lot of preparation time on PowerPoint slides: Demographer Emmanuel Todd explained that gains in literacy, a falling birthrate, and the decline in cousin marriage marked significant cultural shifts that led to the events in Tunisia and Tahrir Square.  The Financial Times insisted that it was economic and political grievances.  Political Scientist Mark Lynch disagreed, claiming it was about the demand for dignity in the face of corruption and abuse.  Allen West (R-Florida) asserted that it was an Islamic totalitarian movement, anti-American, and the opposite of a call for democracy.  And I played them an audio clip of Wael Ghonim (blogger-in chief and Google executive) thanking Mark Zuckerberg and emphasizing social media.

I asked them to talk with the students around them to figure out how we could assess the varied explanations.  But instead of responding with the MEANS of comparing these varied possibilities, students fell back on claiming that each one was relevant and a contributing factor.

This was what I should have been preparing for–how to confront the tendency of students to accept all explanations as equally valid.  I had long marveled at how, given two opposite alternative possibilities, students seemed to want to either choose an alternative located in the absolute middle or to claim that all were important.  And, in front of 200 students, I was unprepared to provide compelling examples of why that wouldn’t work.

I had prepared a more general response, though, and fell back on my colleague Jonathan Katz’ explanation: “Historical study is primarily concerned with cause-and-effect, that is, uncovering factors that explain how particular events or circumstances came into existence. However, unlike the ‘hard sciences’ the explanations that historical study offers are generally framed as interpretations—not concrete facts. As a consequence, the study of history implies thinking critically about historical explanations rather than simply learning concrete facts.”

The difference between OPINION and INTERPRETATION, I argued, was evidence.  Historians don’t begin their arguments with “I believe….”  Believing is simply not adequate as a basis for historical argument, I insisted.  Then I followed with an admittedly lame discussion of how we use different kinds of sources depending on the questions we ask, and how we assess the accuracy of those sources.  Clearly, I’ll be spending a lot of time this semester trying to not only give students the tools to critically analyze sources, but also empowering them to realize that they are actually capable of judging between varying possible explanations.

Next week we begin the “Modern Middle East” with Napoleon’s invasion, and I was really pleased to find the transitional image back into the past.  Omar Makram was my man, not only as the Muslim scholar known for his opposition to the French invasion in 1798, but also as the statue overlooking Tahrir Square.  And he offers so many options for a historian!  After opposing the French invasion, he worked with the British.  He was instrumental in recognizing Muhammad Ali, but was then exiled by the new Egyptian ruler because of his opposition to the new leader’s land confiscation policies.  Moreover, the Tahrir Square mosque bearing his name had not been built until the 1940s (by an Italian architect), and the statue had been unveiled only in 2003.  So here was a possibility for analyzing how the memory of historical figures are mobilized for contemporary purposes.

At the end, I began the newest innovation: a Question slide that would allow them to tell me what they still wanted to know.

Travelers and Tourists

The first class was thrilling.  I felt briefly as if I was simultaneously historian, newscaster, and Oprah, though missing the microphone that would have allowed my students to explain why they had changed their responses.

I have taught my large history survey on “The Modern Middle East” before, but this time I was committed to finding a way to make this lecture format consistent with my teaching philosophy.  This year there are more students than ever.  Facing a lecture hall, a podium, more than two hundred students, and the best classroom technology available, how could I avoid making these students tourists on the journey of history?  During the summer of 2008, as I conducted a Burch Field Research Seminar in Turkey with ten amazing UNC undergraduates, I contemplated the differences between tourists and travelers.  My students noticed the tourists: people who rode air-conditioned buses, stayed in four-star international chain hotels, ate Western food, and never encountered Turks not already engaged in the industry.  Tourists “learn” about Istanbul from the guide with the microphone at the front of the bus, who has already decided which things are worth seeing, and had already allocated the amount of time required to “experience” each site before boarding the bus for the next attraction.

Our students were different.  They were expected to engage, to ask, to meet.  Their first project was a day-long scavenger hunt that required them to cross from Europe to Asia and back again; to walk the major pedestrian paths of Istanbul, to count the palaces and the Starbucks, and to eat ice cream in the market with the goose.  They had to figure out how public transportation works, how the phones are activated, how to ask directions and use money, which street vendors’ food was most palatable.  They were travelers, and proud of the autonomy and the discovery that resulted from their curiosity—and their discomfort.

Now as I faced my too-quiet 207 expectant students watching me and waiting for me to pick up the microphone and begin the tour, I told them my plan.  I was going to work to turn them into travelers, to dislocate their understanding of the Middle East and introduce them to the discomforts of travel so that they could engage in the discovery of history for themselves.

I had spent months talking with colleagues about how to actually work toward that goal in the classroom. I had visited colleagues’ lectures to see the ways they were engaging students, I had arranged to use a technology I had never seen before, Poll Everywhere.  I decided that telling stories, narrating the past, necessarily sets up a non-discovery learning project.  What else could a historian do?  Recent research has shown how much more effective problem-solving and active engagement are for students to learn—they had always been essential for my own understanding of the past.  But that seems a lot easier in a biology or physics class than in a history lecture.   Nonetheless, in addition to being pedagogically non-optimal, the lecture format seemed to me politically compromising: how can we expect to teach our students to think critically and challenge sources when we tell them what to think during our lectures?

But I finished this first lecture ecstatic (and exhausted), thrilled with the students’ responses and hoping to be able to maintain this kind of excitement for the semester.

I began, of course, with an introduction to the course, and my goals for the semester.  I listed our four main questions, and showed them my mindmap

promising that the final exam would emphasize these issues.  After introducing them to Poll Everywhere by asking them to identify Tunisia on a map, I asked them to “vote” on which caused the “Arab Spring,” Politics, Economics, Religion, or Education.  They seemed very divided, although a large majority chose politics.

After they watched El Général’s music video Reis Lebled,  I asked the students to consult the people sitting near them.  Would their “vote” be different after watching the video?  It was then, as we talked about the music and the role of evidence in forming and changing conclusions, that I wished for that microphone.