Europeans, Ottomans, and Minorities

The students are reading two versions of the horrific massacres in Damascus in 1860, when Muslims killed Christians, one of the first instances of religious violence in the region for a long time.  There has been a lot written about the violence, but what I wanted to do was have them think about what I’ve been thinking about in my own research.  What are the options for how one treats “minorities”?

I began, as always, with a video to try to wake them up, and this one worked wonders!  It’s based on Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and I wanted to end with the Crimean War.  (The students seemed either horrified or amused!)

I have been using Poll Everywhere to take attendance, since their phones are registered in the system.  I do a quiz every day, usually about definitions or locations.  This one is the first they really missed:After one of the students came into my office confused about Muhammad Ali’s relationship with Napoleon, I decided to do a brief synopsis of the story to date (the TA’s liked this).  I wonder if my focus on the big issues is leaving them confused about events. Clearly, they need to know enough detail to make interpretations and see how historians work.

I had left class on Tuesday worried about my description of Christian privileges that resulted from European “protection.”  So I began with a broad question: based on their readings for this week (1860 Damascus massacres), the Tanzimat proclamations describing Ottoman reform measures from last week, their discussions about “outsiders” from Tuesday, they were to brainstorm in small groups. What are all the possible ways for institutionalizing relations between majorities and minorities?  Once they had listed them, they needed to choose the best option, and take it to another group and see if they agree.  The students texted the consensus decisions to the Poll Everywhere slide behind me.  Their proposals fell into three groups, all tried at various places in the recent past:

  1. Majority rules. Minorities have to adapt.
  2. Minorities should have the right to live their own culture/religion/society and provisions should be made for them
  3. Individuals should have free choice about how to live.

I reassured them that we would return to all of these in time.

The Ottomans came closest to the second of these options, and I described the millet institutions and the use of multiple legal systems.  Abd al-Qadir, an Algerian nationalist hero living in Damascus at the time of the massacres, became the obvious character to describe varied Muslim responses to non-Muslims.

The man who led the fight against French colonialism in the early years after France’s 1830 invasion of Algeria had been defeated and exiled to Syria.  There he protected hundreds of Christians during the violence described in the readings for this week.  Although the French claimed that Abd al-Qadir’s protection of Damascene Christians indicated that he had reversed his previous antipathy to their invasion of Algeria, neither he nor his supporters thought anything of the kind.  He had opposed a foreign invasion.  He had protected Christians, which for him was a duty incumbent upon Muslims because of the special protected status Christians enjoyed in Muslims lands as “peoples of the book.”  His fight against the French invasion of Algeria was anti-colonial, not anti-Christian.  His protection of Christians was Muslim, not pro-French.

But that made the 1860 massacres even more difficult to understand, so I suggested that there is a difference between prescriptive “Islam” and the behavior of Muslims.  This may be easy to understand in a largely Baptist environment where what “Christianity” demands and what Christians do are often dissimilar.  Because this is a history course, we don’t focus much on the way faith is supposed to be but instead on the ways it is mobilized and articulated at specific times in the past.  We are concerned with what Muslims have done, and they have done a wide variety of things.  We can no more attribute the horror of September 11, 2001 to “Islam” than we can attribute the horrors of fascism to “Christianity,” even though the perpetrators of both claimed they were motivated by faith.

I needed to continue my meta-history mini-lecture, thinking about where I had left them after the last class.  I had tried to explain why Muslims in Damascus might have been angry at Christians, angry enough to commit terribly violence.  How is it possible to understand the perpetrators?  More importantly, are we supposed to understand the perpetrators?  This has become a bit of a political argument in the United States of late.  Academics have been accused of “supporting” terrible crimes just by trying to understand the motivations behind them.

If we don’t try to understand the perpetrator, we risk having any crime be simply “incomprehensible,” any criminal simply “barbaric,” with no possibility of prevention or reconciliation.  Once this sort of attitude is directed at whole populations (Muslims, Arabs, and Africans are the most common in history texts), warring groups are assumed to be motivated by “savagery.”  As a result, of course, colonialism, rapacity, slavery, or bombings cannot be mentioned–the violence arises out of nothing more than the character flaws of the population.  Challenging as it is, then, for many of us, one of our jobs is to explain the motivations of the perpetrators (whether the Africans at Omdurman or the British).

My solution: historians must have a split screen, the ability to hold two things in mind at the same time.  For example, we have to be able to actually understand the arguments Israelis and Palestinians make and hold them in our minds at the same time.  In my research, I have to understand–simultaneously– the motivations of Venizelos and the Turkish nationalists in 1921.  So my quoting of the US Ambassador in 1835 saying that Christians had privileges that Muslims resented was not an effort to blame the victims.  It was, instead, an effort to understand the perpetrators, which is often a challenging project!  This reflects no sympathy for oppressors, but simply the need to make people in the past comprehensible to the present.

I returned to the Ottomans and the role of minorities.  Minorities became pivotal in Ottoman history not only as subjects who needed special law courts and holidays off.  European powers used the (often imagined) oppression of minorities to achieve their own imperial objectives–even in cases where local Christians neither needed nor wanted “protection.”  The Crimean War, like all others, was multi-causal, but it was the Russian Empire’s demand to “protect”  all Ottoman Orthodox Christians–and their refusal to acknowledge similar French claims to protect Catholics– that sparked the conflagration.  I ended with an unintentional reenactment from 2011.

Their questions suggest that they are thinking hard about the connections of the Ottoman past with more recent events.

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