Friday, August 21, 2015

Learning From Imperial Nostalgia

An article about imperial nostalgia reprinted from Foreign Policy with more maps:

Published by the French Communists in the 50s, found on this great site
In bookstores around the world, there are undoubtedly Marxist professors eager to talk at length about the evils of U.S. imperialism. But only in Turkey, it seems, are they quite so eager to hold up Ottoman imperialism as the more enlightened alternative: the American and British empires dominated the Middle East through military force, the lecture goes, purely to exploit its resources. The Ottomans, by contrast, secured the consent of the governed by providing them with stability, justice, and prosperity. Really, in light of the Ottoman government’s inclusive political practices, you could hardly call it an empire at all.

An American more confident in being able to translate the phrase “arsenal of democracy” might have countered that it was really the United States that had the empire so great that it wasn’t really an empire at all. If anything, the American Empire was an empire of liberty, an empire by invitation, perhaps, welcomed around the world for replacing chaos and want with order and wealth

There is a long history of people championing imperialism as a more civilized alternative to violent instability—and an equally long tradition of haggling over whose empire did it better. Many of these arguments, like those above, depend on selective readings of history that downplay or ignore the role of violent coercion in imperial rule. Sufficiently romanticized, this sort of imperial nostalgia can even be marshaled in support of quintessentially liberal proposals for establishing international order and peace, such as the UN or EU. Consider the career of Otto von Habsburg: born as the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Otto subsequently became an outspoken advocate of European integration, invoking the supposed success of Habsburg rule while serving as president of the International Paneuropean Union and a leading member of the EU’s European Parliament.

But in the face of global instability, others have been drawn to a different, more realist version of imperial nostalgia, one that embraces imperialism’s reliance on violence in order to argue that only force can bring much-needed order to a dangerous world. It’s not that anyone is arguing for a contemporary reconquest of the non-Western world, of course. But plenty of people draw on the imperial past to justify their faith that U.S. military power can reliably deal with recalcitrant Third World states. Unlike the less violent alternative, this version of imperial nostalgia seeks to preempt liberal criticism about the horrors of empire with an appeal to steely-eyed realpolitik.

No less than rose-tinted imperial nostalgia, though, the fixation with force ignores the fact that most imperialists succeeded by using a mix of consent and coercion carefully calibrated to the conditions they faced. More important, Western imperialism flourished, for a time, by maintaining a clear distinction between realms of coercion and realms of consent—that is, a distinction between much weaker Third World regions that could be controlled by force and more powerful imperial rivals that required careful diplomacy and well-coordinated cooperation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Sevres Anniversary


Turkey, 1921, courtesy of the Rumsey Collection. Today we're reposting my piece from Foreign Policy on the 95th anniversary of the Treaty of Sevres. 

Ninety-five years ago today, European diplomats gathered at a porcelain factory in the Paris suburb of Sèvres and signed a treaty to remake the Middle East from the ashes of the Ottoman empire. The plan collapsed so quickly we barely remember it anymore, but the short-lived Treaty of Sèvres, no less than the endlessly discussed Sykes-Picot agreement, had consequences that can still be seen today. We might do well to consider a few of them as the anniversary of this forgotten treaty quietly passes by.

In 1915, as British troops prepared to march on Istanbul by way of the Gallipoli peninsula, the government in London printed silk handkerchiefs heralding the end of the Ottoman empire. It was a bit premature (the battle of Gallipoli turned out to be one of the Ottomans’ few World War I victories) but by 1920 Britain’s confidence seemed justified: With allied troops occupying the Ottoman capital, representatives from the war’s victorious powers signed a treaty with the defeated Ottoman government that divided the empire’s lands into European spheres of influence. Sèvres internationalized Istanbul and the Bosphorus, while giving pieces of Anatolian territory to the Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, French, British, and Italians. Seeing how and why the first European plan for dividing up the Middle East failed, we can better understand the region’s present-day borders, as well as the contradictions of contemporary Kurdish nationalism and the political challenges facing modern Turkey.

Within a year of signing the Treaty of Sèvres, European powers began to suspect they had bitten off more than they could chew. Determined to resist foreign occupation, Ottoman officers like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk reorganized the remnants of the Ottoman army and, after several years of desperate fighting, drove out the foreign armies seeking to enforce the treaty’s terms. The result was Turkey as we recognize it today, whose new borders were officially established in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

Sèvres has been largely forgotten in the West, but it has a potent legacy in Turkey, where it has helped fuel a form of nationalist paranoia some scholars have called the “Sèvres syndrome.” Sèvres certainly plays a role in Turkey’s sensitivity over Kurdish separatism, as well as the belief that the Armenian genocide — widely used by European diplomats to justify their plans for Anatolia in 1920 — was always an anti-Turkish conspiracy rather than a matter of historical truth. Moreover, Turkey’s foundational struggle with colonial occupation left its mark in a persistent form of anti-imperial nationalism, directed first against Britain, during the Cold War against Russia, and now, quite frequently, against the United States.

But the legacy of Sèvres extends well beyond Turkey, which is precisely why we should include this treaty alongside Sykes-Picot in our history of the Middle East. It will help us challenge the widespread notion that the region’s problems all began with Europeans drawing borders on a blank map.

There’s no doubt that Europeans were happy to create borders that conformed to their own interests whenever they could get away with it. But the failure of Sèvres proves that that sometimes they couldn’t. When European statesmen tried to redraw the map of Anatolia, their efforts were forcefully defeated. In the Middle East, by contrast, Europeans succeeded in imposing borders because they had the military power to prevail over the people resisting them. Had the Syrian nationalist Yusuf al-‘Azma, another mustachioed Ottoman army officer, replicated Ataturk’s military success and defeated the French at the Battle of Maysalun, European plans for the Levant would have gone the way of Sèvres.

Would different borders have made the Middle East more stable, or perhaps less prone to sectarian violence? Not necessarily. But looking at history through the lens of the Sèvres treaty suggests a deeper point about the cause-and-effect relationship between European-drawn borders and Middle Eastern instability: the regions that ended up with borders imposed by Europe tended to be those already too weak or disorganized to successfully resist colonial occupation. Turkey didn’t become wealthier and more democratic than Syria or Iraq because it had the good fortune to get the right borders. Rather, the factors that enabled Turkey to defy European plans and draw its own borders — including an army and economic infrastructure inherited from the Ottoman empire — were some of the same ones that enabled Turkey to build a strong, centralized, European-style nation-state.

Of course, plenty of Kurdish nationalists might claim that Turkey’s borders actually are wrong. Indeed, some cite Kurdish statelessness as a fatal flaw in the region’s post-Ottoman borders. But when European imperialists tried to create a Kurdish state at Sèvres, many Kurds fought alongside Ataturk to upend the treaty. It’s a reminder that political loyalties can and do transcend national identities in ways we would do well to realize today.

The Kurdish state envisioned in the Sèvres Treaty would, crucially, have been under British control. While this appealed to some Kurdish nationalists, others found this form of British-dominated “independence” problematic. So they joined up to fight with the Turkish national movement. Particularly among religious Kurds, continued Turkish or Ottoman rule seemed preferable to Christian colonization. Other Kurds, for more practical reasons, worried that once in charge the British would inevitably support recently dispossessed Armenians seeking to return to the region. Some subsequently regretted their decision when it became clear the state they had fought to create would be significantly more Turkish — and less religious — than anticipated. But others, under varying degrees of duress, chose instead to accept the identity the new state offered them.

Many Turkish nationalists remain frightened by the way their state was destroyed by Sèvres, while many Kurdish nationalists still imagine the state they might have achieved. At the same time, today’s Turkish government extolls the virtues of Ottoman tolerance and multiculturalism, while Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, apparently after reading the sociologist Benedict Anderson in prison, claims to have discovered that all nations are merely social constructs. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the pro-Kurdish HDP spent much of the last decade competing to convince Kurdish voters that a vote for their party was a vote for peace — competing, that is, over which party was capable of resolving Turkey’s long-simmering conflict by creating a more stable and inclusive state. In short, as many Americans still debate the “artificial” nature of European-made states in the Middle East, Turkey is fitfully transcending a century-long obsession with proving how “real” it is.

Needless to say, the renewed violence Turkey has seen in the past several weeks threatens these fragile elements of a post-national consensus. With the AKP calling for the arrest of Kurdish political leaders and Kurdish guerrillas shooting police officers, nationalists on both sides are falling back into familiar, irreconcilable positions. For 95 years, Turkey reaped the political and economic benefits of its victory over the Treaty of Sèvres. But building on this success now requires forging a more flexible political model, one that helps render battles over borders and national identity irrelevant.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Lines Drawn on an Empty Map

We're excited to feature as a guest post today Part 2 of an article by Professor Sara Pursley entitled "'Lines Drawn on an Empty Map': Iraq’s Borders and the Legend of the Artificial State." The entire article was originally published on Jadaliyya on June 2 & 3, 2015. We're grateful to Jadaliyya and Professor Pursley for permission to repost part of it, but encourage everyone to also check out the whole thing!

In attending to how local actors shaped Iraq’s formation as a nation-state after World War I, the point is not to deny the power of British imperial forces, or the violence they unleashed on Iraqis during the occupation (1914-1920) and Mandate (1920-1932) periods. On the contrary, I would contend that one effect of the artificial state narrative is precisely to efface British imperial violence while simultaneously denying the impact of non-British, and anti-British, actions. One way this works is by imagining that Iraq’s borders were created on an “empty map” in a European drawing room and not—as all nation-state borders everywhere have been created—through the resolution of competing claims to territory and sovereignty by deployments of power, including acts of insurgency and counterinsurgency.

Three moments in the early formation of Iraq’s borders—specifically those with Syria, Najd (present-day Saudi Arabia), and Turkey—may help illustrate some of the ways in which the process worked. The British played significant roles, and so too did residents of Iraq, Syria, Najd, and Turkey.

Iraq and Syria
The Iraq-Syria border was rather mobile from the end of the war in 1918 to Iraq’s formal independence in 1932, but the concept of Iraq and Syria as separate states was widely accepted. It is often forgotten that the San Remo conference, which was held in late April 1920, was in part a hastily convened response by the colonial powers to the Arab conference in Damascus in early March, which had proclaimed the independence of Syria and of Iraq as constitutional monarchies under two different sons of Sharif Husayn, Faysal and Abdallah, respectively. The Iraq declaration was issued by the Iraqi branch of al-Ahd, often referred to as the “Arab nationalist” party. Formed in late 1918 when the original group split into two, al-Ahd al-Iraqi was led by Iraqi ex-Ottoman military officers based in Syria; by 1919 it also had an active branch in Mosul and a less active one in Baghdad. Its official platform called for “the complete independence of Iraq” within “its natural borders,” which it defined as extending from the Persian Gulf to the bank of the Euphrates north of Dayr al-Zur in present-day Syria and to the Tigris near Diyarbakir in present-day Turkey—that is, rather more territory than included in the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul.[i] The group also pledged to work within a loosely defined “framework of Arab unity”; this part of its platform is better understood as Arabist than Arab nationalist, as it did not involve any specific territorial or state-oriented imaginary.

By 1919, then, the two branches of al-Ahd were calling for two independent territorial states—Syria, with its capital in Damascus, and Iraq, with its capital in Baghdad. Throughout the 1920 Iraqi Revolt against the British Mandate—which started in May and June, partly in response to San Remo, and involved large areas of northwestern, central, and southern Iraq—this was also the official platform of the other major Iraqi nationalist party, Haras al-Istiqlal (the Guardians of Independence), based in Baghdad and with significant support in the southern Shi`i shrine cities.[ii] What the two parties diverged on was not the demand for an independent Iraqi state stretching from the Persian Gulf to somewhere north of Mosul, distinct from Syria, and with its capital in Baghdad—all of that they agreed on—but rather the question of what kind of foreign assistance the future Iraqi state would rely on. Al-Ahd al-Iraqi’s platform specified that it would rely solely on British assistance, while the platform of Haras stated that independent Iraq could request the assistance of any foreign power it pleased.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The First Printed Ottoman Map of Palestine, 1804

Today, more great Palestine maps from Zach Foster:


Mahmud Raif Efendi (d.1808) is well known to Ottoman history buffs, but few others.  He was behind the publication of the first Ottoman printed map of Palestine.  Raif Efendi was a Reis ül-Küttab, or Foreign Minister, as well as the first Ottoman diplomat stationed in London.

Raif Efendi penned a world Atlas in French sometime in the early 19th century, a genre of literature that did not exist in the Ottoman world.  His original French manuscript has since been lost, but we do have its Ottoman translation, produced by the Greek Ottoman polyglot, Iakovos Argyropoulos (a.k.a Yakovaki Efendi d.1850) at the behest of the Ottoman government and published in Istanbul (Üsküdar) as El-Ucaletü l-coğrafıyye in 1804. 

Yakovaki Efendi's transcription of the French names into Ottoman was certainly creative.  Those familiar with Arabic or Ottoman orthography need no convincing that Yakovaki must have struggled with the name 'Palestine,' which he spelled: فلاستان. He added an (ا) after the (ل), transliterated the French "t" to a (ت) rather than a (ط), and then added another (ا) before the final (ين).  Other names, such as Tiberias, Nablus, Mount Karmel, Beirut are also spelled wrong, at least according to modern orthographic conventions.  He transliterated the town Palmyra (in the Syrian Desert) as Palmyra, rather than its Arabic name, Tadmur.  All of this suggests that Yakovaki did not have recourse to an authoritative Ottoman map upon which he could base his transliterations.

Here is the entire map (available in higher resolution here):

The map also includes the following labels: Druzi (was is today Lebanon) Syria, Iraq of the Arabs (green), Jazira (pink), Kurdistan (blue) Armenia (yellow) and other regions.

Who saw this map?  This geography book, which prominently displays Palestine, may well have been used as a textbook in many Ottoman state schools during the nineteenth century.[1] 



[1] See Johann Strauss, “Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Americana,” pp. 259-281 in Frontiers of the Ottoman Imagination: Studies in Honour of Rhoads Murphey, Marios Hadjianastasis (ed.) (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 261-3; George Larpent (ed.), Turkey; its history and progress from the Journals and Correspondences of Sir James Porter (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1854), II, 162.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Just a nice looking map


From Bacon's Standard Map of Europe, published by the Weber Costello Compan. Full size here. Printed in 1920s - and we would welcome on speculation on when exactly - this map shows the situation in Europe immediately after World War One. For more maps from this time, check out our Cartographic Companion to World War One in the Ottoman region.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Mapping Ottoman Decline

The Ottoman State's Era of Stagnation and Retreat
For quite some time now historians have been problematizing the idea of Ottoman Decline. It's an important point, but one that can only be taken so far: I'm waiting for the revisionist work that declares the Ottomans not only won the First World War but the Second as well, driving the Germans back at Stalingrad with their Janissaries only to be denied credit by a generation of Orientalist scholars.

Of course the critique of Ottoman decline is motivated by the fact that there really were generations of Orientalist scholars writing some ridiculous things. That the Ottoman Empire declined because it could no longer bear the weight of its religious fanaticism, because it was not quick enough to recognize the superiority of European civilization or because its nomadic Turkish rulers could never learn the civilized art of administration. The religious explanation of Ottoman decline has been perhaps the most enduring. Particularly when people like Paul Kennedy sought to explain "the rise and fall of great powers" the Ottoman Empire always appears as the Muslim / Middle Eastern country that almost made it, an approach which inevitably tends to cast the reason it didn't make it in a religious or civilizational light. The religious explanation of Ottoman decline also served quite nicely as a justification for Kemalist reforms, which supposedly sought to recreate the secular mentality that characterized the Empire in its golden age.

Against the simple narrative that the Ottoman Empire reached its peak in the 16th century, perhaps under Suleiman the Magnificent, then slowly declined over the next few centuries into a state of tottering sick-man obsolescence, historians have offered a number of corrections ranging from the somewhat obvious to the profound.

The most straightforward might be that even as the Ottoman Empire declined relative to its European rivals, it continued to advance technologically, militarily and economically in absolute terms. I think people generally realize this is what's implied by decline, but in case anyone doesn't let's be clear: if, through the vagaries of time travel, the 18th century Ottoman army went up against the Ottoman army that conquered Constantinople in the 15th century, the 18th century Ottomans would totally win.

[Sorry, my real goal in writing this post wasn't to just ramble about narratives of Ottoman decline, but to share a few graphics that offer interesting visualizations of the expansion and collapse of Ottoman power. This one, from a Republican Era history about the siege of Vienna, offers a two dimensional view of Ottoman power measured by kilometers of territory controlled per year.]

Some scholars have questioned the tendency to judge decline purely in terms of the ability to win wars. Which is fair up to a point, but distracts from some of the more interesting work that's been done on why the Ottomans stopped winning wars when they did. Gabor Agoston, for example, has made the case that, contrary to what many assumed, technology actually had little bearing on military power up until the 19th century, and that even in some realms where the Ottomans seemed to fall behind technologically, such as gunpowder production, their problems had more to do with economics and manufacturing than the quality of their military technology per se.

Other scholars have argued that maybe the Ottomans just didn't want to win wars, or control more territory anymore.

On the political side, scholars such as Virginia Aksan have argued that the decentralization that occurred in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century was not simply a sign of encroaching decline, but rather a conscious strategy that served to preserve Ottoman power. Perhaps. But as wise or effective as this strategy may have been at the time, it seems like there's no escaping the fact that by the 18th century it left the Ottomans at a military disadvantage in conflicts with European powers who had been able to more effectively centralize state control during this period. When faced with loss of territories like Egypt and later Bulgaria in the 19th century, the Ottoman government made a conscious effort to preserve some kind of nominal authority over breakaway regions, going to sometimes elaborate lengths to display symbolic sovereignty over the Egyptian Khedive or Eastern Rumelia. After World War One, the Turkish Republic took the opposite tactic, embracing the rhetoric of the nation state in asserting full sovereignty over all the territory within its borders and no sovereignty over any territory outside of them. Given the realities of late 19th and early 20th century statecraft, this proved to be a better approach. The result was that by the end of the 20th century, the trajectory of Ottoman/Turkish state's military and economic fortunes actually looked quite similar to that of other Mediterranean states.


Another neat visualization of the Ottoman Empire's territorial rise and fall showing geographic conquests schematically as width per year. This map comes from a book in the ARIT library whose title proved a victim of my shoddy note-taking.



Friday, May 8, 2015

Make Your Own Middle East: The King-Crane PickaPath


Check out Make Your Own Middle East, the King-Crane PickaPath adventure that everyone is talking about. Play as King or play as Crane in the game of state-building, border-drawing fun that has already been hailed as a groundbreaking fusion of Digital History and Edutainment!