"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Inter-Religious Relations in the Ottoman Empire

The study of almost all aspects of Eastern Christianity still lags behind comparable Western scholarship by many decades. This is true a fortiori of the study of relations between Muslims and Eastern Christians (Greeks and Armenians especially), particularly in the Ottoman Empire. Some periods are relatively well covered, while many are not--and are not likely to be given that in many instances sources, especially Turkish and Arabic sources, simply do not exist. Of those periods for which we have recent studies, not all of them are entirely reliable; some are so polemical and politicized as to be of limited use.

I just finished one excellent and widely acclaimed study of the Ottomans in the death throes of empire:  

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East 

by David Fromkin. Originally published in 1989, and reissued in a 20th-anniversary edition in 2009, this is a wonderfully written sweeping survey that manages to pack a great deal into a relatively brief book (643pp). The star protagonist in this is--not surprisingly for those who know the period, especially that of the Great War--Winston Churchill. Many of the problems still in the headlines today, including the state of Iraq, and Arab-Israeli relations, might well have turned out differently but for the ideas of Churchill and, especially, his political master, David Lloyd George, whose premiership, Fromkin demonstrates, was riven with anti-Ottoman hatred--and for reasons that are not entirely clear, which should not surprise us given that Lloyd George's ("the Welsh wizard") motives were not always clear even to those closest to him. Britain's centuries-long foreign policy of not allowing any one continental power to achieve too great a prominence (hilariously satirized here) continues to haunt the Middle East and indeed all of us. Even more egregious, to my mind, is Britain's self-presentation on the one hand as a "Christian nation" while so often so completely ignoring the plight of Christians in the lands under their suasion. "Put not your trust in princes" indeed, perhaps especially those claiming to be Christian princes. (To be fair, neither Churchill nor George could be even remotely considered to subscribe to basic Christian orthodoxy. Both were, I suppose, deists at best.) Even during and after World War I the Assyrian Christians were in a ghastly condition but nobody cared--just as nobody cared after the first Gulf War or the second. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Not all Eastern Christians always suffered during the Ottoman Empire. Some Armenian historians have recently recognized that while Armenia has indisputably suffered horribly under the Ottomans, especially from 1894-1915, one salutary result of living under Ottoman domination was that it forced Armenians to unite rather than splinter, and so held them together as a cohesive "nation" before they had a nation-state. In other words, the history of Muslim-Eastern Christian relations is not always bloody and bad--though much of it certainly is, and politicized attempts to pretend otherwise are not merely fatuous but iniquitous. 

Now a new book comes out to open up further our understanding of inter-religious relations in the late Ottoman period:

Michelle Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stamford University Press, 2010), xii+343pp.

Campos is an historian teaching at the University of Florida.

Her book is an attempt to explore the last decade of Ottoman life, from 1908 onwards, when Jews, Muslims, and Christians--and others--went from being imperial subjects to citizens overnight, exploring what it meant to construct a civic life together. Her book seeks to trace the developments of this startling change before Arab nationalism, Zionism, and other forces began to wreak havoc on the area.

I look forward to seeing this reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

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