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A.J. Racy. Photo by Carolyn Coons, UNC Chapel Hill ’16.

It’s been 100 years since the Sykes–Picot Agreement divided the Middle East into spheres of British and French influence that transformed the Middle East. In the aftermath of World War I, the religiously, linguistically and ethnically diverse Ottoman Empire was divided up into a collection of small states, each with its own ruling group under the control of European powers. “Ottomans” became Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and Turks.

“New states created new refugees, new nationalities defined new minorities, and new codes of law demanded new rights,” said UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Sarah Shields, who organized this year’s Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies conference – a forum that sought to bring much-needed historical context to today’s struggles over belonging, identities and the map of the Middle East.

In introductory remarks at the public conference, UNC-Chapel Hill sociologist and co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East & Muslim Civilizations Charles Kurzman reminded the audience that “those new nations, after generations may seem like they were always here but in fact World War I and its aftermath helped to create them.”

Performer, composer, and ethnomusicologist A.J. Racy (UCLA), who gave the multi-instrument concert keynote at the conference, joked that that there are three things that don’t obey borders – “reed plants, neys, and goats.” Neys are reed, cane, or metal flutes that have traditionally been used by shepherds, and whose sounds are popular at weddings and other celebrations. A similar instrument, the ancient Egyptian kawala, is similar to the ney, but with a more haunting tone that’s used in Sufi music and by urban musicians today. Racy played these and others, including the oud, pictured at right.

Racy, whose flute-playing has been featured in Hollywood movie scores as well as in classical concert settings, treated the audience to various sounds in an original presentation — “Collective Memories of World War I”— that interspersed his compositions with touching recitations of his father’s and uncle’s World War 1 memoirs (some of them tragic) from the Lebanese village of his birth. Many Lebanese, including his relatives, fled to Brazil either during or after World War 1.

Michele Campos. Photo by Julie Harbin.
Michele Campos. Photo by Julie Harbin.

Other visiting conference participants —Michelle Campos (University of Florida), Lerna Ekmekcioglu (MIT), Dimitris Kamouzis (Centre for Asia Minor Studies, Athens, Greece), and E.J. Zürcher (Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, Netherlands) — presented their research on such diverse, yet connected topics as the formation of the Turkish nation, Armenians in post-genocide Turkey, the World War I-era Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul, and sectarianism and segregation in Post WWI Jerusalem.

In their presentations they approached what it meant to be an Ottoman citizen as well as the effects of World War I population transfers and expulsions, and the resultant breakdown of cosmopolitan social life.

Had the Ottoman Empire been a model for tolerance?

Fluid Borders, Mixed Neighborhoods

At a pre-conference panel  on Ottoman citizenship at the end of empire, held at at Duke’s Forum for Scholars and Publics, Campos showed how “liberty, equality and brotherhood concepts” from the French revolution and the 1906 Iranian revolution were debated in Ottoman Empire media. “Ottoman Unity” was the headline in one Beirut newspaper. Debates about multiculturalism and multi-cultural rights, she said, “emerged as part of an imperial citizenship project.”

But MIT historian Ekmekcioglu remarked that it was only following pressure from Europe that the Ottoman Empire extended equal rights to non-Muslims  — which resulted in non-Muslim minorities losing their dhimmi (protected) status for good and for bad.

With the debut of Europe in the 18th century the balance of power in the region was already shifting to the West, she said. Great powers got involved in affairs of non-Muslims in the Middle East – “as protectors.” At the same time, she noted, Europe regretfully did nothing to end or prevent the massacres of Armenians — only sending humanitarian aid to the victims after the fact.

In her research Ekmekcioglu has followed the survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide who remained inside Turkish borders after the end of WWI (and during the occupation of the Ottoman capital) and the 1923 establishment of the Turkish Republic.

She began her conference presentation at UNC with the history of Armenians in Turkey and described how the survivors were able to “cohabit with unapologetic perpetrators and survive the new Turkey.”

“Armenians talked about survival and recovery through familial language,” she said. “The institution of family would play a big role in national restoration.” (Her most recent book, Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey, came out from Stanford University Press in early 2016.)

The Armenian patriarchate in Istanbul was established in 1461 and remains in Turkey to this day. There was a period, roughly during the period of the genocide, when it was temporarily exiled to Mosul.

By the end of 1922/beginning of 1923 many Armenians and Greeks fled to other countries, while some remained in Turkey as minority communities. In 1926 Turkey passed a secular civic code and pressed religious minorities (non-Muslims) to give up rights to use their religion in family law, and students had to recite poems each day proclaiming their Turkishness.

She said that according to the 1927 census, the non-Muslim population made up only 3% of the Turkish population of 13 million. Armenians were thus encouraged when in 1928 Islam was taken out of the Turkish constitution.

“Armenians liked the promise of secular state,” she said. “Out went the Fez; in came the Panama hat. The official day of rest became Sunday, instead of Friday.”

She said that “Kemalism, for Armenians, provided a way to pass as Turkish, without becoming Turkish.”

However, their choices were still constrained by the state; in addition to giving up their rights to use religion in family law, vice presidents of minority Armenian schools were chosen by Ankara.

Greek scholar Dimitris Kamouzis, meanwhile, explained how the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul, between 1914 and 1923 — as non-Muslim subjects — were treated, and how they adapted to the challenges of the rapidly changing sociopolitical environment. He also focused on the influence that their religious and lay leaderships — namely the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the communal boards — had on their status in the new Turkey.

As he explained in his paper abstract, “They were caught between two mutually antagonistic nationalisms, that of the Ottoman Empire in which they lived and belonged as citizens, and that of Greece with which they shared trans-border ethnic ties.”

E.J. Zürcher, a professor of Turkish Studies, gave some background on the founding of the Turkish Republic — the first nation-state to emerge from World War I in the Middle East. This early republic was ruled by the tightly-knit political-military elite known as the Kemalists — named for the republic’s founder Kemal Ataturk.

“They (this 1880s generation who were to rule Turkey) were modern, well educated, upper class Muslims from western reaches of the Ottoman Empire,” he said.

UNC-Chapel Hill historian Lloyd Kramer, the respondent for Zürcher’s paper, asked this provocative question: “Do nationalists feel a special patriotic virtue when they repress those deemed to be outsiders?” And he also asked Zürcherif the story of early Turkish republicans was one of “Turkish exceptionalism.”

To a question from the audience about whether violence against the Armenians had been supported by a majority of the population or just by the elites, Zurcher responded: “Ethnic cleansing on that scale can’t be orchestrated without participation of local groups.”

Lloyd Kramer. Photo by Tat’yana Berdan, UNC-Chapel Hill ’16.
Lloyd Kramer.
Photo by Tat’yana Berdan, UNC-Chapel Hill ’16.

Kramer likened the ethnic cleansing of Armenians and Kurds to America’s ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee.

Another compelling question from the audience for Zürcher — “Did the Sykes-Picot agreement make a mistake in not carving out a Kurdistan?” — was met with this answer: “The Great Powers if they had their way would have put an independent Kurdistan on the map.”

Zurcher was referring to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres between the Allied powers and Ottoman Turkey, which included the provision of an independent Armenia, and an autonomous Kurdistan. But Sèvres was rejected by the new Turkish nationalist regime and replaced by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which DID NOT include an autonomous Turkish Kurdistan.

Kamouzis said that while the Greek minority in Turkey still doesn’t enjoy “full inclusion” there, Turkey’s current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tried to reconnect with non-Muslim minorities in a positive way, including returning confiscated property and allowing for the election of non-Muslim MPs. But Kamouzis also said that one can’t speak truthfully about minority rights in Turkey without also including a discussion about the rights and status of the Kurds in Turkey, which remains unresolved to this day.

University of Florida history professor Campos, in her talk, explained how Jerusalem was transformed in the decade after the end of World War I “from a multicultural imperial city to a platform for sectarian and nationalist struggles.”

“There’s an absence in understanding demographics of mixed cities of the Ottoman Empire,” said Campos. “Jerusalem is by far most studied city in the world, but its social history has been subsumed by political & religious history.”

She said that according to last major Ottoman census of the area in 1905, Jerusalem was 41% Jewish, 34% Muslim and 25% Christian. More than half lived inside walls of city.

According to that same census, only three of the seven neighborhoods in old Jerusalem were religiously homogeneous. The most mixed neighborhood was Al-Wad; the 2nd most populous quarter where one could find Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious sites. This multi-ethnic neighborhood in late-Ottoman Jerusalem also had public baths, a library, cafes, and dozens of Middle Eastern and European papers were for sale.  Its inhabitants included Lebanese, North African, Indian, and Afghan immigrants. There were highly mixed streets (ie a mix of religious communities) in Al-Wad, though not mixed within buildings. She said that people living in Al-Wad at the time couldn’t leave their homes without bumping into someone from another religion or race.

Nationalism Wins, But at What Cost?

During the closing session of the conference, Cemil Aydin, who’s from Turkey and who teaches modern Middle Eastern history at UNC-Chapel Hill, said that World War I convinced people to “hold onto their own kin and their own group.”

Scholars like Aydin grapple with how to better educate their students about this period in history.

UNC Middle East historian Shields said the division of the region into a number of states led not only to potential problems with borders, but also the difficulty of trying to figure out who belonged to the new states and who was going to lead them.

But she takes comfort in the fact that for example, the struggles between Jews and non-Jews in Jerusalem, the massacre of Armenians by Turks, and the fighting between Greeks and Turks, all took place in history.

“That is… they’re not from time immemorial,” she said. “If we think that it takes place in history then we can convince our students that there’s a possibility for resolution. If it doesn’t take place in history but has been since time immemorial then there’s no possibility of any kind of resolution or reconciliation. And so history really matters. Context, contingency matters.”

UNC sociologist Kurzman said that outcomes, repercussions and implications of World War 1 couldn’t be more timely today.

Two years ago marked the centennial anniversary of the start of World War 1 (1914) followed by the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide (1915), and now the Sykes-Picot Agreement (negotiated between November 1915 and March 1916) is in the spotlight —  with more anniversaries to come including the marking of 100 years since the Balfour Declaration (1917) that established a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, the Arab revolt (1916-1918), the end of World War I (1918), the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and the end of the Turkish War of Independence (1922) and Treaty of Lausanne (1923).

“World War I was such a cataclysmic event which shattered the Ottoman Empire as it did the Hapsburg Empire and the Romanov empire and created a whole set of new boundaries and new nations in the Middle East,” he said. “The troubled history of some of those boundaries and some of those nations has come full circle over the last couple years with attempts to erase those boundaries — in particular the boundary between Syria and Iraq.”

This, as Kurzman pointed out, is a border that the self-proclaimed Islamic State “has over-run and literally erased in an attempt, as they say in their own propaganda, to do away with the European Sykes-Picot and later agreements that created those boundaries of what we think of now as nations but were then simply territories of the Ottoman Empire.”

The Islamic State claims they are struggling against the imposition of borders of the Middle East by the Christian imperial powers and use anti-imperialism rhetoric to stir up their followers.

While Aydin wants to challenge this clash of civilizations narrative, he said that educators also need to explain how Muslims and Christians become racialized.

“I want to ask you what kind of alternatives you will offer to these narratives,” he said, “and I think one thing I’ve heard, that I will use in my classes, is to think deeply about the terms like unmixing and confessionalization.”

He said the Greek War of Independence, waged against the Ottoman Empire between 1821 and 1832, started a process that matched a territory with a particular population. Within 100 years, Turkey became a nation-state too, and began to push away, kill, or homogenize people that didn’t fit.

“Instead of talking about empires, nations, Islam, Christianity, or ethnicity, maybe we can shift the conversation and talk about issues of good governance in an imperial framework or a national framework, interacting with people’s struggles for rights – minority rights, human rights, national rights for self determination,” Aydin said, instead of the “very misleading language” of Armenians vs. Turks, or Greeks vs. Turks or Christians vs. Muslims.

Aydin advocated for countering the powerful Euro-centric narrative of World War I with a global narrative, and for seeing that for the Middle East there was “no simple narrative” and “no happy ending.”

“There are ongoing history battles that involve contemporary struggles for rights, a sense of justice that people are trying to search for,” he said. “There’s no consensus on the topic of World War 1. Turks and Greeks have very conflicting narratives, so do Armenians and Turks.”

Hollywood has also weighed in. Aydin pointed to two “equally bad” movies with two different interpretations of the Battle of Gallipoli (1915-1916); one a patriotic film starring Mel Gibson (Gallipoli, 1981) that follows Australian soldiers into battle, and another starring Russell Crowe (The Water Diviner, 2014), which follows a father’s search for his missing Australian soldier sons, but which Aydin says does show more respect for the Turks, more about Islam, and a Turkish nationalism element.

“All the British soldiers are white and Christian and all the Ottoman soldiers are Muslim which wasn’t true, the British army had a lot of brown people in it, including Muslims, and the Ottoman Army had a lot of Greeks and Armenians in it and this has been completely overlooked,” said Aydin of the two films.

In conclusion, Aydin said that “we have to recognize that there are several shattered political visions that are still with us and there are several unhealed traumas or wounds – the Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians (for example),” adding that “we are still dealing with the long-term legacy of these unhealed wounds.”

“There are so many utopias and dreams that were and are being suppressed very violently,” he lamented.

One audience member pointedly asked, if nationalism, with the genocides of the 20th century, hasn’t worked, what would it/could it be replaced by? Not one of the scholars had any easy answers.

A unique model deployed at this particular conference was to have non-Middle East scholars giving responses to each of the talks presented. This included professors from UNC-Chapel Hill doing such diverse work as Jewish studies in post-Holocaust Poland; 19th century French history; African history, law and politics; and feminist geography in India and Kashmir.

“What I found really fascinating about the commentary is that we tend to think of certain things happening in the Middle East and only the Middle East,” said Shields at the close of the conference. “And what we heard from each one of our non-Middle East commentators is that our region isn’t unique — that the kinds of struggles that are taking place in our region after World War I actually have taken place just about everywhere.”

Full program details can be found here.


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