"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).

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ottoman History and Our World Today

On the Remembrance Day, in this centenary year of the Great War, I am giving a lecture this afternoon on the three main Eastern Christian massacres that occurred during the war, especially at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915: the Armenian, of course, which is relatively well known; but also the mass slaughter of the Assyrians and of the Pontic Greeks (and later deportation of Anatolian and Aegean Greeks, including the wholesale destruction of Smyrna during the so-called Turkish War of Independence), these latter of which are not well known at all but were arguably even more devastating, especially to the Assyrians.

Even a century later, I do not think we are much better at appreciating the politics of the region in all their intractable complexity. It is one of the paradoxes and problems of Middle Eastern politics that attempts to make things better often make them far worse. I still struggle to get my students to see that American foreign policy in the last four years especially, encouraging the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and Assad in Syria, not only has not made things better for religious minorities, Eastern Christians in particular, but has in fact made them worse. And yet we persist in this foolish optimism that all we need is to let everyone have a "free and fair election" and manna will rain down from heaven as the lion and lamb lie down together.

That kind of fantasy backfired spectacularly as the Ottoman Empire attempted, again under Western pressure, various attempts at modernization and liberalization in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those who bore the brunt of the inevitable backlash were of course the Christians, especially the Armenians, as several studies have made clear, and as a newly released book also argues: Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire (Stamford University Press, 2014), 264pp.

About this book we are told:
The Ottoman revolution of 1908 is a study in contradictions—a positive manifestation of modernity intended to reinstate constitutional rule, yet ultimately a negative event that shook the fundamental structures of the empire, opening up ethnic, religious, and political conflicts. Shattered Dreams of Revolution considers this revolutionary event to tell the stories of three important groups: Arabs, Armenians, and Jews. The revolution raised these groups' expectations for new opportunities of inclusion and citizenship. But as post-revolutionary festivities ended, these euphoric feelings soon turned to pessimism and a dramatic rise in ethnic tensions.

The undoing of the revolutionary dreams could be found in the very foundations of the revolution itself. Inherent ambiguities and contradictions in the revolution's goals and the reluctance of both the authors of the revolution and the empire's ethnic groups to come to a compromise regarding the new political framework of the empire ultimately proved untenable. The revolutionaries had never been wholeheartedly committed to constitutionalism, thus constitutionalism failed to create a new understanding of Ottoman citizenship, grant equal rights to all citizens, and bring them under one roof in a legislative assembly. Today as the Middle East experiences another set of revolutions, these early lessons of the Ottoman Empire, of unfulfilled expectations and ensuing discontent, still provide important insights into the contradictions of hope and disillusion seemingly inherent in revolution.

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