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.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Continuity and Chaos in the 20th Century Middle East


Many Afternoon Map readers already contributed to improving the maps which appeared in this recent Washington Post piece. Now I'd be eager to hear their thoughts on the piece itself, which tries to begin making sense of what historical factors may have contributed to the instability currently afflicting a number of Middle Eastern countries. 

In Washington’s ongoing debate about the cause of the continuing chaos in the Middle East, President George W. Bush stands condemned for the 2003 intervention that pushed Iraq into civil war, while President Obama stands condemned for the nonintervention that worsened Syria’s civil war. In Libya, meanwhile, Washington’s partial intervention also failed to bring peace, while too few Americans are even aware of their country’s role in the conflict afflicting Yemen.

Without trying to defend or absolve U.S. policy, then, it is worth stepping back to ask what shared historical experiences might have left these four countries — Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen — particularly at risk of violent collapse. The following maps help highlight how, at various points over the past century, historical circumstances conspired, in an often self-reinforcing way, to bolster the stability of some states in the region while undermining that of others.

At the outset of the 20th century, then, neither Iraq, Syria, Libya nor Yemen existed as states or governments in their current form. All four then experienced direct colonial rule between World Wars I and II and subsequently overthrew their governing regimes in the postwar period. Finally, these four countries all ended up, to greater or lesser degrees, on the losing side of the Cold War.
 
But alongside these patterns, readers have almost certainly noticed the equally striking exceptions at every stage along the way. So while it is easy to predict that the violence currently afflicting Iraq, Syria Libya and Yemen will leave a legacy of instability moving forward, exploring the continuities of history can serve as a first step toward escaping from them.

Read the full article here and please weigh in if you have thoughts on it!

Christian Researches


Today's guest map is courtesy of Peter Hill, Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, University of Oxford

A map printed as frontispiece to Rev. William Jowett’s Christian Researches in the Mediterranean(1822). Three colours are used: blue (or blue-bordered) for ‘Countries professing Christianity’, green for ‘Mahomedan Countries, containing Churches of Native Christians,’ and red for ‘Mahomedan Countries, in which Christianity is nearly extinguished’. Jowett had been despatched by the Church Mission Society of England to investigate the prospects for Protestant missions in the countries around the Mediterranean. The map, and his book, illustrate the opportunities and challenges for missionary activity in the area. They would lead on to the establishment of a mission station in the British-ruled island of Malta, in almost the exact centre of the Mediterranean Sea on Jowett’s map. From here translations of missionary texts and tracts into Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Maltese and many other languages would pour forth over the 1820s and 1830s, mainly destined for those ‘Native Christians’ living in ‘Mahomedan Countries’ in the parts of the map coloured green.