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.


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