Monday, February 5, 2018

Saki's Cupboard of the Yesterdays

"The Cupboard of the Yesterdays," a short story written by H. H. Munro a few years before he was killed on the Western Front in 1916, offers a striking early 20th century British perspective on the Balkans and the Balkan Wars. I don't understand how anyone writes about orientalism, modernization theory, media coverage the middle east or the "end of history" without referencing it. In the hopes that might change I'm posting the story below, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

“War is a cruelly destructive thing,” said the Wanderer, dropping his newspaper to the floor and staring reflectively into space.

“Ah, yes, indeed,” said the Merchant, responding readily to what seemed like a safe platitude; “when one thinks of the loss of life and limb, the desolated homesteads, the ruined—”

“I wasn’t thinking of anything of the sort,” said the Wanderer; “I was thinking of the tendency that modern war has to destroy and banish the very elements of picturesqueness and excitement that are its chief excuse and charm.  It is like a fire that flares up brilliantly for a while and then leaves everything blacker and bleaker than before.  After every important war in South-East Europe in recent times there has been a shrinking of the area of chronically disturbed territory, a stiffening of frontier lines, an intrusion of civilised monotony.  And imagine what may happen at the conclusion of this war if the Turk should really be driven out of Europe.”

“Well, it would be a gain to the cause of good government, I suppose,” said the Merchant.

“But have you counted the loss?” said the other.  “The Balkans have long been the last surviving shred of happy hunting-ground for the adventurous, a playground for passions that are fast becoming atrophied for want of exercise.  In old bygone days we had the wars in the Low Countries always at our doors, as it were; there was no need to go far afield into malaria-stricken wilds if one wanted a life of boot and saddle and licence to kill and be killed.  Those who wished to see life had a decent opportunity for seeing death at the same time.”

“It is scarcely right to talk of killing and bloodshed in that way,” said the Merchant reprovingly; “one must remember that all men are brothers.”

“One must also remember that a large percentage of them are younger brothers; instead of going into bankruptcy, which is the usual tendency of the younger brother nowadays, they gave their families a fair chance of going into mourning.  Every bullet finds a billet, according to a rather optimistic proverb, and you must admit that nowadays it is becoming increasingly difficult to find billets for a lot of young gentlemen who would have adorned, and probably thoroughly enjoyed, one of the old-time happy-go-lucky wars.  But that is not exactly the burden of my complaint.  The Balkan lands are especially interesting to us in these rapidly-moving days because they afford us the last remaining glimpse of a vanishing period of European history.  When I was a child one of the earliest events of the outside world that forced itself coherently under my notice was a war in the Balkans; I remember a sunburnt, soldierly man putting little pin-flags in a war-map, red flags for the Turkish forces and yellow flags for the Russians.  It seemed a magical region, with its mountain passes and frozen rivers and grim battlefields, its drifting snows, and prowling wolves; there was a great stretch of water that bore the sinister but engaging name of the Black Sea—nothing that I ever learned before or after in a geography lesson made the same impression on me as that strange-named inland sea, and I don’t think its magic has ever faded out of my imagination.  And there was a battle called Plevna that went on and on with varying fortunes for what seemed like a great part of a lifetime; I remember the day of wrath and mourning when the little red flag had to be taken away from Plevna—like other maturer judges, I was backing the wrong horse, at any rate the losing horse.  And now to-day we are putting little pin-flags again into maps of the Balkan region, and the passions are being turned loose once more in their playground.”

“The war will be localised,” said the Merchant vaguely; “at least every one hopes so.”

“It couldn’t wish for a better locality,” said the Wanderer; “there is a charm about those countries that you find nowhere else in Europe, the charm of uncertainty and landslide, and the little dramatic happenings that make all the difference between the ordinary and the desirable.”

“Life is held very cheap in those parts,” said the Merchant.

“To a certain extent, yes,” said the Wanderer.  “I remember a man at Sofia who used to teach me Bulgarian in a rather inefficient manner, interspersed with a lot of quite wearisome gossip.  I never knew what his personal history was, but that was only because I didn’t listen; he told it to me many times.  After I left Bulgaria he used to send me Sofia newspapers from time to time.  I felt that he would be rather tiresome if I ever went there again.  And then I heard afterwards that some men came in one day from Heaven knows where, just as things do happen in the Balkans, and murdered him in the open street, and went away as quietly as they had come.  You will not understand it, but to me there was something rather piquant in the idea of such a thing happening to such a man; after his dullness and his long-winded small-talk it seemed a sort of brilliant esprit d’esalier on his part to meet with an end of such ruthlessly planned and executed violence.”

The Merchant shook his head; the piquancy of the incident was not within striking distance of his comprehension.

“I should have been shocked at hearing such a thing about any one I had known,” he said.
“The present war,” continued his companion, without stopping to discuss two hopelessly divergent points of view, “may be the beginning of the end of much that has hitherto survived the resistless creeping-in of civilisation.  If the Balkan lands are to be finally parcelled out between the competing Christian Kingdoms and the haphazard rule of the Turk banished to beyond the Sea of Marmora, the old order, or disorder if you like, will have received its death-blow.  Something of its spirit will linger perhaps for a while in the old charmed regions where it bore sway; the Greek villagers will doubtless be restless and turbulent and unhappy where the Bulgars rule, and the Bulgars will certainly be restless and turbulent and unhappy under Greek administration, and the rival flocks of the Exarchate and Patriarchate will make themselves intensely disagreeable to one another wherever the opportunity offers; the habits of a lifetime, of several lifetimes, are not laid aside all at once.  And the Albanians, of course, we shall have with us still, a troubled Moslem pool left by the receding wave of Islam in Europe.  But the old atmosphere will have changed, the glamour will have gone; the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle down over the time-honoured landmarks; the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the Muersteg Agreement, the Komitadje bands, the Vilayet of Adrianople, all those familiar outlandish names and things and places, that we have known so long as part and parcel of the Balkan Question, will have passed away into the cupboard of yesterdays, as completely as the Hansa League and the wars of the Guises.

“They were the heritage that history handed down to us, spoiled and diminished no doubt, in comparison with yet earlier days that we never knew, but still something to thrill and enliven one little corner of our Continent, something to help us to conjure up in our imagination the days when the Turk was thundering at the gates of Vienna.  And what shall we have to hand down to our children?  Think of what their news from the Balkans will be in the course of another ten or fifteen years.  Socialist Congress at Uskub, election riot at Monastir, great dock strike at Salonika, visit of the Y.M.C.A. to Varna.  Varna—on the coast of that enchanted sea!  They will drive out to some suburb to tea, and write home about it as the Bexhill of the East.

“War is a wickedly destructive thing.”

“Still, you must admit—” began the Merchant.  But the Wanderer was not in the mood to admit anything.  He rose impatiently and walked to where the tape-machine was busy with the news from Adrianople.

Picture: After the attack. Plevna, 1877-1878

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Westphalia to Communicate

In responding to the rise of ISIL, many observers focused on the most obvious causes for alarm: sadistic violence, high-profile terror attacks and the destabilization of the Middle East. But some observers identified a more profound threat: that ISIL, like other Islamist movements, was seeking to overturn the Westphalian order.

A little over three and a half centuries ago, representatives of the Holy Roman Empire formally agreed to let German princes force their subjects to be Protestant – and in doing so made the principle of state sovereignty a bedrock of the international system. Now, by trying to create a global caliphate (with no local princes left to impose Protestantism, presumably), ISIL puts this vital principle at risk.
If this weren’t bad enough, ISIL’s anti-Westphalian crusade has an unexpected ally: the Chinese. “In stark contrast to the Westphalian system,” one international relations expert writes, “Confucian China regarded itself as the sole and central world order” leading modern China to become “a bitter adversary of the international state system for much of the 20th century.” As a result, commentators worry, Beijing might be crafting a “new hegemony” that replaces “the principles of the Westphalian treaties” with an antiquated, Chinese-led tribute system.

The good news, though, is that apparently China is also one of the last remaining defenders of the Westphalian order. Actually, China loves Westphalian sovereignty so much that the real problem might be Beijing’s efforts to “restore a neo-Westphalian order” in which everyone has too much sovereignty.

Confused? The point is that whatever exactly China is doing Westphalia-wise, it’s not good.

To make matters more confusing, everyone seems to agree that the European Union, built around the idea of countries pooling their sovereignty to become something else, is fundamentally at odds with the Westphalian order. But no one seems the least bit worried about it.

Amid all these conflicting uses of the term, it sometimes seems that pundits’ enthusiasm for describing the global order as Westphalian is little more than a pedantic tic — like saying “whom” instead of “who,” maybe, or pronouncing foreign places’ names with accents that aren’t your own. International relations theorists would point out that the idea remains valuable when used in a more precise and theoretical manner. But for anyone interested in discussing the international order, its challenges, or its future, there is meaning in Westphalia’s misuse as well.

When invoked casually, the Westphalian order misrepresents both the past and the present, distorting history to dodge hard questions about America’s role in the world today. At worst, the conventional version of Westphalian punditry posits the existence of some centuries-old order based on sovereignty and secularism, suggests that America is merely trying to uphold these time-tested principles, and then berates other countries who don’t immediately want in.

It’s an elegant narrative, but one that is hard to reconcile with the fact that Western states spent much of the past few hundred years systematically violating the sovereignty of non-Western polities. What’s more, for members of a supposedly secular state system, they were remarkably quick to fall back on religious justifications for doing so. By ignoring this history, the idea of the Westphalian order presents Western hegemony in in the guise of a neutral, rule-based order. The implication is that when other countries object, their issue must be with the rules, not the West’s consistent flaunting of them.

To read more, check out the full article here

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Conflicting Ambitions, Shared Cartography

Venizelos and Ataturk: conflicting territorial ambitions, similar taste in (cartographic depictions of) women...


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Power, Piety and the Smithsonian's Newest Qurans

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs on February 8, 2017

Anyone in Washington trying to understand the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey today could do worse than starting with a visit to the Smithsonian’s Sackler gallery. On display there, until February 20, is “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.” The exhibit features a number of lavishly decorated Korans collected by the Ottoman Empire during its six-century rule over much of the Muslim world. One, seized by Suleiman the Magnificent from the tomb of a long-dead Mongol ruler, has sprawling gold medallions set amidst lines of multi-colored calligraphy. Another, read with unknowable results for the salvation of Selim the Second’s soul, features whimsical foliage-like shapes interlocked above a deep lapis lazuli background.

But beyond the beauty of the books on display, their history is also illuminating. Whereas commentators frequently describe modern Turkey as torn by a rivalry between secularism and Islamism, this exhibit inadvertently reveals the complex ways in which the two ideologies always co-existed. In Turkey, as elsewhere, religion has always been important to even the most secular governments, and power remains important to even the most religious.

The Smithsonian website offers a set of interactive maps showing the “long-distance travels” that brought the books in the exhibit from the diverse cities where they were first created to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, where they now reside full time. “Ottoman sultans, queens, and viziers acquired some of the most precious [Korans]… through purchase, gift, or war booty,” the curators explain, then “endowed these cherished works to public and religious institutions to express personal piety and power and to secure prestige.” 

For anyone interested in piety and power in contemporary Turkey, the more recent history of these holy books, leading up to their current presence in Washington, is equally telling. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as in Ottoman times, the ownership, transportation, and display of famous Korans continue to demonstrate everything from allegiance and modernity to national pride.
In the late nineteenth century, the leaders of the Ottoman state saw their once vast empire being eaten away by nationalist rebellions and European land-grabs. To stem these losses, Sultan Abdulhamid II sought to strengthen the empire through a combination of centralization, modernization, and Islamic piety. At the same time as the government built new railroads and telegraph lines to hold the empire together, Abdulhamid highlighted his role as Caliph in order to win the loyalty of his Muslim subjects. Building a stronger state and seeking enhanced religious legitimacy sometimes went hand in hand. In the early 1900s, for example, Abdulhamid began construction of a railway stretching from Istanbul to Mecca. In Ottoman rhetoric, the project served as a way of facilitating the transport of pious pilgrims to Islam’s holy city. But, as Americans may know best from Lawrence of Arabia, the railroad was also intended to help the empire exert military force in far-flung and possibly rebellious provinces as well.

So where do the Korans come in? In 1908, revolutionary Ottoman military officers, known as the “Young Turks,” took control of the empire. Leaving the Sultan in power as a figurehead, they continued his state-building policies, but with an added emphasis on Turkish nationalism and secular modernization. Several years after coming to power, this new government set out to collect the finest Korans in the empire—still in the possession of the various mosques, tombs, and religious foundations to which previous sultans had donated them—for display in a new museum in the imperial capital. 

The creation of this collection, whose highlights are now at the Smithsonian, was both an act of secular state-building and of public piety. In the most literal sense, the state was seizing control of important religious objects and taking them out of the hands of religious institutions. Collecting important objects of all sorts in national museums was also understood as the kind of thing governments had to do if they wanted to be modern, civilized, and European. But at the same time, this effort was presented as a celebration of the empire’s Islamic identity, and the newly created Museum of Islamic Foundations was opened with an elaborate ceremony attended by Sheikh-ul-Islam Urguplu Hayri Efendi, the head of the Ottoman religious establishment. 

Following the Ottomans’ defeat in World War I, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rebuilt what survived of the empire’s government and territory as the Republic of Turkey. The ideology of Ataturk’s new state was now even more focused on Turkish national identity and less focused on religion, but in the government’s approach to displaying religious art, there was continuity as well as change.

Istanbul’s Museum of Islamic Foundations quickly became the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Works. The new name brought an added emphasis on Turkishness, but Islam was, quite literally, still there. As Ataturk worked to make Turkey more secular, decorated Ottoman Korans became, in official rhetoric, evidence of Turkish artistic genius rather than of Islamic piety. But at the same time, this new language nonetheless offered a way for the new regime, and some of its more pious members, to continue to pay homage to the ongoing role of religion in the new country’s identity.

Skipping ahead to the present, the meaning of an Ottoman Koran is still more flexible than it might appear. In January 2002, one came to Washington under somewhat unique circumstances. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, a left-wing intellectual and committed secularist, brought U.S. President George W. Bush a small sixteenth-century Koran. In the aftermath of 9/11, the gift seemed an unremarkable gesture from the secular leader of a predominantly Muslim country who was eager to dissociate Islam from terrorism. For Ecevit, who in a different context had reminded Americans that Turks, “whether one likes it or not,” were Muslim, the Koran was as much an acknowledgement of reality as a celebration of faith. 

Not surprisingly, today’s Smithsonian exhibit, made possible by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current Islamist government, is very much a celebration of faith, with the Koran’s Islamic content emphasized alongside its artistic legacy. More intriguingly, the exhibit seems to have provided Erdogan’s erstwhile secular rivals an opportunity to join in the celebration. Alongside the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, another of the exhibit’s sponsors is the Dogan Group. A part of Turkey’s traditionally secular business community, Aydin Dogan owned several newspapers that were once quite critical of Erdogan. Through a series of politically motivated legal actions, ranging from a 2.5 billion dollar tax fine to the arrest of high-ranking employees, the government brought Dogan’s newspapers to heel. For secular businessmen to offer their financial support to such an enthusiastically religious museum exhibit reveals the contours of Erdogan’s success in blending power with piety and incorporating former rivals into his new regime.

Korans, visitors to the Smithsonian learn, were routinely used across the Islamic world as diplomatic gifts to cement political and military alliances. The ones currently on display served over the years to build relationships between Ottomans, Safavids, Abbasids, Ismailis, Mongols, and Mamlukes. Given the array of bilateral challenges facing the U.S.-Turkish alliance today, it could certainly use some cementing. If the history of these Korans can hint at a more complex relationship between Islam and secularism than some in Washington seem to envision, perhaps they might, in some small way, do their part to help.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nomads, No Problem: envisioning borders in the post-Ottoman Middle East

The material in this post was initially presented, in somewhat different form, as part of a round table at the 2016 Middle East Studies Association Conference titled "Sykes-Picot at 100': Mapping, Migrants, and Myths." The revised paper is available for download in pdf from here.

It has become increasingly commonplace to present borders, particularly in the Middle East, as an ugly embodiment of the way colonialism, nationalism and the modern state disrupted preexisting networks of social relationships. By extension, these borders have, for many, become symbols of the ideological blindness of the officials who initially drew them,  their supposed indifference to an earlier "'circulation mode' of affiliation" that was "[c]haracterized by fluidity and mobility."

This post looks briefly at the way the political regimes that created new borders in the Middle East after WWI acknowledged and tried to mitigate the potential disruption they would cause. It is striking that in the 20s and 30s many of these borders were actually considerably more open than they later became. Crucially this was not just through a lack of resources to control them but actually by design.

Which is to say that by and large it was not the creation of borders themselves that proved disruptive but instead political tensions between the governments on both sides them. Consistently across the region, political and military disputes gave borders that were initially intended to be quite permeable the fortified disruptive character we associate with them today.

The Iraq-Syrian border, for example, which ISIS famously presented as a symbol of the region’s “Sykes-Picot division,” was only delimited by a League of Nations commission in 1932, and it remained open for nomads to cross relatively freely until Syrian-Iraqi political tensions led to its closure in the 1980s. The fortified border which ISIS saw as a product of a century-old political order, in other words, was only about three decades old.

In this regard the Iraqi-Syrian border is hardly unique. A quick tour of some documents and scholarship related to the history of borders in the Middle East reveals that many evolved in the same way. Across the region, similar  measures were initially taken to limit the disruption new borders would cause, and in many cases these measures broke down for the same reasons.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Turkey's National Pact Borders

There's been a lot discussion about Turkey's National Pact borders recently, and a lot of random irredentist maps floating around purporting to show what they'd look like. As best as I can tell, based on the text of the January 20, 1920 version of the Pact below, this is the territory it encompassed. Regions in red were an "indivisible whole," while regions in pink would have their status determined by referendum.

Meclis-i Mebusan üyeleri, Devletin Bağımsızlığının ve ulusun geleceğinin, haklı ve sürekli bir barışa kavuşmak için katlanabilecek özverinin en fazlasını gösteren aşağıdaki ilkelere eksiksiz uyulmasıyla sağlanabileceğini ve bu ilkeler dışında sağlam bir Osmanlı Saltanatı ve toplumunun varlığının sürdürülmesinin olanak dışı bulunduğunu kabul ederek, şunları onaylamışlardır:

Madde 1. Osmanlı Devleti’nin, özellikle Arap çoğunluğunun yerleşmiş olduğu, 30 Ekim 1918 günkü Silah Bırakışımı [Mondros Mütarekesi] yapıldığı sırada, düşman ordularının işgali altında kalan kesimlerinin [o sırada Hatay ve Musul bölgesi Türk egemenliği altında idi] geleceğinin, halklarının serbestçe açıklayacakları oy uyarınca belirlenmesi gerekir; sözkonusu Silah Bırakışımı çizgisi içinde, din, soy ve amaç birliği bakımlarından birbirine bağlı olan, karşılıklı saygı ve özveri duyguları besleyen soy ve toplum ilişkileri ile çevrelerinin koşullarına saygılı Osmanlı İslâm çoğunluğunun yerleşmiş bulunduğu kesimlerin tümü, ister bir eylem, ister bir hükümle olsun hiç bir nedenle, birbirinden ayrılamayacak bir bütündür.

Madde 2. Halkı, özgürlüğe kavuşunca, oylarıyla Anavatana katılmış olan üç il [Elviye-i Selâse yani Kars, Ardahan ve Batum Livaları] için gerekirse yeniden halkın serbest oyuna başvurulmasını kabul ederiz.

Madde 3. Türkiye ile yapılacak barışa değin ertelenen Batı Trakya'nın hukuksal durumunun belirlenmesi de, halkının özgürce açıklayacağı oya göre olmalıdır.

Madde 4. İslâm Halifeliğinin ve Yüce Saltanatın merkezi ve Osmanlı Hükümetinin başkenti olan İstanbul kenti ile Marmara Denizinin güvenliği her türlü tehlikeden uzak tutulmalıdır. Bu ilke saklı kalmak koşulu ile, Akdeniz ve Karadeniz Boğazlarının dünya ticaret ve ulaşımına açılması konusunda, bizimle birlikte, öteki tüm Devletlerin oybirliği ile verecekleri karar geçerlidir.

Madde 5. Müttefik Devletler ile düşmanları ve onların kimi ortakları arasında yapılan antlaşmalardaki ilkeler çerçevesinde, azınlıkların hakları, komşu ülkelerdeki Müslüman hakların da özdeş haklardan yararlanması umudu ile, bizce de benimsenip güvence altına alınacaktır.

Madde 6. Ulusal ve ekonomik gelişmemize olanak bulunması ve daha çağdaş biçimde, düzenli bir yönetimle işlerin yürütülmesini başarmak için, her devlet gibi, bizim de gelişmemiz koşullarının sağlanmasında, bütünüyle bağımsızlığa ve özgürlüğe kavuşmamız ana ilkesi varlık ve geleceğimizin temelidir. bu nedenle siyasal, yargısal, parasal vb. alanlarda gelişmemizi önleyici sınırlamalara [Kapitülasyonlar] karşıyız. Saptanacak borçlarımızın ödenmesi koşulları da bu ilkelere aykırı olmayacaktır.