How the West remade the Middle East

by DANIEL DENVIR

Etching of Sultan Abdul Medjid proceeding to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul, 1854. IMAGE/Heritage Images/Getty Images

An interview with Ussama Makdisi

Western media often characterizes the Middle East as a region eternally riven with sectarian conflicts. In an interview, historian Ussama Makdisi says this is wrong, starting with the fact that the region has a rich history of multiethnic coexistence.

The modern Middle East is the product of two major events. The first is the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and the second is the attempt made by Western states to fill this power vacuum by asserting their own territorial claims over the region through the colonial mandate system.

In a twopart interview on Jacobin Radio’s the Dig podcast, Ussama Makdisi, the author of The Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World, outlined this complex history. What he shows is that the Middle East, contrary to the Orientalist notion that it is a place of unending conflict and sectarian violence, has a long and rich tradition of ethnic coexistence between Muslims, Jews, Christians, and other minorities. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Denvir: Your book, The Age of Coexistence, takes on perhaps the most powerful Western myth about the Middle East that the Arab world is a timelessly tribal and war-torn region, a land riven by age-old sectarian divides. Before we get into all the history, what sort of political work does this powerful discourse that you’re demolishing accomplish? And why is the study of history so key to the demystification work that we must all carry out?

Ussama Makdisi: Well, those are great questions. The first answer is that the traditional narrative that de-historicizes and removes history, contexts, and any sense of change over time, and thus reduces the Middle East, the Arab world, the Islamic world, any world, frankly, to this place that can be understood in the simplest and most vulgar of terms. You don’t actually need history because it’s always the same. It’s an endless repetition of the same. And so, I think any historical work, any real historical work — there’s a lot of mischievous historical work — by definition historicizes.

That means putting things in context, tracking change over time, and also pointing out, in the case of the Middle East, as I tried to do in The Age of Coexistence, an extraordinary tradition. It’s a tradition that’s not the same, that’s not unchanging but that is a rich repository of certain truths and certain facets, narratives, and aspects — which is to say that the Middle East, the Arab world, the Islamic world is in fact a repository of an extraordinary range of coexistence that, like any form of coexistence, ebbs and flows, has different facets, different areas, and so on.

These are forms of coexistence that are rich and require investigation with empathy, as opposed to the way the Middle East is always represented in the West at least, which is a place of feuding and endless sectarian struggles.

Imperial Pluralism

Daniel Denvir: Let’s turn to the history, starting with the Ottoman Empire in those many hundreds of years leading up to the mid-nineteenth century. And the mid-nineteenth century, which we’ll get to, is this moment when some really big changes take place. But up until that moment, how did the Ottoman government, an Islamic caliphate up until the mid-nineteenth century, how did it operate a multiconfessional empire that privileged the Muslim majority, but also created subordinated forms of autonomy for non-Muslims, namely for Christians and Jews?

Ussama Makdisi: That’s an extraordinarily important question. There’s a very long answer. I’ll give you the short version, the short version is that it’s a multiethnic, multireligious, multilinguistic empire that didn’t presume that everyone was the same, didn’t try to make everyone to one religion, didn’t try to convert everybody, didn’t make everyone speak the same language. And so it really was an extraordinarily diverse, but of course, hierarchical empire in the nature of empire, there was very clearly a hierarchy that led all the way to the top of the empire, which was the sultan in Istanbul.

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