How the West Remade the Middle East

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.

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

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

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.

There was absolutely a discourse of domination. But it’s important to underscore that it’s not a Muslim majority as an estate of citizens before the nineteenth century. It’s not that the Muslim subjects, who were, of course, also taxpaying subjects, were often oppressed. It wasn’t that they had rights of citizenship that others didn’t have. They were all subjects of the sultan. But there were certainly forms of discrimination. For instance, non-Muslims, Christians, and Jews in particular were people of the book. They had certain autonomy, religious, cultural, and linguistic autonomy. But they were also subordinated to an Islamic empire.

So the idea was an Islamic empire gave a certain kind of primacy, a very specific, in fact, ideological and legal primacy to Islam and to the Ottoman Empire and to the Ottoman sultanate. Beyond that, there were these sorts of layers and a cascade of hierarchy, a layer of hierarchy that included Christian and Jewish, ecclesiastical, Christian ecclesiastical elites, Jewish communal leaders, various local notables, depending on which part of the empire we’re talking about. These groups were all co-opted into an imperial hierarchy, but there was no equality, there was no citizenship, and there was no pretense of equality or citizenship. I think that’s the key part.

So, people say it was tolerant. Depending on the moment, as soon as you challenge the empire, then all your differences are highlighted. You were attacked or discriminated against. But for the most part, depending on which area we’re talking about, Christians and Jews and Muslims in the empire managed and lived an extraordinarily productive existence for centuries — but again with the crucial caveat that this is not about equality and it’s not about citizenship. And we cannot romanticize the early modern or premodern Ottoman Empire, which is what some people often do.

Daniel Denvir

And you write, “It is misleading to use the treatment of Jews as the barometer of toleration in the Ottoman Empire as conventional scholarship on Ottoman toleration has done. There was no Jewish question in the Ottoman world.”

How, then, should we understand that sociopolitical order? What specifically are we misunderstanding about Ottoman society and politics when we mistakenly read it through the lens of Europe’s Jewish question?

Ussama Makdisi

That really is an important question and gets to the heart of so many of the problems of how we think about the Middle East today, how we think about Israel today, and how we think about Palestinians. But the point I was trying to make is that oftentimes scholars think about the Jewish populations of the Ottoman Empire as a barometer of tolerance. In the same way, they make an analogy, a direct analogy with the situation of Jews in Christian Western Europe. The problem, of course, with that is that there was no Jewish question in this region. The Jews were not singled out as the minority in the Ottoman Empire. There were many different communities and many different minorities.

The great persecutions that occurred in the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period were of Kizilbash, in other words, not Jewish subjects, but other subjects, Shia subjects, rebellious Sunni subjects, depending again on which part of the empire we’re talking about, which period and insofar as there was, and I’m sure depending again on the period, time, and place is, there’s no question that at certain moments Jewish subjects were in fact persecuted.

But it wasn’t persecution in the sense of a constant stigmatization of a single group throughout the period of the empire. I think it’s extraordinarily misleading for somebody to take European history and then project it onto the Ottomans. I think, again, it’s important to emphasize again and again and again that we need to respect the history of this part of the world on its own terms.

Daniel Denvir

The forms of domination and subordination were so complex and varied. I mean, just look at the Janissaries, the elite soldier troupe who were basically forcefully taken from Christian families on the periphery of the empire.

Ussama Makdisi

At a certain period, yes, that was the case. And again, the point is you cannot take European sort of categories and just impose them on an Ottoman past, which was vastly more complex. But the point I was trying to make in the book is that there is nevertheless, especially in the Arab provinces and the Arab Mashriq in the Arab East, this extraordinary history of coexistence that never gets its due in the sense that we talk about Andalusia, we talk about all these wonderful moments of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish coexistence with all the mythologies around that that scholars have deconstructed.

Nevertheless, people still look at Andalusia as an extremely important aspect, time, era, and epoch of history. But we don’t talk about Damascus, for example, or Aleppo where there was, in fact, a much longer history of coexistence — or Cairo or other cities where there was a very long history of coexistence between different communities. We tend to ignore that because it’s not in Europe, it’s not Spain. I don’t want to dismiss or minimize Spain or Andalusia; that’s really important as well. But there is a very long history of coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews and that coexistence itself has to be historicized and disaggregated because it depends on class, quarter, urban location, rural location, and so on. Again, very complex. It’s an avenue that I think scholars, students, and general readers would do well to investigate because there’s so much we actually don’t know about this history.

Daniel Denvir

Yeah. Before we get to the mid-nineteenth century, I wanted to ask a follow-up question on the mistakes we can make attempting to read the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, or Ottoman history in particular through a kind of European presumptions. How did the Ottoman social order compare to European Christendom over those many centuries?

And I know that’s an absolutely giant question, possibly an impossible one, especially given that European Christendom encompassed just a mind-boggling multiplicity of warring polities and the massive Ottoman Empire stretched, I think, as far west as modern-day Algeria, as far south as Eritrea, through Ukraine to the North Caucasus to the Iranian the Persian border.

But are there salient comparisons to be made? Because you caution us against this simplistic assessment that Jews were treated well in the Ottoman Empire versus badly in Europe? Are there any key salient comparisons we can make between the social formations that prevailed in Europe in this heavily fragmented early modern feudal order and those that prevailed in the Ottoman’s tributary empire?

Ussama Makdisi

The problem with historians is that we are always going to say it depends on the context. But really what I would say in very general terms is that there are a couple of main differences. One is of course that — I’m not disputing the fact that Jews were treated poorly in European countries, they were expelled from England, they were expelled from Spain after the so-called Reconquista — it’s not denying that at all. And the opposite, of course, is that the reality in the Ottoman Empire is that they were not expelled from the Ottoman Empire, at least not in total the way it happened in England and in Spain.

But what I would say is that in the Ottoman Empire, there are two main differences. One is that it’s an Islamic empire. So an Islamic empire, both theologically and politically as well as administratively, has built into it this very idea that there is a profound legitimacy to Jewish and Christian traditions, because Islamic tradition is in its own vision an inheritor and the culmination of these earlier monotheistic traditions.

So there’s a kind of space that was never opened up in the Christian empires until much later for Muslims. That’s one huge difference. So I think the basis of a kind of theologically, politically, and administratively inflected coexistence was already present. That’s one thing. The second thing is when the Ottomans expanded into the Arab East in particular, they were conquering the great bastions of Islam and the great urban centers of Islam. In other words, they were conquering other Muslim peoples for the most part. The Arabs were mostly Muslim. There were Christian and Jewish Arabs, but they were mostly Muslim.

So the Ottomans were conquering Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina — and Baghdad, of course.  These are all major, major cities with extraordinary histories. So there was a sense that it was a very different kind of relationship to the subjects that they conquered, as opposed to what the colonial empires, the British, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, did in the New World, for example, where the entire project was one of conquering, not even recognizing the whole debate about whether the people they were conquering had souls, to what extent they had souls, could they be enslaved, could they not be enslaved — that’s a completely different kind of question.

So I think those differences are important to emphasize. There are many more we could get into, but those are the main ones. There’s an idea that the Ottomans did not want or ever try to create a homogenous imperial system. But then again, as soon as I say that I recognize that nor did the British or the French or the Dutch or the Spanish, although they did try to convert people en masse to Christianity.

Daniel Denvir

How and why did the Ottoman sociopolitical order begin to change so dramatically in the mid-nineteenth century? The period of reform known as the Tanzimat that stretched, I believe, from the 1839 imperial proclamation of nondiscrimination between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects through the 1876 enactment of the Ottoman Constitution.

You write about the intense Ottoman confrontation with European powers, namely the Crimean War and a series of anti-Ottoman revolts that broke out across the Balkans — that this played a key role in driving internal reforms, especially in terms of the place of religious minorities. Just how significant were the changes that were implemented, and what were the forces that brought those changes about?

Ussama Makdisi

Well there are massive, massive implications when you’re trying to change an empire of difference, which is what the empire was before the nineteenth century — an empire, in other words, that glorified or maintained difference. As I said, it was a multiethnic, multilinguistic, multireligious empire where being Ottoman wasn’t something that was open to all subjects depending on where they were, it was very much a dynastic identification. To change that kind of imperial system, which was filled with extraordinary amounts of hierarchy — religious, class, social, urban, geographic — trying to change that kind of empire into an empire of citizens, making everyone Ottoman in a very new sense. In other words, if you’re born in the Ottoman Empire, you’re an Ottoman citizen. That’s a very new idea. You have to overcome a huge amount of obviously inherited differences, prejudices, traditions, and forms of administration.

It was an enormous challenge. It was a revolution, in fact, in the nineteenth century. But my point was to say that it’s no different, if you think about it conceptually, then any massive nineteenth-century change. And I tried to make the parallels. I know these are just parallels. They’re coeval; they’re happening at the same time. They’re not the same processes, political economies, administrative structures, or imperial structures. But I tried to make the parallels for my readers in English with what’s going on in the United States. Although, again, it’s completely different. The non-Muslims are not the same as black Americans or black slaves in the United States — in no way, shape, or form are they oppressed in that way.

But I’m trying to draw this idea of the momentous nature of the shift of going from an empire of difference to an empire of citizens parallels with what happened in the United States in terms of the massive shift of going from a republic that accepted slavery and had no place for black citizens in any meaningful way to an American US policy that tried to overcome that — with all the ambivalences and contradictions and ongoing problems in terms of racism and so on — in a post-Civil War era. And these are happening at the same time. It’s quite interesting. And they’re happening in different parts of the world in different contexts. But the change was momentous.

The difference is, of course, that in the Ottoman case, there was the added factor of European imperialism. And that’s a huge factor, because that really does distort — both shapes and distorts — Ottoman history and post-Ottoman Middle Eastern history all the way until now. That’s to say that there is no independent, autonomous — you can’t really think of Ottoman Arab or Islamic history from the nineteenth century onward without thinking of Western intervention. That doesn’t mean the West is responsible for everything, but it means that you cannot possibly interpret anything without taking into account Western imperialism, colonialism, economic penetration, Orientalism, racism, and so on. In that sense, I think there are parallels, but there are also huge differences.

Daniel Denvir

What was the primary factor that brought about these changes, this external factor of Western imperialism? What caused the Ottoman Empire, which of course would not survive World War I, to enter into the crisis and then decline that it did?

Ussama Makdisi

It’s the same reason why states and empires everywhere in the world enter into reform. You enter into reform because you’re forced into it and there’s a recognition — or there was a recognition on the part of Ottoman administrators — that the empire, as it was, was no longer viable. There were, as you alluded to, the internal challenges. There were rebellions inside the empire. There was, of course, the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 even before the Tanzimat began; there was the Greek War of Independence that broke out in the 1820s; there was the European destruction of the Ottoman fleet as a result of the Greek War of Independence; there were Balkan rebellions.

There were all these rebellions taking place throughout the empire. And there was, of course, constant Western pressure, Russian imperialism. There are so many different factors, internal and external. I don’t think one can disaggregate and say it’s one or the other. I think it’s both at the same time, coalescing around the idea that the Ottoman Empire really needed to change. And there was, just like today, a huge amount of Western pressure to basically “ameliorate” the condition of non-Muslims and Christians largely in the empire. And the Ottomans had to take that seriously because they understood perfectly well that the Europeans — just like the Americans do today in the Middle East and other parts of the world — were going to use the reality of the diversity and the pluralism of the empire against the empire itself.

So, the Ottomans were under so much pressure that they had to do something. So, they embark upon this Reformation. And the point I make about the Reformation that people lose sight of is that it has two sides. On the one hand, the most important part of the Reformation is not that it formally or ideologically abolished discrimination. I mean, there was that aspect of it, which is important. But the real factor or the real decisive aspect of the Ottoman Reformation was that it was about securing or re-securing Ottoman sovereignty. And so that’s always the priority. As long as Ottoman sovereignty is being secured, you can be nondiscriminatory, despite all the challenges. But as soon as the threat to sovereignty shows up, the whole question of nondiscrimination sort of gets relegated to the background. These two aspects, sovereignty and nondiscrimination, are constantly intertwined with each other.

Daniel Denvir

Because it’s a renegotiation of the relationship between sovereign and subject in order to stabilize sovereignty.

Ussama Makdisi

Correct. And the sovereignty is, from the imperial perspective, what’s privileged and prioritized in every instance. And it’s really important to emphasize that. So it’s not something they did out of the goodness of their heart, this is an empire after all, it’s a state. It was filled with, with what I would call Ottoman Orientalism. In other words, looking down at their own subjects as backward. It was filled with elitism.

And at the same time, they were dealing with extraordinary amounts of European imperial interventions. Remember, the French invaded Egypt in 1798. They also invaded Algeria in 1830. The Russians were invading and taking away parts of the northern parts of the empire. There were Balkan rebellions; the Greek War of Independence, which led to the creation of the independent Kingdom of Greece; there was Serbia; and so on. There were all these pressures that kept going throughout the nineteenth century. And then, as you mentioned, there was the Crimean War.

Daniel Denvir

What does this Tanzimat launched by Ottoman officialdom, this top-down process, what does that have to do with the beginning of the Nahda or Arab Awakening, this pivotal moment in Arab history that began in the second half of the nineteenth century and stretched into the mid-twentieth. That was an explosion of intellectual, political, social, and cultural production, exchange, and debate. What does this more intellectual political movement have to do with this top-down process of reform?

Ussama Makdisi

Two things. One is that the Ottoman Reformation is a state project. As you said, it is top-down, no question about it. It’s coming from Istanbul, and it’s being directed out to the provinces. But the important part to remember is that it’s creating a sovereign framework within which people of all faiths and backgrounds in the Ottoman Empire — Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, particularly in the Arab East — were able to, in the context of a single sovereign power, elaborate and try to answer and try to think through the questions of, okay, what does it mean to be an empire of citizens? How are we Ottoman? How are we modern? What is the relationship between religion and the state? What is the relationship between our history of coexistence and the reality of citizenship? The new reality of citizenship? How do we reconcile religious difference with Ottoman citizenship?

These are the kinds of questions that produced an extraordinary amount of intellectual ferment. That we refer to as the Nahda, which means the Renaissance, the Arab Renaissance. Or you can think of it as an awakening, but it really is a Renaissance in the sense that it paralleled other forms of Renaissance that were taking place in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, whether it’s in the Balkans, among Armenians, among the other Turks, or other groups.

I mean, there are many different Renaissances, but the one that I focus on, of course, is the Arab Renaissance, because the point is it’s often thought of as an Arab Renaissance that links the medieval past to the present, and the Ottoman context is almost always obliterated. But it’s really in the context of the Ottoman state that this is taking place. And it’s important because it indicates that there was ideological diversity within the Ottoman Empire and within the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. And that is something that we should, rather than be ashamed of — it’s something actually quite profound and important. And it’s worth revisiting because just like in any society, in any living, real diverse society, you have diverse perspectives about how to relate to the present. How do you reconcile religion and state? What is the role of citizenship and religiosity? How do you reconcile Western imperialism with Western modernity and so on. So yes, in that sense, it was a profound process of asking questions.

The reality is that most people, after the massacres of the 1860 in particular, looked forward. They had a sense that it was within their own agency and their own power to articulate and develop a sense of a new common future. And that’s really important, that sense that the future was something that was there to be grasped or to be walked toward through their own agency — that it wasn’t that they needed the West as such, it’s that they had the power within themselves as Muslims, Christians, and Jews, as Arabs or as Ottomans.

There are these identities that were in flux, you know, as Arabs, as Ottomans, as Aleppines, as Damascenes, as Jerusalemites, wherever you were from, they had the power to reach a future together and to articulate it. And of course, we debate amongst each other. Is it better to do it this way or that way, more secular or more pious? And my point is that there’s an extraordinary amount of intellectual growth. There’s the development of the press, newspapers, magazines. It’s an extraordinary moment. You had missionary movements, you had Western missionary movements, as in Catholic missions, and secular, or you can call it French, missions.

You had all sorts of missions that were in the Middle East giving their own answers to these questions almost always in forms that were not about emphasizing diversity but about trying to get people to think the way a British missionary would or a French missionary would or an American missionary would or the alliance would, as opposed to local answers, which were fascinating because unlike the foreign missionaries, the local people actually had, oftentimes, especially the ones I focus on in the book, a sense that you could, in fact, build a common future based on embracing religious difference, not denying it. We could transcend our religious difference without denying it. And that’s something really important. That’s why I call it an ecumenical moment. And this is quite different from France, for example, saying, okay, we’re all secular, we’re going to ignore religion, and we’re going to go to war against religious symbolism and so on.

Daniel Denvir

It’s not laicité.

Ussama Makdisi

It’s not laicité at all. No, but it draws on a certain form of laicité in the sense of saying that you can transcend the older Islamic imperial system into a more secular Ottoman system, and you can be both Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, and be Ottoman or Arab. You could be these things.

Daniel Denvir

It’s almost secular without being secularist.

Ussama Makdisi

Yeah, or just think of it as ecumenical. Ecumenical is a more precise because it’s recognizing that our religious differences themselves are important in constituting what makes us have something in common. In other words, the commonality is our belief in God.

Of course, there were atheists as well. There were socialists, there were all these other groups that didn’t necessarily believe in God. But by and large, I would say the mainstream, the overwhelming majority of people, accepted the fact of religious difference as a key constituent factor in the development of a national solidarity that transcended without denying that difference. It’s a bit complicated, but I’m just trying to get to that point. It’s more like an American form of multiculturalism, if you think about it, rather than the French laicité, if I had to make an analogy.

Daniel Denvir

You just mentioned this a few minutes back, but the beginning of the Nahda was also marked by the Nahda’s opposite. In a sense, this unprecedented outbreak of anti-Christian violence across the empire in Aleppo, Damascus, and Mount Lebanon. Why did this mass anti-Christian violence break out when and where it did? And how did the reaction to the violence shape this broader movement toward a new modern Arab framework for multiconfessional coexistence, this ecumenical frame?

Ussama Makdisi

First of all, I wouldn’t say there was a mass outbreak of anti-Christian violence throughout the empire. It was in a few locales: Aleppo, famously or infamously, in 1850; Damascus 1860; and Mount Lebanon in 1860  but let’s put Mount Lebanon aside for a second. There historians who debate this: there are historians who say there are economic reasons, there was a depression in the local economy, there was the penetration of Western goods, and there was the Tanzimat, the transformation where suddenly you’re being told you’re no longer in an Islamic state, or an Islamic empire that gives overt primacy to Muslims, and that everyone is going to be treated the same. But you also have missionaries and you have Western intervention.

So again, historians debate whether it’s more economic, whether it’s social, whether it’s X, Y, or Z. There are many different factors that led to these riots, and there’s no question they were unprecedented in their scale. In Damascus, for example, in July 1860, and Aleppo in 1850. Damascus was a larger riot and a truly terrible riot. And one of the things I talk about in the book is why we don’t have a proper history in Arabic of this moment. And it’s high time that we take ownership of our history, rather than just deny it or pretend that these moments didn’t happen, because they did. And it’s important to historicize and to talk about them honestly and deal with these problems and these episodes.

But the point I try to make in the book is that what’s interesting about the 1860 massacre is not just that it was a massive event that devastated the Christian community of Damascus. Notice that the Jewish community in Damascus was not attacked. Again, this goes back to your very first question — it’s important again to emphasize that the Jews were not singled out in the nineteenth century.

In fact, if any national group was singled out in the nineteenth century by the Ottoman state toward the end of the empire, it was the Armenians. But in 1860, it was a complete breakdown of Ottoman order. In Arab historiography and nationalist historiography, they say it was an Ottoman plot. It’s not true; it really was a breakdown of Ottoman order. What happened is that the Christians were targeted in Damascus, but so too were foreign consulates and so too were foreign missions. So there’s this confusion and conflation that occurred on the ground. But also many Muslims protected their Christian neighbors as well. And in fact, some of the surviving testimonies we have from that moment speak extraordinarily beautifully to this moment of how they were protected by their Muslim neighbors.

Yes, there was a terrible event and it could have been a reaction, for example, to the Ottoman Reformation. But more likely it was a reaction not only to the ideological reformation but to the economic and political changes, there are many different reasons why these events occurred. But what’s interesting is that people on the ground realized in 1860 and after 1860 that they were at a crossroads.

So we have this diverse empire. We have pluralism. And pluralism can either become a force that divides us, as in 1860 when you massacre Christian subjects, or it can become a force that unites us in the sense of becoming the building blocks of a common Arab or Ottoman or Arab Ottoman identity. You see what I’m saying? It was a crossroads. Think about the United States. Here racism develops an anti-racist thinking and commitment among people. And so, too, in the Arab world in the sense that sectarian riots, as in religious rioting or sectarian rioting, develops and coheres an anti-sectarian sensibility that really begins to come to the fore after 1860. And that’s why the Nahda and this moment is profound. It really puts in place and cements, after these riots, an awareness among the people that they’re witnessing a pivotal moment in their history: we can go either in a very negative direction, or we can go in a positive direction, but it’s up to us to figure this out ourselves.

And so those that I follow develop these things called national schools — not nationalist, not exclusionary schools — but national schools, as in building an idea of a common identity. And so that’s why this was such an important moment. When these riots take place in Damascus, where there’s this breakdown, the Europeans of course, send an army. France sends an army. And the Ottomans also send an army, and they both go into Mount Lebanon and Damascus, and they ruthlessly restore order. They hang and shoot all sorts of people in the name of restoring imperial justice and the Tanzimat. And this is a well-known story to historians and scholars.

But what’s interesting is that then while on the ground, you have people committed to the Nahda who are basically saying, we need to figure out our own future in common. But the Europeans basically say, no the way we’re going to rearrange things in the Ottoman Empire is to try to separate Muslims from Christians and create sectarian structures, which eventually becomes the state of Lebanon many, many decades down the line.

Schools of Thought

Daniel Denvir

It seems like this popular conflation that happens in the 1860s of Arab Christians with outside imperialist forces anticipates the later conflation of Arab Jews with imperialist forces that comes with the advent of colonial Zionism and then the state of Israel.

Ussama Makdisi

Yes, but with a major caveat in the case of the Christians, we can talk about the Arab Jews and Jewish Arabs a little later. But in the case of the Arab Christians, what’s interesting is that it’s actually Arab Christians or Christian Arabs who are at the forefront of developing these so-called national schools that unify people. These are schools that are actually explicitly aimed at trying to reconcile religious difference with pluralism and Ottoman and Arab subject commonality.

I think that that’s a really important point to emphasize. Yes, there were some Christians who throw their lot in with European imperialists. There was also an identification or an association between local Christians and European empires. This is more the case, I think, with the Armenians than it is with Arab Christians. But there are also people on the ground who are envisioning and, in fact, not just envisioning but taking advantage of the Ottoman state system and structure to these new structures of coexistence.

And the interesting thing is that these Christian Arabs are rewarded and recognized by the Ottoman state. One of the main figures I talk about in the book, Butrus Al-Bustani, who opens the first national school after the massacres of 1860, is in fact embraced by the Ottoman state because they see him as a useful person. But of course, he himself has his own agency and his own vision, and he builds a really important school that becomes a model for other kinds of schools — and it eventually becomes the first such ecumenical school in the empire. And it’s extraordinarily important.

Daniel Denvir

Yeah, that’s a really important point that Arab Christians are really, really disproportionately represented in the Nahda to say: we are not associated with these Christian European empires, we are Christian Arabs and fundamentally of these places where we are.

Ussama Makdisi

Well, I would say both. I would say again, Christian Arabs are not a monolithic group. So different Christian Arabs respond in different ways. Some are more willing to associate themselves with Europe, some are less willing to associate themselves with Europe, some are more pious, some are more secular, some are socialist. And the same with the Muslim Arabs and Jewish Arabs. So I think it’s really an important point. To emphasize that there is. Again, this goes back to the earlier point I was making about the Nahda in the nineteenth century, despite the massacres, despite the massacres, in other words, didn’t was not. This is the crucial point to think later on down the line into the twentieth century, the massacres were not the end of coexistence.

In fact, the massacres reframed the urgency of a new kind of coexistence. This is really important to emphasize, because when we get to what happens with the Jewish Arabs after the Nakba or after Israel’s creation, there’s a different story with a much bleaker outcome. My point is that Christian Arabs, and Muslim Arabs obviously, participated massively in the Nahda and so did Jewish Arabs. I mean, again, each depending on their location and their context. So there are many different facets. It’s a much more complex subject that requires a lot more time.

Daniel Denvir

Sticking with that question of Western imperialism, you emphasize that this was not a matter of an advanced and enlightened West imposing progress on backward Ottomans. After all, it was this very same period that Europe was on the eve of embarking on the scramble for Africa, where antisemitism was confronting Jewish emancipation. It was the same time that the US was in the process of abolishing slavery but also on the road to overturning reconstruction and establishing Jim Crow.

The West, in other words, could really not plausibly claim some sort of moral high ground. You write, “It is vital to recognize how many cultures around the world in the nineteenth century struggled with new ideas of secular citizenship, national unity, and political equality.” And in doing so, you argue that it’s incorrect or misleading to describe what was happening in the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Mashriq, or the eastern part of the Arab world, as European liberalism making its way into the Middle East.

Why is liberalism, as you see it, the wrong explanation for this Arab construction of an ecumenical framework? And what do we miss if we reduce the Nahda to an extension of Western liberalism?

Ussama Makdisi

Well, two things. One is that if you just take a European frame and give all the agency and the impetus to Europe, which is the way traditionally the scholarship used to say that there was an awakening or a renaissance in the Arab world that looked to the West and tried to imitate it, as if the West itself is this beautiful place of progress that’s not filled with the record you just alluded to and that I talk about in the book. Of course, racialized antisemitism develops in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe; so too racism in America and sectarianism or communalism in the Middle East and South Asia.

These are all these problems that develop in more or less the same time period. The West is not a place that can be romanticized in this way. It’s really crucial to understand and underscore this point. When you talk about Western liberalism, what does that mean? Which part of the West are we talking about in terms of the Ottoman Empire? The reason why I’m disputing this is because I think it loses sight of the fact that Arabs, the ones I’m focusing on, the Arabs of the Mashriq in the Nahda after 1860, are drawing on their own history or their own traditions, both Ottoman and Islamic and Arab traditions, as well as Eastern Christian traditions.

It’s not just that they’re taking Western liberalism wholesale and adopting it. No, it’s much more of a process of negotiation. And they look to many different facets of their history and culture, their language. They borrowed freely as many different other cultures did in the nineteenth century. Of course, they borrowed from the West because the West was technologically far and away the most advanced area of the world. But they tended not to know too much. And this is the aspect that we know, and that’s why we can’t make the mistakes of the nineteenth century.

We know the history of racism. We know the histories of antisemitism. We know the histories of extraordinary brutalization in the colonial world that we can’t pretend didn’t exist. The issue, the interesting thing or the tragedy of the people and the Nadha is that when they look to the West, by and large, they tended not to focus very much on the situation of inequality in the West. They tended to see the West with what it brought to them. In other words, sort of technology, consulates, missions, these kinds of things. And they didn’t really tend to spend very much time thinking about race relations or antisemitism.

Daniel Denvir

And these are the things like economic dynamism and technological progress that are also allowing Europe to become dominant in the world. So if you are the declining Ottoman Empire that has been at the center of the world for quite a long time and you’re trying to understand why that’s changing, that’s sort of the more myopic view you’re going to take of the West: Why are they doing so well and we’re doing so poorly?

Ussama Makdisi

Yeah. And that’s why the Tanzimat also has a military dimension. I mean, the first thing that’s reformed is the military, because, again, we go back to this question of sovereignty. So a military structure is economic, political, and finally cultural structures.

Daniel Denvir

What comparisons might we make, if any, between the Nahda and this sweep of nationalist sentiment that contemporaneously surfaces around Europe and Latin America? Is the Nahda comparable to these populist, nationalist sentiments that are emerging in large European empires in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Or does the Nahda’s embrace of Ecumenicism make it European nationalism’s opposite?

Ussama Makdisi

Yeah, I would say more the opposite. First, it wasn’t apolitical. It wasn’t a single political project. It’s important to emphasize that. It takes place within the Ottoman framework, but it’s not a single project. And so different individuals and groups elaborated different ideas. Again, they were struggling with these questions in a productive way. How do you elaborate modernity? What does it mean to be modern? How do we draw the line between religion and secularism, citizenship and pluralism, and so on? These questions were debated endlessly in the nineteenth century. But the point is that none of those that I focus on or think were the main people advocating and thinking through and articulating a renaissance were invested in creating an ethnoreligious nationalist state — that was not their goal.

They were all within an Ottoman frame. So, by definition, they subordinated themselves to an Ottoman imperial structure that itself was committed to nondiscrimination, and, after 1876, to citizenship to Ottomans, which is a new concept that comes in 1876. So then they could be part of a much larger whole: the Ottoman Empire — and at the same time elaborate this idea of being Muslim or Christian or Jewish. And there was no contradiction between these different elements.

I think that’s important to emphasize, as opposed to the nationalisms that swept Europe and of course, the Balkans, which is part of Europe, where basically Greek, Serbian, and other nationalisms, Bulgarian nationalisms, that develop in the nineteenth century developed very much as they weren’t Christian as such, but because they were also national. They were Greek as opposed to Bulgarian as opposed to Serbian. But Muslims had no space in these emerging polities because they understood themselves as anti-Ottoman.

And there were a lot of Muslims who were expelled from the Balkan provinces of what had been the Ottoman Empire. And a lot of Christians were then in return expelled from the northern part of the empire. In other words, the Balkans and Anatolia were expelled from those parts of the empire. So there was a nationalist struggle taking place in the northern part of the empire. But in the Arab provinces, and this is one of the main theses of the book, especially in the Mashriq, there was no ethnoreligious nationalist imperative. You could be a Muslim, you could be Christian, you could be Jewish, and you could be Arab, and you could be Ottoman. You could debate what these meant. But the point is, there was space for everything. There wasn’t an imperative to choose A or B, very unlike Greek nationalism, where you couldn’t really be Muslim and be a Greek nationalist.

It just made no sense. You couldn’t be an Armenian nationalist and be Muslim because it doesn’t make sense. And then in response to that, the Ottoman state begins to slowly abandon its notion of an ecumenical project and it focuses increasingly on Muslim subjects. The state takes a very dim view of Christian minorities in the empire, especially the Armenians.

And that’s why the massacres of the Armenians take place in the 1890s, not in the 1790s, not in the 1690s, not in the 1590s, although Armenians have always been there. They take place in during the end of the empire in the late nineteenth century because that’s when nationalism comes in from Europe, in the northern part of the empire in particular, and forces people to choose different sides. Of course, there were people who refused to choose sides. Not every single Armenian acted in the same way, obviously, but there was this breakdown of an Ottoman system in the northern part of the empire in a way that there was not a breakdown in the southern part in the Arab provinces; the Arab provinces were able to flourish until the very end of the empire.

The Emergence of Turkish Nationalism

Daniel Denvir

You argue that this is a key and underappreciated divergence that happens between what becomes Turkey, the onetime seat of Ottoman power, and the Balkans on the one hand, and the Mashriq on the other. Why has that divergence not been studied in the way that it should? What does that lead us to misunderstand about what later happens not only in the Mashriq but in Turkey and the Balkans?

Ussama Makdisi

Well, the reason why it’s not focused on is because what happens after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire is that each of these places develops its own historiography, a national historiography that focuses only on itself and doesn’t really think of comparing itself to other parts of the former empire. Frankly, they’re all trying to focus on how modern they are, or how European they are, or how Westernized they are. That’s one of the main reasons.

The other reason is that historians have tended to focus on comparisons between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But within the empire, there’s very little comparative work. Again, because people who work on the Arab provinces tend not to know very much about the Balkan provinces. People who work on the Balkan provinces tend not to know about the Arab provinces, people who work on Turkey tend to focus on Turkey, and people who work on Istanbul tend to focus on Istanbul. And so people don’t really have a comparative empire-wide framework in general. So I think that’s one reason.

And that’s the point I make in the book, is that Turkey eventually becomes a so-called secular state under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after World War I, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Turkish state. But it’s a secular state that is denuded of its Christian populations. Both the Armenians who were massacred in the genocide of World War I and then the Greek Turkish population exchange of the early 1920s. And so, yes, you have a secular state, but it’s a secular state that’s extraordinarily draconian in terms of an intolerance of difference, in part because that state is reacting to the history of the nineteenth century, where European powers would often intervene in the Middle East in the name of protecting various minorities.

And so the Turkish state took a very dim view of minorities. And they said, these people are actually a threat to our sovereignty, and we’re going to act accordingly and often ruthlessly. And the irony is that we call it a secular state. The Arab provinces, however, emerge out of this, and a similar process takes place with the Greek state, because the Greek state, of course, expels its Muslim population as part of the population exchange, which of course was not a voluntary exchange.

It’s not that the people who were being expelled or exchanged had any say in the matter. It was a compulsory exchange agreed upon by two different states. But the people who were exchanged had their lives turned upside down in the 1920s. But my point is, in the Arab provinces, there wasn’t this kind of existential choice. You didn’t have to make a choice of whether to be Muslim or Christian or Jewish and be part of an Ottoman, late Ottoman, or an Arab post-Ottoman polity, because almost all these states actually didn’t claim to be exclusively Muslim or exclusively Christian states.

I think this is an important point. And so the irony is that the Arab world is thought of today as a place full of sectarianism. But in fact, if any part of the empire carried on the Ottoman nineteenth century heritage, it wasn’t the Arab East. In fact, it’s what I argue in the book, everyone else abandoned very quickly the ecumenical aspect of the Ottoman past.

Daniel Denvir

So in response to European powers so frequently intervening in the Ottoman Empire in the name of protecting religious minorities, Turkish nationalists saw Christians as imperial proxies. They thought of them as a fifth column, this is the same attitude taken by Muslim rioters in Damascus in the 1860s that the Nahda was pushing back against.

Ussama Makdisi

That’s an interesting point. But I would say the 1860s were really a breakdown of order. And yes, maybe they did. In fact, there was this conflation between local Christians and foreign Christians and Western intervention and Western imperialism. But I think it was a transient moment. It was a breakdown of order. It wasn’t the norm, so to speak, as opposed to what states do. That’s why when states are doing things, it’s very different. It was organized and methodical, structured and carried out with ruthless efficiency. And I think that sort of violence is very different than a popular sort of breakdown of order — as horrific as it was.

Daniel Denvir

I think we should lastly maybe just pause to note that Atatürk saw his project as making Turkey a modern, Westernized nation in many ways, and this is what that meant for him.

Ussama Makdisi

Making it a homogenous state, for sure, changing the script, implementing all of these secular reforms but at a huge cost. And it’s still ongoing in Turkey, just the idea where religious pluralism is not something that’s factored in very deeply. And of course, there’s still an ongoing massive problem with the Kurdish question in Turkey. But my point is, in the Arab provinces, what’s interesting is you have far weaker states that emerge in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire. But they’re far more committed to religious pluralism than the Turkish state was, but which eventually becomes far stronger.

Daniel Denvir

Let’s talk about those those post-Ottoman mandate states in in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. What sort of states were these? What sort of local governments were put in place by British and French colonial powers? And in what sense were those approaches different, particularly in terms of religious differences? And then lastly, how did those forms of colonial mandatory governance compare to British governance of Mandatory Palestine, which was subject to a peculiar form of mandatory government thanks to the mass Zionist settlement underway in accordance with the policy goals set out in Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration.

Ussama Makdisi

First of all, the main difference between the Ottoman and the mandate, or the British French division and partition of the Ottoman Arab East, is exactly that division and partition. So under the Ottomans there was a sovereign whole. The idea was, how do we develop this idea of Ottoman unity or Arab unity within Ottoman unity? How do we develop these notions of unity and deal with religious or ethnic or various forms of difference? How do we do both at the same time? But it’s in the context of an Ottoman framework, a unifying framework.

And even though the Ottoman Empire sort of carried out massive persecution of the Armenians toward the end of the empire, they didn’t formally give up on the idea of an empire that would include Christians. It really is. It’s actually one of the paradoxes of the empire. But it’s also an important aspect that takes us back to the Tanzimat and to that earlier period that we’ve already discussed in which the Ottomans had until the very end of the empire legitimacy, in the sense that they had been the rulers for centuries and many of the Arab officers or people who end up working as civil servants, going through a new educational system, end up in Istanbul. They end up identifying, in fact, toward the end of the nineteenth, early twentieth century, far more with the empire than ever before.

But they were also Arab, so they could be both. There was no contradiction, really, between the two until the end of the empire, when everything falls apart during World War I or just after World War I — that’s very different than the British and the French, who come in and divide up this entire region. You cannot underestimate the force of division when you’re taking a sovereign whole and partitioning it into various states, not to suit the interests of the local populations, but the suit imperial interests. So that’s a huge difference.

That’s one massive difference of extraordinary importance and effect that goes on that we still have that reverberates today. In addition to states being created to suit imperial British and French interests, not to suit local interests, is the fact that for the British and the French, the idea of citizenship was never on offer. You’re not there to help people. You’re not trying to cohere people trying to overcome religious difference or ethnic difference to reach an Ottoman citizenship. It’s never on offer because you’re British and French European colonizers coming in allegedly to help civilize the natives, to help lead them to self-determination. That was the myth of the mandate period.

Daniel Denvir

This is the League of Nations and the whole idea is that they are under colonial tutelage — not permanently, but so that they can achieve some self-determination at some later date.

Ussama Makdisi

Yeah, that’s effectively what it was. The point is that it’s Europeans ruling other non-Europeans. That was very clear. So that’s also very different from what the Ottomans were trying to do or what people in the Ottoman Empire were trying to do. The third difference is that there is the question of Palestine, which then emerges as this huge problem. At exactly this juncture, it was a problem developing in the late empire. But it really explodes once the British take over and commit to the Balfour Declaration and to colonial Zionism in Palestine.

But the point is to go back to this pivotal moment in 1919. During the war, in the Ottoman Empire, there was an extraordinary amount of violence. There was famine, there was a persecution of the Armenians. There was a persecution of Arab nationalists in Damascus and Beirut. There was a British invasion of Palestine. There was also a British invasion of Iraq. I mean, there were all these things. There was a Russian invasion. There was the Armenian genocide.

All these things were a cataclysmic crisis for the Turkish parts as well. The whole place is collapsing during the World War I. And what happens afterward at the League of Nations in 1919 is that there’s this huge question that arises. This is, how to manage the collapse of the British Empire. But the United States was also intervening through President [Woodrow] Wilson. How are we going to reshape the Ottoman Empire or what had been the Ottoman Empire into new states in line with this idea of self-determination?

It’s important to know that self-determination did not mean an independence. Wilson meant self-determination only in the sense that over time, the civilized Anglo-Saxon world would help nurture uncivilized or less civilized peoples to an eventual self-determination, very far down the line. But it was incredibly vague, and it was extraordinarily hierarchical and filled with racial caveats. This is a crucially important point to understand.

But the problem is that when Wilson and [Vladimir] Lenin and others used the terms self-determination, people around the world at the time, in the Arab world, in places like Egypt, Syria, Palestine, as well as in China, Korea, India, and many other parts of the world, understood self-determination exactly as we understand it: independence.

There’s no prevarication. There’s no disingenuousness, there’s no dishonesty. It’s very obvious. Self-determination means what it sounds like for most people, the world. But the problem is not for the Western powers who were committed to colonialism and who were committed to racial hierarchy and who were absolutely opposed to the idea of independence as such, full independence of it was just unimaginable to them. And so the Western powers basically then had a choice. What do we do with these Arab provinces? They had been all part of the Ottoman Empire, and now the question was: Do we give them independence, which is what the Arabs were asking for after the collapse of the empire? Do we turn Palestine into a Jewish state, which is what the Zionists in Europe were asking for? Do we do something else with this part of the world? What do we do?

And so at Paris in 1919, all these different delegations go to Paris. And what happens is that the Arab delegation is led by Emir Faisal, Prince Faisal, who’s the son of Sharif Hussein. So, in 1915, the British had promised Sharif Hussein in Mecca, basically an independent Arab kingdom in what had been part of the Ottoman Empire in what is today Saudi Arabia. They had promised him an independent Arab kingdom stretching all the way down to Syria. The British were never serious about fulfilling that pledge. They were manipulating King Sharif Hussein. They were manipulating him to get him to rise up against his Ottoman rulers and then split the Muslims. Basically, you get the Arabs to fight the Turks and you split the Muslims, undermining Ottoman sovereignty during wartime. And they were incredibly evasive and dishonest, as the British always are in terms of imperial power.

I mean, there’s no surprise there. They’re using and manipulating natives as they have throughout their history. He insisted, however, that he would not rebel against his Ottoman masters, and unless he was given a specific pledge, the pledge being basically an independent Arab kingdom. And what’s interesting is that the British kept saying, well, we can’t really include Christians, as in Lebanese Christians, as part of an Arab kingdom because they’re not Arab.

And he said, no, of course they are because their Arab Christianity is part of our history. So he was drawing on the history I’ve been alluding to and talking about with you. And the British, of course, were totally insensitive to that. And that’s again the orientalist British attitude, totally racist towards not just the Arabs, but all peoples around the world, all non-Western peoples. But in the end, they pledged this independent kingdom.

They at the same time secretly pledged or have an agreement with the French to divide up the same region that they’ve promised Sharif Hussein as an independent kingdom. They’ve also divided this region up secretly with the French in what is known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This is 1916. And in November 1917, the Balfour Declaration is issued, basically promising that the British government will view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish national home. You know, this new concept of a national home was invented in this period.

The Mandate System

Daniel Denvir

It’s important to mention that [Arthur] Balfour is a virulent antisemite.

Ussama Makdisi

Yes, he’s a Christian Zionist is what I would call him. He was an imperialist. He was a racist. He was antisemitic. He was all these things combined into one. But above all, he had nothing but contempt for the native populations of the Arab world in terms of the story I’m trying to tell here. So in 1917, the British engage in what you could call triple dealing. Then when everyone ends up in Paris in 1919 and Wilson hears about all these things, despite being completely committed to racial hierarchy, to segregation etc., is persuaded to send an American commission of inquiry, an international commission of inquiry to the Post-Ottoman Arab East in 1919, to ask people what it is they want. That is, to determine how they want to determine their own future.

It was understood that this region was going to be placed under one or another European mandate, but at least the natives would have a say in how it is they wanted to determine their own political future. And the reason Wilson agreed to this is because an American missionary, Howard Bliss, had seconded a plea by the Arabs to send a commission.

And Howard Bliss, who was a missionary and was head of the Syrian Protestant College, which is today the American University in Beirut, he went to the Paris Peace Conference. He was allowed to represent the Syrians because the Syrians were not allowed to represent themselves because of Orientalism, racism, and imperialism. But he as a white man was allowed to go. And because he’s a white Protestant man, he was listened to by Wilson, who then said, oh, good idea, let’s send a commission.

The problem is that the British and the French were horrified. And the Zionists, they were all horrified by the idea of an independent commission, because they all knew perfectly well that any independent commission with any integrity would report back that the peoples of the Levant or the Arab East did not want European colonialism, wanted independence, and wanted unity and self-determination. And the interesting thing is that the commission did go. It’s called the King-Crane Commission. It’s the first commission that I’m aware of anywhere in the world that asked native peoples how it is that they wanted to determine their own political future. Again, a lot of caveats. They were paternalistic. They were imbued with all sorts of ideas of Anglo-Saxon supremacy — so I don’t want to minimize all the negative aspects of the King-Crane Commission. But the interesting thing is that they actually did do something quite fascinating.

They went out to the Middle East after World War I and conducted this grueling tour that started in Palestine in June of 1919. And they go through Palestine and Israel, and they end up in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Syria, and then Turkey. And then they go back to Istanbul. From Istanbul they go to Europe, where they write up and submit their final report, this is in August 1919, mind you, and they basically say, if we’re going to take the idea of self-determination seriously, then there’s no way and no reason to divide up the Arab East, the region. There’s absolutely no reason to do it.

If we’re taking the idea of actually wanting to help these people, there’s no reason because they basically all speak the same language and they’re all essentially one people. Yes, they have religious differences, but that’s not an impediment to keep them unified. That’s the first thing they say. The second thing they say is they recommend an independent, unified Arab state under the leadership of Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein, who had been in Paris and who was the head of a nominally independent Arab state in Syria that was just beginning to come into being in 1919.

Daniel Denvir

A Hashemite kingdom.

Ussama Makdisi

Yeah, a Hashemite, Arab kingdom in Syria, but that was multireligious. In fact, if anything, it was the culmination of the Ottoman period because it was essentially like the late Ottoman state, but within a much smaller geographic space — but the same idea of equality of all citizens. The third thing that they recommended, because they said they came there as Zionists, was they said they were in favor of Zionism. They had a favorable impression of Zionism because they were coming from the West. And they had encountered and known about Zionism and the Zionists. Unlike the Palestinians, unlike the Syrians, unlike the Egyptians, the Zionists were allowed to present their case in Paris. The Arab nationalists, as in the Syrian nationalists, the Palestinians, and the Egyptians were not allowed by the Europeans to present their case.

Daniel Denvir

The Zionists could speak for themselves.

Ussama Makdisi

The Zionists could speak for themselves. And they claimed to speak on behalf of Jewish people everywhere. And they made extraordinarily ambitious Zionist claims on Palestine and they wanted to transform it into a Jewish state. They, of course, completely ignored the fact, or minimized the fact, that there was an Arab population in Palestine: the Palestinians.

The King-Crane Commission, however, did not ignore them. And the commission says something amazing in 1919. They say, look, if we’re going to take Wilsonian self-determination seriously, we have to acknowledge the fact that there are people who are living on this land. There’s no way to reconcile their well-being with self-determination and with Zionism. You cannot have Zionism in its maximalist form, as in the creation of a Jewish state, that’s not going to harm the native population. And that would not be right or just.

And then they say two things at the end of the report. They say that the idea that the Zionists have a right to Palestine based on an occupation two thousand years ago cannot be seriously considered. So they dismissed that out of hand. They say that’s not a basis upon which to create a new state. You simply cannot rely on the Bible, which is quite interesting given the fact that the people who was one of the leaders of the King-Crane Commission, Henry King, was the president of Oberlin College and was himself a devout Christian. Yet he still says that this is not a basis of modern law or modern thinking.

The second thing they said is that if you are going to impose this Zionist project on Palestine, it is going to lead to war. They said this is completely and utterly unacceptable. I mean, I’m using the words unacceptable, but they say it’s a serious injustice. And they say their recommendation is very firm: don’t do this; it’s going to lead to violence. They predict almost everything that’s going to happen. It’s all in writing. They submit the report to Wilson and it’s suppressed. It’s not clear what happened to the report. Wilson never acknowledges the report. He had a stroke, so it’s not clear.

And the British and the French do exactly what the commissioners warned against. Every single one of their recommendations. They do the opposite. They divide up the region precisely because their interests were to divide up this region, not the interests of the native population. They commit themselves to Zionism, which again, the Balfour, the King-Crane Commission, specifically warned against. And of course, Arabs themselves had warned against it. What’s the third thing they do? They partition the region; the French send an army in to get rid of Faisal — and they get rid of him in July 1920.

Daniel Denvir

It seems like this remarkable commission being ignored was almost inevitable, given that both their methodology of speaking to actual Arabs and their conclusions that Arabs should govern themselves, and that Zionism would be catastrophic for the region, because both the methods and the conclusions were utterly contrary to the entire project underway — a project not only established by British and French imperial powers and by the United States, but by people like white South African leader Jan Smuts. Notorious racists.

Ussama Makdisi

That’s exactly why the report was suppressed and the recommendations ignored. And that’s why the British and the French doubled down on their sectarianism, their Orientalism, their racism, and their commitment to colonialism in the name of civilizing the various peoples of the Arab East. So Daniel, you asked about Palestine. The mandate system, or what gets called the mandate system, is fictitious. It’s basically colonialism. And it’s really important to emphasize this point again, because most people are not aware necessarily of these really important aspects. The first is that the Arab East is, as far as I am aware, the last place in the world to be colonized by the West in the name of the mandates.

So after Africa, the Americas, and Asia had been colonized, it was now the turn of the Arab East. And the perversity or the bitter irony of this moment is not just that the Arab East was the last place to be colonized — it was colonized in the name of self-determination. I don’t know what is more perverse than that, but there you have it. In the name of self-determination — article 22 of the League of Nations — the whole idea is helping these people who were civilized enough in the former Ottoman Empire that the West can provisionally recognize their independence. But this is subject to the rendering of administrative assistance about which they have no choice, of course.

It’s the last place in the world to be colonized. It’s colonized in the name of self-determination, and it’s going to be divided up along ethnic-religious lines and political lines that suit the British and the French. And Palestine was the one mandate. These were called mandates because there was an open duration; they were meant to be limited. The British and the French never put a specific timeline as to when this tutelage was going to end.

But the point is that the tutelage was meant in every case. Syria was one mandate; then Lebanon, which the French split off from Syria; then Mesopotamia, which became Iraq; and eventually Jordan, which was initially bundled into Palestine. All these mandates were in theory and legally, according to the League of Nations, destined to lead ultimately down the line in the far future, unspecified when, to independence of these native populations, who were recognized in 1919 as “provisionally independent, subject to the rendering of administrative assistance.” So you have this new form of colonialism where you recognize the native polity, but at the same time you have European overlords who are in effect running the show.

Daniel Denvir

The former Ottoman territories were class A mandates. There was a whole racialized hierarchy of mandates that Arabs were hypothetically at the top of and black Africans were at the bottom of.

Ussama Makdisi

Black Africans were class B mandate, the Pacific Islanders were class C, and so on. It was absolutely a racial hierarchy. Jan Smuts and Wilson, these are people who believed in racial hierarchy and separate but equal — the Jim Crow kind of stuff. Jan Smuts himself was one of the main theorists of segregation and apartheid, thinking through these completely racist ideas of separating races because they each have a different pace of development and capacity and so on. So all these ideas were put in place, and the Arabs were considered to be among the most civilized of the non-Western peoples. But the bottom line is that they were all placed under these mandates nevertheless.

And it was an extraordinarily bitter process. These were people who had a tremendous ecumenical heritage — the culture of coexistence between Christians, Muslims, and Jewish people — which was not comparable to anywhere else in the world.

Daniel Denvir

We should emphasize here how colonial Zionism was basically impossible and almost unthinkable as long as the Ottoman Empire existed — up until Britain seizes control. And we’ll get into this more later. But that’s why even people like [David] Ben-Gurion are, in a sense, not fully political Zionists early on, because it’s not even fully imaginable that establishing a Jewish state could happen. It doesn’t even become the most clear, unified goal of the Zionist movement until the Biltmore Conference in 1942.

Ussama Makdisi

I don’t think I entirely agree with that. The project is well underway before Biltmore. I think Biltmore is where you have a shift from British to American. But you’re right in the sense that 1942 is during World War II, it’s a different era. But I think you’re right to say 1917 is a major turning point.

Look at the Balfour Declaration and the creation of colonial Zionism, but even before that, I mean if you go read any of [Theodor] Herzl’s writings — and obviously there were many different forms of Zionism before. But the Congress decides in 1897, in Basel, to actually establish a Jewish state. And Herzl, of course, played a critical role in this, then eventually the Balfour Declaration through [Chaim] Weizmann and various Zionist individuals, and organizations in the West start lobbying very strongly. You see this in Paris in 1919. You see the structure of the British Mandate itself and the way it’s set up: to fulfill the idea of a Jewish state. Although it’s not called a Jewish state, it’s called a Jewish national home. But the Zionists are privileged at almost every level. They’re privileged by the British colonial power in Palestine. So I think that’s an important point. But Biltmore is another yet another major step.

Daniel Denvir

And the key thing about 1917, though, is that amidst World War I, the end of the Ottoman Empire becomes imaginable, and thus political Zionism becomes practically imaginable for the Western colonial powers in a way that it wasn’t before.

Ussama Makdisi

I would even add to that and say 1917 and the Balfour Declaration and the British conquest of Palestine, which is taking place at the same time, is where political Zionism becomes colonial Zionism, because that’s the moment where the Zionists in Europe begin to organize. This is an important point. Zionism did not emerge among the indigenous Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire or the Arab world or the Arab East. It’s important to emphasize this point because it emerged in Europe in response to European antisemitism, European nationalism, and European romanticism.

That’s why it emerged in Europe as a European project with a non-European locale to solve the so-called Jewish question of Europe. And the Balfour Declaration takes that idea and says, okay, we’re going to commit the greatest power of the world. Britain is going to commit to the fulfillment of this project.

Daniel Denvir

So Jewish political Zionism is able to hitch a ride on the greatest colonial power.

Ussama Makdisi

With the full knowledge of the fact that especially people like Weizmann, the leaders of the Zionist movement, every single one of whom was from Europe. Not a single major Zionist leader comes from the Arab Jewish communities, from Sephardic Jewish communities. No, they all come from Europe. It’s really important to emphasize this point. And they have European views toward the non-European. I mean, they look down on Eastern Jews, Arab Jews, Muslims, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, they look down on all these people as inferior in the way that the Europeans did.

I mean, that’s what Europeans did. There’s no surprise there. And they openly called it a colonial enterprise. There was no shame at the time in Europe to be a colonizer. And they recognized Weizmann and other Zionists understood perfectly well that once they got to Palestine, there was a problem: there’s a huge Arab Palestinian presence. And this is the ongoing problem that has continued until now. So you go from trying to solve a Jewish question, a so-called Jewish question in Europe to then the Zionists inventing an Arab question in Palestine. These kinds of parallels are absolutely remarkable and ironic.

Daniel Denvir

We’re going to return to the story of Zionism and the foundation of the state of Israel, the Nakba. But I want to discuss the mandate period a little more. You argue that it nationalized the ecumenical frame while also laying the groundwork for pan-Arab or pan-Islamic ideologies that would ultimately push back against that same nation state–based fragmentation. You write:

The impulse of Western colonial rule was to segregate, disarticulate and deconstruct an Ottoman whole into various sectarian and regional parts, but also to commit to building up new, separate, pluralist, dependent national polities.

Britain in particular, drew in its vast colonial experiences in Egypt and India from the outset. British rule in Iraq was not interested in transcending religious, tribal, communal or ethnic differences in the country. Instead, it had reinforced these differences to deflect, undermine and expose anti-colonial sentiment. Initially, at least, the French colonialists in the Levant adopted an even more divisive strategy than their British counterparts.

What’s this relationship that you’re drawing out here between, on the one hand, the fragmentation of the Ottoman mashriq into all these made-up nation states, and then, on the other hand, the fragmentation of societies into sectarian religious groupings.

Ussama Makdisi

Well, I mean, this is probably the most complicated part of the book. That’s to say that there is a European racial colonialism and determination to divide up this part of the world under the pretext that it needs Western European support and tutelage — this undergirds this entire colonial fragmentation and division. But once they divide up the Mashriq into various states — Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, principally also Palestine — the British and the French are committed ultimately to creating domestic dependent nations. Basically nations that are nominally independent and sovereign, but under their control. So the British want to create a viable Iraqi kingdom under Faisal, who had been expelled by the French from Syria in 1920. They take him and they make him king of Iraq. Hence you have the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

And the interesting thing there is that Faisal genuinely wants to create a unified Iraqi state, a kingdom, but he’s utterly dependent on the British, which the British, of course, want. They want a weak Arab sovreign to sit atop of regions which have all sorts of ethnic and religious pluralism. You have all this diversity in Iraq, but in the midst of this Western powers are trying to build unified states.

The British are at one level committed to the idea of Iraq under British tutelage, which means a committment to the idea of maintaining Iraq. The British are not going to overly fragment Iraq because they want it to be a dependent polity, but they certainly don’t want Iraq to join with other Arab states. So this is the paradox of British rule, and that British presence, which is so illegitimate, spurs anti-colonial mobilization, the way the French do in Syria. And so what happened in the Ottoman period becomes even more focused, but in separate national spheres. So you have the development of Iraqi, Syrian, and Palestinian nationalist movements.

Just like in the Ottoman period, there are some who are more nationalist and some who are more Islamist. But they’re both emerging from an Ottoman framework and they’re all committed to the idea of a multireligious future — but they’re fighting against British and French colonialism. So it’s a complicated story.

Daniel Denvir

Why did European colonialism rely on this ideology that legitimated European domination on the basis of protecting multiconfessional harmony and religious minorities? Did the ideology simply come about because it was functional, or was it rooted in some specific orientalist discourse?

Ussama Makdisi

It’s rooted in both. It’s functional in the sense that you have a pluralist society, and you want to rule over it. So you take its constituent parts and you unravel them. And then you say, only we are the indispensable arbiter of this difference and we’re essential for stability, and without us, these people would kill each other. That’s what the Americans did in Iraq in 2003 after 2000. It’s exactly the same thinking. The difference is that the American version is even more of a farce because it’s the second time around, as opposed to the first time with the British and the French. The Americans have this whole history that you would have thought they would have learned from. But what they learned were all the wrong lessons.

To get back to your question about why they did that, it was because of a deep-rooted orientalist notion that you can still see everywhere in the West. It’s the idea that in the West you can have religious difference. In the West, you can have extraordinary antisemitism, extraordinary racism, the most extreme forms of racism that have been elaborated anywhere in the world and certainly the most extreme forms of antisemitism in Europe.

It’s the idea that we in the West are capable of developing societies that can bring together peoples of different races and religions. That’s the Western conceit, the American European conceit. But other parts of the world, which in fact have far longer histories of religious coexistence, are somehow incapable of determining their own paths. They can’t be trusted to manage religious difference. They need us. So there’s absolutely a racial dimension. So, from our religious difference we in the West can become citizens. But in the East, religious difference is permanent and can never be transcended into real secular citizenship. You always need some European or American arbiter.

So both. Why they did that is — if you imagine someone coming into the United States today to colonize it, well, what would you do? You would immediately start saying, okay, well, you have different groups. Let’s start separating them out. And it would be very easy to do so. In fact, it would be so much easier to do this in the US than in the East because here the racialized differences are more extreme than they have been in the East.

Daniel Denvir

Lebanon seems like a particular but illustrative case, you write:

In Lebanon, a quite different trajectory was followed, owing to the country’s strong and assertive Christian political presence empowered by French colonialism. Rather than making nationalists out of minorities, as was the case in neighboring Syria, Lebanese elites consecrated a sectarian state whereby political power was parceled out along communal lines.

How did Lebanon’s model of sectarian governance get set up, and how did Lebanon come about as a separate country from Syria in the first place? And how did the strategy of divide and conquer compare to those employed elsewhere across the region by the British and French?

Ussama Makdisi

The short answer is French colonialism. Lebanon would never have been separated out as a state in the way that it was without French colonialism. So the French came in and destroyed Faisal’s weak, nascent army in Syria. They destroyed the Arab kingdom that was based in Damascus. And then they separated Lebanon from Syria and carved out this state. But to make Lebanon allegedly a viable state, they had to include all these areas that were overwhelmingly inhabited by Muslims, whether they were coastal cities like Tripoli, the south of the country, or Baalbek, an extremely fertile area that had large Shiite population. None of these people, of course, were consulted in this French partition.

I think that’s the first answer. As for the second answer, there was a Maronite elite in Lebanon, and a considerable portion of the Maronites were enthusiastic collaborators with the French. There’s no doubt about that whatsoever. And they helped articulate this idea of the necessity of Lebanon.

Oftentimes people think of the Lebanese system, the sectarian system that you alluded to, that was created in this period, and compare or contrast it with the nationalist system that comes to dominate in Syria and Iraq in particular. People often compare these systems and see them as opposites. And of course, there is obviously a fundamental difference between a sectarian system that privileges sectarian affiliation versus a nationalist system that pretends that there’s only the nationalist affiliation and obscures religious difference.

There are really important, crucial differences. But both the Lebanese and the Syrian and Iraqi models, all three of those models, are all emerging in a European colonial context. They’re all coming out of an Ottoman framework. They’re just nationalizing it in different ways depending on local conditions.

In other words, in Lebanon, there was a collaborationist elite that was happy and willing to collaborate with the French. But the Lebanese Christian elites were not trying to create a Christian country. They really were committed, for the most part, to co-opting Muslim, Sunni and Shia, and Druze elites. It’s important to emphasize this point. They built what they thought of as a viable sectarian system. This is why people, especially the nationalists, can’t stand the Lebanese system, because it’s sort of a galling reminder that sectarianism is not just a Western creation.

I think without the West’s force of colonialism and racism, there is no question that none of this would have happened the way that it did. On the other hand, the fact that Lebanese elites come along and say, well, the reality is that we do live in a world of religious difference and communal difference. And rather than pretend that these differences don’t exist, we need to acknowledge these differences and somehow defang them in a common polity. So we’re going to create a state that is secular. In other words, Lebanon is not a state for Christians or Muslims or any group. There is no reference in the Lebanese constitution of 1926 that privileges Christianity over Islam or Judaism. They’re all there, but none of them is privileged.

Daniel Denvir

But you can only participate in politics or society on the basis of your communal identity.

Ussama Makdisi

What I’m trying to say is that they create this system where they have a buy-in for the Muslim elite. They’re basically saying, we need to recognize that there are religious differences, sectarian differences, communal differences. But remember, sectarian in the Middle East does not mean sectarian in America. It’s not different sects in a Protestant sense. It’s basically different communities. What we in America would call ethnicities or races or multiracial, multicultural, multiwhatever thing. It’s the idea of communal difference.

And so they’re saying that we need to recognize these things, but we need to recognize them in specific ways. First of all, everybody is equal. Nobody is privileged over anyone else by law. On the other hand, for a temporary period — this is 1926 and here we are in 2023 — the Lebanese constitution allows for a temporary division of political cabinet posts along confessional or communal lines, and allegedly along demographic lines too. But in all these cases, the idea is that we’re representing you. Just like in America, you would say, I’m going to represent a Latino or African American or whatever community in politics.

The idea is that the state is going to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table so that nobody feels excluded. That’s the theory of the system. The problem, of course, is that the theory obscured the other aspect of the system, which is that the system was inherently unequal. It privileged the Maronite Christians, who were the collaborators with the French, more than any other community. It gave them the most powerful positions in the country, and it created a system where there was far more Christian representation than Muslim representation, even though you could argue that as early as the 1920s, the population in this country was more or less split fifty-fifty, if not even more Muslim than Christian.

But the Muslims were absolutely not given the same access to power as the Christians were, and the Maronite Christians in particular. So it created this fundamental problem of how do you integrate religious difference in an equitable manner. It’s a fascinating system because you’re trying to integrate people into a system of elites. You’re trying to integrate elites of other communities into a system. And it works insofar as these people, Sunni and Shia and Druze elites, are all co-opted into the system by the 1940s.

Daniel Denvir

But these masses of people who are ostensibly being made into equal citizens are actually fundamentally being interpolated on the basis of their communal identity. Is that an issue?

Ussama Makdisi

Yes. The thing is you can vote in Lebanon as a secular citizen. So if I’m Protestant, for example, I would go to a Protestant polling station, the place that’s designated for Protestants to vote. You go there and you vote, but you can vote for anybody. You don’t have to vote only for a Protestant. But the people you vote for are organized along communal lines so that each list or each district will have, let’s say, x number of seats, three for Muslims, two for Christians. You know, depending on what you know, or the reverse, depending on what area we’re talking about. But you’re still voting as a secular citizen. There’s a very tight combination of these two things.

But of course, the main point that we really should talk about more is the fact that the personal status laws — laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance — these laws are codified in this period in a way that separates out this notion of secular citizenship. So when it comes to marriage, inheritance, divorce, there’s no one law. Each community has its own laws and almost every single one of these sets of laws — whether they’re for Sunnis or Shiites or Christians or Druze, all these communities or Jews — discriminate against women of their particular group. And they prevent the idea of a secular marriage inside of Lebanon. Although the Lebanese state will recognize your marriage if you get married in Cyprus or in the United States, it will not recognize your marriage in Lebanon itself. It’ll recognize it only as a marriage contracted abroad.

Arab Identity and the Ecumenical Frame

Daniel Denvir

You write, “I use the term ‘Arab’ in this history to indicate a conscious, modern identification among Arabs that transcends religious affiliations.” You continue elsewhere:

There was, after all, a crucial distinction between thinking of oneself as a Christian Arab and describing oneself as a Christian in, but not of, the Arab world; between being a Muslim Arab with Christian and Jewish Arab compatriots, and being primarily a Muslim in the Islamic world, surrounded by dhimmis; between being an Arab Jew and being a Zionist.

The modern idea of being Arab, in other words, encompassed more than a secular emphasis on material progress and national unity, and more than a religious identification with Islam’s manifest relationship to Arab language, history, and culture. Being Arab was an ecumenical position in the face of a Western colonial discourse that aggressively sought to sectarianize the landscape of the post-Ottoman Middle East.

How did this modern identity category of Arab emerge, and what sort of identities did it displace? Did this imagined community, encompassing so many regional cultures and faiths, also entail a sort of political and ethical position — a certain idea of politics and what sort of polity modern Arabs might build?

Ussama Makdisi

It’s a massive question, which requires a lot of nuance. First and foremost, the idea of being Arab in a modern sense is an idea of belonging to different faiths or religious communities — Muslim, Christian, Jewish — and at the same time transcending that through a relationship to the Arabic language, or more concretely to a notion of being Arab, an identity of being Arab — there’s something profoundly ecumenical about this.

It wasn’t displacing an Ottoman identity initially. In fact, the notion of being Arab in a modern sense of citizenship develops initially in an Ottoman context and in relationship to an Ottoman sovereign that had pledged itself, at least theoretically and legally, to the equality of all its subjects. There is a sense that they could coexist: you could be both Ottoman and Arab. You could be an Ottoman Arab, and you could emphasize the Ottoman part or the Arab part.

What happens at the end of the empire is that the Ottoman state is taken over by what’s known at the CUP, or the Committee for Union and Progress, which becomes essentially an Ottoman Turkish nationalist formation, committed to Turkifying aspects of the state. It commits the awful massacre and genocide of the Armenians, but also persecutes Arab nationalists. The break between Ottomanism and Arabism then became almost inevitable, but it wasn’t preordained.

Like all identities, obviously, these things are dynamic and depend on context. But most of all, there is this profoundly ecumenical nature: this idea that being Arab is open to peoples of different faiths. That’s what you see more than anything else, in the context of an Ottoman Empire that itself had been multiethnic and multilinguistic for centuries.

Daniel Denvir

You write:

Just as Christians and Jews had to choose between being a cloistered, dependent minority and belonging to the anti-colonial nationalist majority, so too did Sunni and Shia Muslim individuals have to decide where and how to draw the line between belonging to an imagined community that transcended their faith — the very essence of a modern political community, whether Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, or pan-Arab — or belonging to an imagined community defined principally by their faith. Inevitably, Muslim Arabs . . . each affiliated with the idea of an ecumenical nation in different ways.

How does the incredible multitude of intrawar Arab politics that you’re writing about here all fit within the ecumenical frame? And why, as you write, was it the secular nationalists who quickly began to win the vast majority of popular support?

Ussama Makdisi

It was because they all emerge from an Ottoman context, where the ecumenical frame first developed: this whole idea of being Arab, of being Ottoman, of being modern in the sense of transcending religious difference without denying that difference. That inevitably opens up a whole range.

What I say in the book is that it’s a war of position within the ecumenical frame. Just like in any religiously and ethnically diverse society, what you have here are different ideological positions.

One of the things I’m pointing to is the fact that ideology and ideological difference here, like anywhere else, is not simply based on religious difference, which is what the Orientalists and racists often insist. They say people in the Middle East are only majority and minority — Muslim and non-Muslim.

It’s not true: people have all sorts of faiths, all sorts of political affiliations and identities. You can be a Christian and a communist; you can be a right-wing Christian; you can be a left-wing Christian. You can be a right-wing Jewish person or a left-wing Jewish person and so on. The same for Muslims.

The point I’m trying to make is that none of the major political formulations of the early twentieth century that preceded the elaboration of the more famous or well-known Ba’athist and pan-Arabist Nasserist movements later. . . . In the earlier period, people were struggling with the question: What can we do once the Ottoman Empire is destroyed? Once there are these new states created by the British and the French, how does one affiliate, how does one make sense of these new borders? What is the relationship between these new borders imposed by the Europeans and this wider identity, whether it’s Islamic or Arab, and how does one reconcile the two?

People had different ways of answering this question. Some were more Islamist — the Muslim Brotherhood for example. Some were more quietists; some were more politically anti-colonial. Some were more secular; some were more pan-Arabist; some were more regional, and so on.

Religious sectarian difference is not the only determinant of ideological difference. People do not simply identify politically based on their religious affiliation. It’s something that is so basic in America; we understand that intuitively. But somehow, when it comes to the Middle East, we think a Muslim and a Christian and a Jewish person are somehow always going to be antithetical to each other. It’s simply not true.

Colonial Zionism’s Assault

Daniel Denvir

Let’s turn back to Palestine, where the imposition of colonial Zionist ethnonationalism shattered the ecumenical frame. It also intensely destabilized the basis for coexistence across the region.

But you write that initially many Arabs did not oppose and even admired early Jewish settlers of the First Aliyah, which took place during the final decades of the nineteenth century under Ottoman rule — in a sense even before modern Zionism was fully elaborated. You write, “The problem was not the Jewishness of the settlers, but the gradual crystallization of the nationalist Zionist project that regarded Palestine as a Jewish national homeland.”

And while these Zionists thought they were bringing a form of European modernity to the Middle East, you note that many Arabs actually accused Zionism of being fundamentally antimodern. You write:

Colonial Zionism was not simply illegitimate in the eyes of most Arabs. For many of them, it was morally regressive, because it represented a negation of the ecumenical spirit of the Nahda. Several of the Palestinian petitions submitted to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 explicitly stated that they opposed Zionism because it “incites religious fanaticism and selfishness in the twentieth century.” Key here was the sense that Zionism was an anachronism. In Arab eyes, colonial Zionism interrupted progress, incited sectarianism, and was antithetical to the common good.

We’re so often told the story in reverse, of an almost-xenophobic Arab world recoiling at the mere presence of Jewish people. What does the actual basis of this early Palestinian opposition to Zionism say about the different ways people mobilized and contested the idea of modernity in the region and around the world?

Ussama Makdisi

The most obvious answer is that, in the late Ottoman Empire and in the post-Ottoman Mashriq, the people overwhelmingly understood there was this question they all had to grapple with, which is where to draw the line between religious belonging and religious difference and a common state. Universally, except for the Zionists, there seems to have been a consensus that however much one wanted to have, for example, Islam in the public sphere, there wouldn’t be an Islamic state as such. There would be a state that included all peoples — whether in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and so on.

A state and a political community had to include others. There was no sense that you would create a Christian state or an Islamic state as such. If you impose the idea of a religious state for one group, by definition you are going to exclude those who don’t belong to that group, and you’re going to exacerbate rather than minimize the great problem of sectarianism, of religious and sectarian differentiation and political disunity. Arabs of all stripes in the nineteenth century were trying to overcome that.

There was a very powerful sense that Zionism, this idea of fusing a modern political project with religious exclusivity, is profoundly problematic on that level — let alone the colonial level, where you’re coming in as a European and imposing that project on a native population. So at two different levels, colonial Zionism is profoundly problematic and was viewed as anachronistic, because it was going to strike at the very heart of what modern Ottomanism and modern Arabism is, which is ecumenical.

You’re coming in and creating a very different kind of political project that by definition excludes the vast majority of the population on the basis of religious difference. Maybe it makes sense in a European frame; I don’t know. But it makes no sense in the Arab East, where the entire nineteenth century can be thought of as about overcoming the problem of Muslim versus non-Muslim.

Then, lo and behold, because of colonial Zionism and British colonialism, a new question emerges that separates Arab from Jew — and by “Arab” is meant Muslim and Christian Arab versus Jew. That’s an entirely new conflict. And the ontological difference between Arab and Jew is what the anachronism is. This makes no sense given the history of the nineteenth century in the Ottoman Arab East.

Initially, Arabs had no idea what the project was. They saw these people coming in, and there’s no problem with having Jews there, because Jews are indigenous to the region. The great problem was, once they realized the project was not just about Jewish people coming to Palestine as they always had, but about coming there to transform Palestine into an exclusionary Jewish state — that’s when the alarm bells started going off.

Daniel Denvir

In essence, Zionists insisted on being settlers rather than immigrants. You write:

The explicit and relentless political demand for a “Jewish home” depended on Western military power, foreclosed the possibility of a cultural Zionism that could be reconciled with the Nahda ethos of conservative coexistence. It forced a choice of national sides in a new existential conflict between the Jews and the Arabs. The Syrian historian Muhammad Kurd Ali noted in 1925 that Zionists “rebel against becoming Arab.”

By contrast, Arab leaders, you write, consistently proposed welcoming Jewish people as neighbors on the basis of equal citizenship in a future postcolonial Arab republic. You write:

In the 1940s, almost all the formal Arab demands and petitions submitted to the British government were based in the idea that the existing Arab majority should exercise democratic sovereignty over what was, in their eyes, an obviously Arab country, while Jews who lived there had a right to stay there and be full citizens of this Arab state.

Is there a counterfactual history we can imagine where Jewish immigrants to Palestine would have become equal citizens of an Arab state, while perhaps still fulfilling cultural Zionism’s ambitions of Jewish renewal? Or would that maybe also not have worked — because even in the hypothetical absence of political Zionism, the mass Jewish settlement under the auspices of British colonial power that cultural Zionism required would still have made such coexistence impossible?

Ussama Makdisi

I think without colonial Zionism, the situation would have been far less bleak. There’s no question that colonial Zionism precipitated this fundamental, terrible, ongoing break, so that one can say today without any hesitation, I’m a Muslim Arab, or I’m a Christian Arab — but if you say you’re a Jewish Arab, people say, “Hold on. That doesn’t make sense.” That is entirely because of colonial Zionism in the Arab East.

The question about cultural Zionism — it depends on what you mean when you say “cultural zionism.” Cultural Zionism certainly could have flourished in Palestine, as part of an ecumenical frame. There were also Christian pietistic formations and formulations and societies; there were Muslim societies and schools and so on.

There’s no reason why there couldn’t have been a cultural Zionist presence, because one can be a cultural Zionist without being tied to a colonialist project. Hans Kohn, a famous German Zionist in the 1920s who was part of Brit Shalom, among others, initially came in with this idea of what Zionism would be. He basically realized in 1929 that this was completely unsustainable. You could not have a colonial Zionism and an ethical Judaism. He abandoned Zionism in that moment, because of the colonial nature of the Zionist project in Palestine.

So there could have been a cultural Zionism perhaps if there had not been a colonial Zionism. But we don’t know because that was never on offer after 1917.

Daniel Denvir

The Jewish cultural Zionists who proposed binationalism instead of a Jewish sovereign state had a more humane, less-certain-to-be-catastrophic vision than political Zionists. But you note that it was still in many ways — maybe not in the case of Kohn, but definitely in the case of Judah Magnes and even Martin Buber — a sectarian and colonial framework that Magnes’s Arab interlocutors opposed, due to its sectarian communalism.

Ussama Makdisi

When people talk about a “binational state,” they seem to be completely ignorant of the reality of Lebanon and of the Eastern question in the nineteenth century, and of how Europeans have manipulated religious difference. Magnes and Buber and others were more cognizant of the fact that Palestinians or Arabs shouldn’t be oppressed as such. Judah Magnes, at least, was far more humane in certain ways than Ben-Gurion or other colonial Zionist leaders, who put into effect the Zionist project that ethnically cleansed the Palestinians with gusto.

But the problem with Magnes and his project is that he’s still saying, and the binationalists are still saying, we want mass Jewish immigration into Palestine, irrespective of what the native population says. It fundamentally flies in the face of the most basic of demands of the Palestinian indigenous population. You cannot change the demographics on such a mass scale and tell me it’s not a coercive project.

So the problem with binationalism is there’s still this coercive element to it. Because on what basis do you have binationalism without some kind of democratic future? As late as 1947, the Jewish population in Palestine was 30 percent. That’s with all the mass emigration, all the refugees coming from Nazi Germany and antisemitic Europe who were barred from coming to Britain or the United States because of the racism in those places. They were sent to Palestine because that was the only place they could flee to.

You have a significant minority that the Palestinian natives had no choice as to whether to accept or welcome; it was forced on them by the British colonial structures, the philo-Zionist structures, of the Mandate. The question is, what do you do with these people? Do you build a democratic state? Or do you build a perpetually sectarian state where you have these two groups? And how do you equalize 70 percent with 30 percent, and how do you give 30 percent equal shares with 70 percent? The binational thing elides the fact that the vast majority of the population was Arab.

Daniel Denvir

A binational state was less problematic than a Jewish state, which was ultimately established. But it’s still a sectarian state that was not a democratic state of its citizens.

Ussama Makdisi

Correct. It depends on what the ultimate formulation of a binational state is. But the point is that the binationalists themselves insisted on mass emigration all the way through. Again, totally ignoring Palestinian demands and totally ignoring the idea of a secular democratic state and insisting on the idea of a Jewish sectarian communal state, like Lebanon basically.

There was still a profoundly coercive element, a colonial element, to the binationalists. And their interlocutors were overwhelmingly themselves and the more-colonial Zionists; they weren’t in any significant way interlocutors with Palestinians. It became an internal Jewish debate inside of Palestine, largely and overwhelmingly. You have Ze’ev Jabotinsky, you have Ben-Gurion, and you have Magnes, and they’re all debating with each other what the form of the Jewish state should be in relation to the Palestinians.

Daniel Denvir

None of them are actually operating within the ecumenical frame.

Ussama Makdisi

The binationalists are the closest, but still with a coercive aspect. And none of them are of course from Palestine. To put it in the most basic terms, neither Magnes nor Ben-Gurion nor Jabotinsky are from Palestine or from the region. Binationalism and revisionist Zionism and mainstream Zionism are all coming from Europe.

Creating “the Arab Question”

Daniel Denvir

You write:

Ben-Gurion advocated reducing the Arabs to a minority in Palestine by massively expanding Jewish colonization, because Arabs were not Jews. Simultaneously, he vowed to treat the new Arab minority as if they were Jews. Ben-Gurion, in effect, wanted not so much to reverse engineer the millet system of the Ottoman period, but rather to reinvent in Palestine a modern European national state, with a clearly defined Jewish majority and an Arab minority. The Arabs of Palestine would become figuratively its Jews: tolerated and politically emancipated, but forever different and unassimilable into the modern Jewish body politic.

How was Zionism’s approach to the so-called Arab question — in fact, to creating a so-called Arab question — informed by how Europe had conceived of its Jewish question?

Ussama Makdisi

It depends on which colonial Zionist we’re talking about. But there’s a profound and perverse irony in that Ben-Gurion so clearly articulates precisely what the Jewish question was in Europe, and he and the colonial Zionists recreate a Jewish question in Palestine — but it’s now called “the Arab question.” Everything they fought against they create for the Palestinians.

The critique of the European emancipation of the Jews was that Jews could be politically emancipated, but that, according to the antisemites and according to the Zionists like Theodor Herzl, they could never be incorporated into the national body politic. That’s what the antisemites kept saying — “They’re not part of our nation” — and that’s what Zionists like Herzl said. “Yes, we can’t be part of the nation here, that’s why we need to create a Jewish state outside of Europe.” That’s the logic of colonial Zionism.

The remarkable thing is how Ben-Gurion and colonial Zionism creates an Arab question where there wasn’t one because they were committed — like the binationalists, by the way — to demographic transformation. Like the binationalists, they insisted on mass emigration to Palestine irrespective of native wishes, which is exactly what Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann and Jabotinsky also demanded and insisted upon: that there could be no Arab-Palestinian native say as to how many Jewish settlers or refugees were going to be allowed into Palestine.

Think of the whole idea of the ghetto of Gaza, the way it’s been created, the way the West Bank has been parceled off into sections where Palestinians can and cannot go, and how remarkable it is in terms of analogies with the Pale of Settlement. These analogies of course break down, but there’s a profound and perverse irony that Zionism has no way to incorporate Palestinians as truly equal citizens, so long as it is committed to a Jewish state.

The great fiction among the supporters of Israel in the United States is that Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state. You can’t possibly be a Jewish and democratic state in a multireligious Palestine. You’re either democratic or you’re Jewish. That contradiction is manifesting today more so than ever before.

Arab Responses to Zionism

Daniel Denvir

You write about Palestinian leader George Antonius, a Cambridge-educated Christian who wrote this popular 1938 English-language book The Arab Awakening. He was also a close ally of Arab Higher Committee leader Haj Amin [al-Husayni]. Antonius wrote of welcoming Jews as equal citizens of an Arab state:

A solution along these lines would be both fair and practical. It would protect the natural rights of the Arabs in Palestine and satisfy their legitimate national aspirations. It would also enable the Jews to have a national home in the spiritual and cultural sense, in which Jewish values could flourish and the Jewish genius have the freest play to seek inspiration in the land of its ancient connection. It would secure Great Britain’s interest on a firm basis of consent, and it would restore Palestine to its proper place as a symbol of peace in the hearts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No other solution seems practicable, except possibly at the cost of an unpredictable holocaust of Arab, Jewish, and British lives.

George Antonius was quite prescient. Who was he? What does his biography reveal about the Arab leadership of Mandate Palestine and their ideological and philosophical orientation? How did British and Zionist leaders respond to proposals from people like Antonius?

Ussama Makdisi

George Antonius was a remarkable figure. He was not a leader in a political sense of the term; he was an intellectual leader. He wrote the most famous history, in the interwar period, of the Arab national movement.

Antonius was highly educated; he was fluent in Arab and English; he was Christian, as you said, but he was Palestinian and Arab; and he had a wide range of friendships and acquaintances in this region. He was sort of the epitome of the ecumenical frame, a personification of it. He belonged to a particular faith but also transcended it.

His proposals were prescient, but they were also eminently logical. The remarkable thing about The Arab Awakening and the various petitions that he authored was that he understood there was no way to create a Jewish state without it being a profound injustice to the Palestinians.

In the last pages of that book, he says — this was before Kristallnacht, but after the Nazis had already come to power — what’s happened to the Jews of Europe is simply unacceptable; it’s unconscionable. But he said there’s no way to be moral and solve the horror of what’s happened to the Jews in Europe at the expense of another people who had no hand in this horror. It would be a travesty. And he warns against that.

You’re asking, what did the British do? They ignored him the way they ignored every single proposal, of virtually every single Arab intellectual and political leader, to end colonial Zionism.

The British didn’t end colonial Zionism; they basically abandoned Palestine after World War II to the Zionists. The partition plan of the United Nations split Palestine into two states, at the expense of the Palestinians whose land was being divided up and whose homes and so on were being given up to create space for a Jewish state. More than half of Palestine was going to be given over to the Jewish minority to create a Jewish state.

Antonius understood that this was a monstrous injustice and immoral thing, and he was one of many people who pointed this out and was ignored, from the beginning of the Mandate. From 1920 onward, the British consistently ignored, downplayed, denied Palestinian demands for a secular democratic state.

Daniel Denvir

George Antonius said clearly that the Nazi crimes against the Jewish people in Europe cannot be solved at the expense of Arab people, of Palestinian people, who had no hand in it. But notably, Zionist apologists have long pointed to Arab Higher Committee leader Haj Amin’s later support for Nazi Germany as evidence that the Palestinians themselves were fundamentally antisemites — as though they almost were complicit in the distant Holocaust themselves.

What is this Zionist narrative that’s emerged over the decades about Haj Amin? What does it obscure about what was actually taking place in Palestine, and with Haj Amin’s own trajectory?

Ussama Makdisi

It obscures the fact that there was a colonial enterprise in Palestine that was extraordinarily unjust and oppressive and coercive, the colonial Zionist enterprise backed by the British, before Haj Amin even comes onto the scene. It’s convenient for Zionist apologists to latch on to Haj Amin’s deplorable collaboration with the Nazis. But on the other hand, most historians would tell you there’s nothing very surprising about people turning to the enemies of their enemies to achieve their goals, especially after Haj Amin had been expelled from Palestine and had seen his people slaughtered and oppressed.

Without in any way shape or form justifying what he does with the Nazis and his meeting with Adolf Hitler — Haj Amin began his career in British Mandatory Palestine as a creation of the British, as the head of the Supreme Muslim Council. He was an Islamic leader; he was a national leader. He had no association with National Socialism or the Nazis until much later.

To emphasize Haj Amin is to deliberately put the focus on the later period to avoid talking about the structures and the context and the history of colonialism — and the extreme colonial violence and coercion that’s at the heart of colonial Zionism, which drove Haj Amin out of Palestine into exile and eventually into his deplorable collaboration with what he considered the enemies of his enemy. Fixating on that and ignoring everything else that came before is precisely what historians should never do. You can’t just take the end result and pretend that there’s no history before.

It’s absurd to say that Palestinians are antisemitic or that Palestinians or Haj Amin are responsible for the Holocaust. Zionist apologists say that because they have no other argument. They’re latching onto it the same way they accuse people of today of antisemitism every time they express solidarity with Palestine.

It’s a laughable position to say that Haj Amin in any way, shape, or form represents an indigenous or native antisemitic tradition that is the equivalent of the Nazis. Haj Amin did collaborate, and he’s been condemned for that. The reality is that Palestinians themselves were subjected to a colonial enterprise from 1917 all the way until their ethnic cleansing in 1948; Haj Amin is a transient moment.

And remember, his position in Palestine as the head of the Supreme Muslim Council was a position created by the British to mollify Arab concerns in Palestine in the 1920s. Remarkably, the British did not create a secular national equivalent to the Zionists whom they recognized in the Mandate structure. They created the Supreme Muslim Council; they tried to create this Muslim equivalent to the Jewish national project without any of the same kinds of privileges vis-à-vis the nature of the administration of the British mandate and its ultimate goal.

So Haj Amin is someone who’s created by the British. He was a nationalist leader in the 1920s, and eventually he did become anti-Jewish. There’s no doubt about that. But that is in the context of this conflict where you have a Jewish Zionist nationalist movement that is aggressively claiming all of Palestine.

So by 1940, he equates Jews with the enemy. And we can condemn him all we want, but it does not come out of an ideology of racial difference. Haj Amin is a symptom of the problem of British colonialism and of colonial Zionism and of one particular reaction to it at a particular moment, that everyone on Earth has deplored — without deploring the racist nature of colonial Zionism in Palestine.

Daniel Denvir

Zionist settlers quickly framed violent Palestinian resistance to their settlement project as pogroms, misleadingly but revealingly using a term that implies mob violence with government complicity. The British, meanwhile, pathologized the violence as sectarian, and in doing so ignored their own complicity. You write:

Having created a political context in which an obviously new intercommunal conflict erupted before their eyes, British colonial officials presumed to stand above the racial and religious fray, as if they were not deeply implicated in it. An important element of this discourse was the judgment of sectarian acts as barbaric, and their contrast with the allegedly normative, civilized order of British rule.

In what way was this emerging pattern of violence set by British imperialists and by Zionist settlers? Why did the way that Zionists and British colonialists respectively frame this violence serve their interests? And in what ways did it help lay the foundation for discourses around Arab and Muslim violence that we’ve continued to see in recent decades?

Ussama Makdisi

The most obvious answer is to say that the major Arab-Jewish riots, the first major sort of breakdown along lines of Arabs versus Jews, takes place after the Mandate is created in the early period, after the Balfour Declaration. It clearly indicates that people who had been protesting, appealing, pleading with the British to abandon the Balfour Declaration because it’s so manifestly and egregiously unjust to the natives . . . if you accept that the natives are equal, which of course the Balfour Declaration did not, nor did colonial Zionism. They just ignored the natives, as if they were totally irrelevant to understandings of Zionism.

The reality is that people protest and protest and protest, and when you keep ignoring their civil protest they turn to other means. The breakdown of order and these anti-British, anti-Zionist riots inevitably do conflate [Jews and Zionism] — and this is the great tragedy of colonial Zionism.

The perverse irony of what’s going on is that this happens after colonial Zionism enters the scene, because they’re trying to create a Jewish state and they make it very difficult for people to identify as Arab Jews or Jewish Arabs. It’s antithetical to the logic of Zionism, which is to say that your political identity is tied to your Judaism, which is tied to the Jewish state that’s going to be created. Zionism is antithetical to the ecumenical project.

So when there is an anti-colonial uprising or riot, there’s no question that innocent people are killed. There’s no question that there was also Zionist provocation, in almost every instance, including by Jabotinsky in the first Nebi Musa riot.

The amazing thing about this is how Jabotinsky and others describe it as pogrom. “Pogrom” is completely misleading, because it’s not a pogrom. It’s not that the British were tolerating Palestinian attacks on Jews — absolutely not. You can think of it as an anti-colonial mobilization, or a riot in the context of a developing colonial situation.

It’s absurd to equate these two contexts, because one is where the Jews are living in Europe and victimized and discriminated against historically, culturally, and politically, and in fact targeted by people associated with the state as the state doesn’t do anything to protect them. And the other is colonial Palestine, where the Zionists are coming in with extraordinary racism . . . talk about Weizmann and Jabotinsky, their racism toward the Palestinians was profound. They write about it, and the records are there for anyone to look at.

Daniel Denvir

You write, “The brutal British suppression of the anti-colonial revolt in Palestine in 1936 had already galvanized anti-Zionist sentiment across the Arab world, and it stigmatized Arab Jews as potential agents of Zionism.” A key moment here is 1941 when these attacks in Baghdad known as the Farhud take place, killing 180 Jews. This is in the wake of the British overthrowing a nationalist government in Iraq and reimposing the Hashemite monarchy.

What was the place of Jews in Baghdadi society in particular? What did this outbreak of violence reveal about how Zionism and also these larger colonial forces were transforming the entire region’s capacity for coexistence, and Baghdad’s in particular?

Ussama Makdisi

It’s a very difficult history, in the sense that what happened to the Jews of Baghdad in the Farhud of 1941 was terrible. It’s one of the horrific results of the breakdown of coexistence that had been the hallmark of this part of the world for centuries.

The remarkable thing is that what’s happened since then is that there’s been a denial on the part of the colonial Zionists, who then say, “Look what happened to the Jews of Baghdad. Look at the Farhud: this is proof that Zionism is essential.” They missed the point that without colonial Zionism, without the provocations of colonial Zionism — what it was doing in Palestine, building up, over decades, an extraordinary amount of resentment that would never have been placed on the Jews of Baghdad or anyone else.

The Farhud became part of a colonial Zionist project, both in terms of the interpretation, in terms of resistance to it, in terms of the way it was denied or manipulated. The Baghdadi Jewish community persisted for a while, at least until the creation of Israel in 1952. But it certainly was a terrible mark that foreshadowed the end of Arab-Jewish coexistence in Iraq in this period.

It shouldn’t have been an end; it should have been, if anything, a warning to people: this is what happens when people conflate religious identities with political identities. It’s catastrophic to do so. You need to condemn the Farhud unequivocally, and then work to build a new form of Arab-Jewish or Muslim-Christian-Jewish sense of coexistence, whether it’s in Iraq or elsewhere. But that wasn’t possible precisely because of colonial Zionism.

The problem with all these terrible moments of sectarian violence is that people tend to want to avoid talking about them, rather than discussing and being honest about them and documenting them, and talking about the great tragedy of this moment. It’s both the persecution of the Palestinians and their ethnic cleansing and the destruction of their society by colonial Zionism and colonial Zionists like Ben-Gurion and Weizmann and others — and then the reaction, in certain parts of the Arab world, which was in fact anti-Jewish. They conflated Jews with Zionists.

It’s one of the great tragedies and terrible effects of colonial Zionism’s damage to the ecumenical frame. That doesn’t absolve the people who did the actions, and it doesn’t absolve Arab nationalists and Iraqi nationalists and others of their responsibility. But it puts it in a certain framework.

Daniel Denvir

A powerful and deeply humanistic thing about your book is that you tell the story of 1948 as an intertwined set of catastrophes. Because alongside the Nakba, Mizrachi Jews fled or were expelled to Israel from across an Arab world they had long inhabited as Arab Jews. Suddenly, you write, “Arab Jew becomes an impossible identity.”

Not exactly suddenly — but this is really the breaking point, where that identity that has been under stress for these decades of Zionist settlement, becomes no longer possible. You write:

The eviction of hundreds of thousands of Muslim and Christian Palestinian Arabs perversely and tragically sealed the fate of Jewish communities in the Arab world. The loss of a multireligious Palestine was a terrible blow that was compounded by the end of Jewish life in most of the Arab world. The destruction of the idea that one could be simultaneously Arab and Jewish still scars the Arab world.

How did this mass displacement of Mizrachi Jews in places like Baghdad occur? To what extent were Zionist or Israeli agents directly complicit in it?

Ussama Makdisi

The answer depends on which place we’re talking about. In the case of Iraq: Avi Shlaim, an Israeli historian, recently published a memoir where he says Israeli or Zionist agents planted bombs in synagogues or something like this. He says that the Zionists were absolutely responsible for creating conditions that helped the exodus of Iraqi Jews out of Iraq.

On the other hand, the Iraqi state obviously played the crucial role in this. It fell to this extraordinarily low level of encouraging Jewish Iraqis to leave Iraq. It was a catastrophic reaction to Zionism.

It’s also a catastrophic failure of imagination. What it does, in effect, is to confirm in the worst possible way this idea that you can’t be Jewish and Iraqi, or Jewish and Arab. That’s why, I think, in places like Syria and elsewhere, Jews were not expelled. Nor were they expelled in Egypt and Lebanon.

Also, you did have agents on the ground who are mobilizing Jewish communities, especially after the Holocaust, in the Arab East. There was a huge reservoir of people that the Zionist state wanted after the catastrophe of the Holocaust. They wanted to bring Iraqi Jews, Moroccan Jews, Tunisian Jews, Yemeni Jews into Israel to bolster the demographic change after expelling the native Palestinians.

Rather than see these expulsions as antithetical, one has to see them as related, because this is the same horror that has different aspects. Both are fundamentally, in my reading, a product and a consequence of colonial Zionism in Palestine. There is no reason why Arab and Jewish should have become as antithetical as they became.

The Arab World After the Nakba

Daniel Denvir

The Nakba laid the groundwork for the next era of Arab politics. You write:

The sense of crisis expressed by many Arab writers reflected a clear Nahdawist sensibility. Why were we defeated? What went wrong? How can we change ourselves in the face of a victorious and clearly modern Zionism?

Some answers to these difficult questions were squarely secular nationalist. Others, like those proposed by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, were quite clearly more Islamist. And still others were communist or socialist. The 1948 defeat in Palestine catalyzed rather than diminished a commitment among many Arabs to an ecumenical nationalist frame, insofar as Muslim-Christian understanding was concerned. The prevailing sentiment was not that the the Nahda ideas of progress or brotherhood had been wrong, but that they needed far more urgent, anti-colonial, systematic, sovereign nationalization.

The great defeat of 1948 thus called for root-and-branch reform. The palpable sense of danger that surrounded the Arab world was mirrored by the belief that the response to this danger could best be — indeed, had to be — articulated by Arabs themselves.

The following period would see powerful egalitarian and universalist left politics. But it would also give rise to more sectarian projects. Can you describe how different actors responded to this crisis for Arabs and for the Nahda, as Arabs, from the perspective of the Nahda? How was the crisis discussed? What new courses were charted in the midst of it?

Ussama Makdisi

The catastrophe of the Nakba, the destruction of Palestine and the dispersal of Palestinians and their eviction and ethnic cleansing by the new Israeli state, this so-called Jewish state that was created at the expense of the native population, had massive reverberations around the region.

People first of all were stunned by the extent of the catastrophe. A lot of people, especially in the neighboring countries, didn’t have the same sense of what this project was. Even after Palestinians had been expelled, a lot of people thought they were going to go back to their homes. It’s only with time that they realize that there’s no going back right away or in the foreseeable future.

Then, the defeat of all these Arab armies . . . I shouldn’t even say armies, because they really were detachments. These were all relatively new states with incredibly weak militaries; the only effective military force was the Jordanian force, which was under British officers. The Zionists and the Jordanians had already colluded before the war to figure out how to divide up the pie, so to speak. The Egyptians were incredibly poorly equipped, the Syrians were poorly equipped, and so on.

Nevertheless, the shock of the defeat of all these newly independent Arab states — in a cause that was so obviously one of justice and injustice from an Arab perspective — inevitably had a huge effect around the region. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who becomes the leader of Egypt and the most famous Arab leader of the twentieth century — and certainly the most anti-colonial Arab leader of the twentieth century — talks in his memoir about being scarred by his involvement in the 1940 war. [He talks about fighting without proper equipment], and then realizing that there was a profound problem at home in Egypt.

They were fighting a just cause, but with the wrong kind of support, with the wrong kind of leadership, with the wrong kind of state that was dependent on the British. He realized a fundamental change was needed.

Other people took different lessons from it. The Islamists took a different set of lessons; the communists took a different set of lessons. There were revolutions throughout the period, in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq. There was a series of revolutions right after 1948, in part because of the simple problem that colonial Zionism presented, which is, how can we lose to this modern Zionist project that very clearly fuses religious identity with secular national state-building?

That poses an existential problem to being Arab. Different people had different answers. But every single person, whether Islamist or secularist or nationalist or communist, understood that colonial Zionism was an existential problem: both because of the location of Palestine, because of Palestine’s significance, and because of an awareness that the Zionist project was not going to go away anytime soon.

Daniel Denvir

How did the legacy of the Nahda and the decades of Mandate-period resistance to Zionism come to shape the contours and dominant trends of Palestinian nationalism, of the Palestinian national movement, in the decades after ’48?

Ussama Makdisi

The most obvious thing is that there were Christian and Muslim leaders of the Palestinian national movement. Yasser Arafat is the most famous, and he was the most important of all the leaders, and he of course was Muslim. But George Habash was another famous Palestinian leader, the head of the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], and he was Christian.

Both were exiled from their homeland; both were refugees; both were made stateless by the Nakba of 1948; and both were committed in different ways to this idea of reconstituting a Palestinian identity, an Arab identity, in the context of an ecumenical frame — Muslim and Christian. Precisely because there is this Zionist project that confronts one constantly with an extraordinarily aggressive, violent project of settler colonialism, it forces Christians and Muslims together. In part, they would have done it anyway, because that’s the inheritance of the Nahda — they would have worked together no matter what. But in part they worked together because of the pressures being put on them by the Zionists.

The tragedy again is that Arab Jews and Jewish Arabs quickly leave the equation in this period. Ideally, they one day will come back into an anti-colonial fold, when Arab Jewish or Jewish Arab identity is reconstituted in new terms. Because in the end, that is a key component of any future.

The Legacy of Imperialism

Daniel Denvir

The “war on terror,” the US-UK invasion of Iraq, the resulting rise of ISIS and their obliteration of the Mandate Arab order, the Syrian Civil War — for the past few violent decades, everything in the Middle East has come to be understood through the lens of sectarianism, and extraordinarily violent sectarianism at that. How can the story you tell help us demystify these dominant narratives that frame, for the West, these nightmares that have so engulfed so much of the region since September 11?

Ussama Makdisi

These nightmares have engulfed the region in large part thanks to US imperialism, thanks to colonial Zionism, and thanks to the repressive state structures that were set up by the British and then the Americans, during and after the Cold War. That’s part number one.

There is no ISIS in the period I’m talking about. There’s no ISIS in the nineteenth century; there’s no ISIS in the twentieth century. There’s no ISIS in the eighteenth or seventeenth or sixteenth or fifteenth centuries. . . . You just need to know a bit of history to understand how anachronistic, how cartoonishly anachronistic, ISIS is. The horror show of what ISIS became is a dystopia created by the wreckage of major societies and urban centers after 9/11, in America’s so-called war on terror.

We all know that the US invasion of Iraq was not just profoundly immoral, but also profoundly illegal and waged under false pretenses of the connection between 9/11 and Iraq. Everyone knew at the time, frankly; everyone who knew any history knew it was a ludicrous association between Iraq and 9/11.

Palestine has been destroyed. Lebanon has been convulsed by a civil war, and the state structure was more or less cannibalized and destroyed. Syria has been destroyed. Iraq has been destroyed. Israel itself is in constant crisis, and it deliberately sees itself as not part of the region; it sees itself as foreign, as European, as Western.

The amazing thing about this is that the very heart of what had been the most extraordinary, promising, dynamic embodiment of coexistence for centuries, culminating in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, is today a dystopian landscape in terms of the amount of horror and sectarianism and so on. But that’s all in the context of a post-1948, certainly post-1967, US domination of this region.

ISIS has to do with what’s happened to this region since 1948, and certainly since 1967, and this US obsession with oil and Israel and Arab autocracies. The strangulation of any kind of democratic, civic order in this part of the world has led us to this kind of dead end where we are today.

Daniel Denvir

You write, “The military nationalist revolutionaries in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria proffered a basic bargain to their respective citizenries. In return for an allegedly powerful sovereignty denied them by British and French colonialism, they demanded a monopoly on power to fulfill the promise of this sovereignty.” And “strongmen appeared to be best positioned to thwart Western colonialism and Zionism, and to decisively overthrow the old order of things with its feudal interests and religious obscurantists.”

Can we explain these domestic and internal factors in a way that abstracts from the colonial context — not only historically, in terms of the Mandate period and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, but continuously, as Western imperial power passes from being a European to an American-led project?

Ussama Makdisi

Absolutely not. That’s like trying to analyze Africa in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century without European colonialism. It’s like trying to analyze Central America without US hegemony, or Mexico or Haiti and so on.

The decay of the state structures, the abuses of the authoritarian leaders, their antidemocratic tendencies . . . this may well have happened without Israel or without the United States. But the reality is that the wars and the militarization of the region — 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 — these had a profound effect on Egypt and Syria. You can’t possibly dissociate these things.

The Ba’ath Party that took over both Syria and Iraq in different branches was itself a creation of the interwar period and an anti-colonial mobilization. The Gulf states now, which have such enormous resources, are all profoundly antidemocratic and in the US orbit. You can’t separate one from the other. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US of course went to war to expel Iraq. You can’t get rid of the United States from this equation.

There’s no way of separating the internal debacles from the US. And the Arab regimes have been debacles, there’s no doubt about that. Take the Syrian government today: the oppression of Syrians, the constant usage of a discourse of ecumenism, of national unity, to crush dissent, is one of the worst manipulations of the history of the ecumenical frame that I’ve been talking about.

There’s a real history of coexistence that then gets manipulated by these regimes. The Egyptian government does the same thing today. They use the history of coexistence to prop up their own authoritarian, antidemocratic rule at the expense of the very people who had been at the heart of elaborating this idea of an ecumenical culture.

Daniel Denvir

[Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi tries to present himself as “the only person who can defend the Coptic Christians.” Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad says, “I’m the only one can defend the Alawites against the raving mad Islamists.”

Ussama Makdisi

The tragedy in this is that people in both Syria and Egypt, especially the minorities, believe it. It’s hard to make this exactly right as a historian, but it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the same way that Zionism is with Jews, saying, “You can’t be Arab and Jewish, you have to choose sides, and we’re the ones who will protect you.” It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s the same thing with this. If you keep pushing and pushing and antagonizing people and then claiming minorities, you end up in this catastrophic situation, which is what’s happened in Syria, in Egypt, in Palestine.

Daniel Denvir

It’s often Arabs themselves who best understand that the Arab regimes have been debacles. Looking just at major political upheavals in very recent years — namely Iraq’s Tishreen movement and Lebanon’s 17 October Revolution — what does it reveal that these mass movements across the Mashriq continue to mobilize squarely against sectarianism?

Ussama Makdisi

The ecumenical frame has been manipulated by authoritarian, antidemocratic leaders, in almost every instance in the Mashriq. Whether it’s in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, they all manipulate the ecumenical heritage to stay in power, to divide and rule. They do it constantly.

Nevertheless, despite the catastrophes of ISIS and the dystopia that the United States has introduced into this region in its quest for total domination, for hegemony, for oil, to support Israel in its colonialism against the Palestinians . . . despite all this, what’s remarkable is how many people remain committed at a fundamental level to still living, still embodying the ecumenical frame. What they need is a change of context.

Maybe they’ll be able to produce it themselves, as with the attempt at a so-called Arab Spring that was crushed. That doesn’t mean they’ll be crushed in the future; who knows what’s going to happen. The point is that they have a heritage. They have a history they can draw upon. A certain aspect of it has a kind of beauty of coexistence that can be mobilized and marshaled once again.

We go back to the question of the Arab Jew or the Jewish Arab. To me that is a crucial aspect of the future as well. That has to be reconstituted to help resolve the question of Palestine in real terms: in terms of equality, in terms of freedom, in terms of liberation. If and when that’s resolved, we’ll see resolutions of other issues in the region as well. At least I’d hope.