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.