The Arab Imago: A slideshow of portrait photography

The Arab Imago book coverThe dawn of photography coincided with the expansion of European imperialism; as a result, many of the oldest photographs from the Middle East come from the skewed colonial perspective of Europeans. In his forthcoming book, The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography 1860-1910Stephen Sheehi offers an alternative history via numerous Arab and Armenian photographers who created their own images of Middle Eastern people. Sheehi seeks to define the past by these insider photographs, not the Orientalist pictures first circulated by foreign photographers. Many of the images come from posed studio portraits, showcasing the intricacy and clarity of the style, as well as the wide range of people who chose to be photographed.

This slideshow represents just a small selection of the early photographs featured in the book. Click on an image to enlarge and read the caption.



Simon Reich: Does it matter who wins the election when it comes to the Middle East?


Elections, the perennial wisdom tells us, are generally not decided by foreign policy issues.

But who’s to say that 2016 will not buck the trend, as it has in so many other ways?

We are potentially only one Paris-style terrorist attack or a brazenly aggressive act by Russian President Putin from changing the mood and focus of the American electorate.

Indeed, Republican voters already consider terrorism their primary concern. And the never-ending, slow drip release of Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi emails is certain to return the spotlight to foreign policy.

So let’s take a look at how the candidates stack up in the most contentious region in the world: the Middle East.

Whom to compare – and why

Let’s look at the three major Republicans left in the race.

Donald Trump has actually said very little about foreign policy, especially about the Middle East.

In fact there are essentially few discernible differences between Trump’s position on the region and those of his main rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

While Trump says little, Cruz’s position is one-dimensional. He would rely on brute force. Cruz has said he wants to “carpet bomb” the Islamic militants and find out whether “sand can glow in the dark.” But there isn’t much beyond that. Still, it is more than Trump has offered which is to “behead” the Islamic State, or ISIS, and steal their oil.

Rubio’s position is the most fleshed-out, probably because he has the most foreign policy expertise and has spent time working on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. Not surprisingly, therefore, he also offers the most comprehensive plan for dealing with ISIS, the central focus of his plans for the Middle East if elected.

Hillary Clinton, of course, has by far the most foreign policy experience of any candidate left in this year’s field – and arguably among the most of any in history.

First Lady, Secretary of State, the Clinton Foundation: she has a unique resume.

Two different world views

So how do Clinton and the Republicans compare when it comes to American policy the Middle East?

President Obama has often, I believe unfairly, been accused of having no grand strategy at all, let alone one for the region.

The consensus among American policymakers is that there are are four enduring interests for the U.S. in the Middle East: oil, regime change, terrorism and the protection of its allies (always Israel and, more variably, Saudi Arabia).

Then there are also always a series of proximate issues that dominate the press – like Iran’s nuclear program or ISIS’ conquests.

The differences between these candidates are which they prioritize, and how they approach them.

Clinton’s liberal internationalism

Clinton’s approach to strategy in most of these areas relies on what policymakers and academics generally label a liberal internationalist approach, one that employs what they call “smart power.”

This approach relies on a combination of tools – diplomatic, economic, military, political, technological and cultural – in the pursuit of foreign policy.

Secretary of State Clinton speaks on Middle East policy in 2010 Jose Luis Magaua/Reuters

Secretary of State Clinton speaks on Middle East policy in 2010
Jose Luis Magaua/Reuters

Clinton has explicitly written and talked about smart power. She used this approach in Libya in 2011 when the goal was regime change
and would employ the same cocktail: for example, to defeat terrorist groups like ISIS. But while she favors a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Syria, she eschews the idea of American forces entering a Middle Eastern ground war at this point.

So, right or wrong, she appears to have learned some lessons from the Iraq debacle and the shorter Libyan intervention.

All presidential candidates talk about the essential role the U.S. plays as a “leader.” But, when they use that word, they don’t always mean the same thing.

Generally, Clinton favors the kind of influential multilateral approach to leadership adopted by the Obama administration in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. There it saw itself as a “first among equals”: that is, a member of a group who is officially on the same level as the other members but who has more responsibility or power.

In practice, that means that the U.S. sets the agenda and largely defines the approach to problem, even as it seeks and acts on the basis of consensus.

It also means that its policymakers anticipate the need to compromise. John Kerry epitomized that approach in the exhaustive negotiations with the Iranians.

The Republican primacist view of the world

The Republicans all rely on a very different set of principles in defining their general strategy.

It is one that policy wonks and academics label “primacist.” A primacist approach relies much more on military power than Clinton’s more balanced elixir when it comes to foreign policy.

Cruz, for example, simply wants to destroy what he calls “radical Islam” from the air through carpet-bombing.

Rubio’s view is more developed. His view of leadership entails a rhetorical reference to multilateral coalitions. But still, like Cruz or Trump, he has a far greater willingness to act unilaterally without regard to the concerns of organizations such as the United Nations.

Senator Rubio at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (with Senator John McCain in the background). Larry Downing/Reuters

Senator Rubio at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (with Senator John McCain in the background).
Larry Downing/Reuters

So it isn’t surprising that Rubio’s stump speech includes lots of references to rebuilding and modernizing the military in the face of what he characterizes as “devastating” recent defense cuts. Indeed, Trump has said it would be his first order of business if elected president.

Of course, America’s military power is unprecedented. And the danger of a primacist approach is that policy makers see the use of force as a first option rather than a last one in resolving every problem. Indeed, it recalls the adage that “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Obama tried to construct a national security strategy that conserves American power. Clinton advocates much the same. But the Republicans’ philosophy is based on the belief that the aggressive use of American power will only make it more powerful.

So it isn’t surprising that Rubio’s plan to defeat ISIS includes a ground war. Or that all the Republicans are staunch advocates of intervention against countries like Iran and say they would tear up the agreement with the Iranians (and indeed roll back any agreement with Cuba if elected.)

Unlike Clinton, Rubio, for example, would aggressively support regime changes in both countries. The Republicans reject what Obama characterizes as “strategic patience” an approach that emphasizes the importance of awaiting changes to slowly unfold in both countries.

Similarities – yes, there are some

Nevertheless, there are some areas where Clinton and the Republicans would likely enforce similar policies.

These are areas where every president, including Obama, have been remarkably consistent. The U.S. Navy, for example, protects freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz off Iran’s coast. Their goal is to ensure that world markets are not roiled by a sudden shortage of Middle Eastern oil caused by sabotage of tankers passing through this narrow waterway.

And they’d all maintain a close alliance relationship with Israel, although – based on their rhetoric – the Republicans would be exceptionally uncritical.

Clinton, for her part, has consistently supported Israel and has links to America’s Jewish community that can be traced back decades. But her support of the Iran deal has cast a doubt in the minds of some of Israel’s supporters as to her fidelity when it matters the most.

So what should we conclude?

At the end of the day, the policy differences between Clinton and the leading Republicans are occasionally stark. At other times, however, they are unclear.

If we are to believe what they say (which is always an issue in any election season), then the chances of America entering a new ground war in the Middle East will significantly increase under a Republican president. Their style would be more forceful as they rely more on American military power as an instrument of change.

Clinton’s style and tone would differ. Looking at the success of the Iran agreement, she might be tempted to rely more on multilateral diplomacy as a first option and force as a last – even if it means negotiating with people she doesn’t like.

Then again, despite her impressive resume, Clinton might feel that she has to demonstrate some resolve, as America’s first female president, to address any lingering doubts. And in the Middle East there is no way of knowing where that will lead.

One thing is certain: whoever becomes president, there is no way that America will relinquish its continued obsession with the region.The Conversation

Simon Reichgood-bye hegemony reich jacket, Professor in The Division of Global Affairs and The Department of Political Science, Rutgers University NewarkHis most recent book is Good-Bye Hegemony! Power and Influence in the Global System.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Emma’s Muslim Counterpart

A Lost Persian Diary from Jane Austen’s England

by Nile Green

December 2015 marks the two hundred year anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma. As symbolized in Lord Byron’s introduction to Sir Walter Scott that year in the offices of Emma’s publisher, John Murray, 1815 was one of the most notable years in English literary history.

But there is another important work from the period that has lain forgotten for two centuries. It is the diary of a young Muslim from Iran who spent four years exploring the society from which Austen created Emma’s elegant little world. Written in England, the diary was composed in the Persian language, so while it is not part of ‘English literature,’ it should still be considered part of ‘England’s literature.’ For that reason, the diary of Mirza Salih Shirazi needs setting beside Emma as its forgotten Muslim counterpart.

1811 Coach from the London-Cheltenham Route

Jane (or Salih) Sat Here? 1811 Coach from the London-Cheltenham Route

As a rapidly written diary, Mirza Salih’s text cannot lay claim to the celebrated artistry of Austen writing at the peak of her powers in Emma’s innovative point-of-view prose. But in the spirit of the Persian literary tradition of the su’al va javab, or ‘call and response,’ we might consider the diary as the non-fictional reply to Emma’s, and Austen’s, world.

Along with his five Muslim companions, Mirza Salih had arrived in London in the fall of 1815, a few months before the novel was published. They lodged with their aptly named chaperone, Mr. D’Arcy (though not Darcy), in his splendid Regency bachelor pad overlooking Leicester Square. Jane Austen was also living in London’s West End that season, staying on Sloane Street with her brother, Henry. The Iranians were the first Muslims ever to study in western Europe and they had just wandered right into Jane Austen’s milieu. It was to shape their entire experience of English life.

Many of the themes of Emma find echoes in the Persian diary. Like Emma Woodhouse, Mirza Salih was much concerned with his social standing and recorded many of the slights he experienced. He was no less ambitious than Emma; like her, he was what we would now call a brilliant social networker. And like Austen’s novel, his diary ends with a wedding.

The echoes between the two texts are not only thematic, though. They are also in the more tangible realm of place. In the novel, Emma’s sister Isabella lives with her family on London’s Brunswick Square, whereas a few months after its publication Mirza Salih could be found living with his tutor two minutes’ walk away on neighboring Queen Square. Just as in the novel Mr Elton went to Bath to meet his beloved Augusta, Mirza Salih also journeyed there to take the waters and show off his fashionable pelisse. (An 1814 pelisse is on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton that supposedly belonged to the author).

When Austen wrote of Augusta Elton that “her Bath habits made evening-parties perfectly natural to her, and Maple Grove had given her a taste for dinners,” she might have been writing of Mirza Salih, whose charms at Bath’s dinner parties were still remembered decades later. On one occasion, he dined as the guest of Mrs Hester Piozzi, the celebrated literary hostess and close friend of Dr Johnson. Although Austen had mocked Mrs Piozzi in a letter to her sister Cassandra in June 1799, ironically she never became famous enough in her lifetime to be invited to Piozzi’s salon.

As for Augusta’s background before her rise to respectability that the snobbish Emma disdained, she was “the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol — merchant, of course, he must be called.” Though Mirza Salih shared some of Emma’s social anxieties, he was fascinated by the merchant industrialists who are usually hidden or slighted in Austen’s novels. And it was in Bristol that he made friends with several of them. He visited the home of the prosperous merchant John Harford, who showed him the glassworks and iron foundries that powered him (and Mrs Elton) to prosperity and (for Emma, false) respectability. Indeed, like Augusta through her marriage to the poor but well-born Mr Elton, Harford likewise secured his family’s admission to the gentry through marriage.

Like many characters in Austen’s novels, Mr Elton was a vicar. As with Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Austen drew on a class of men she knew well when she created Mr Elton. Her father, brother and many of their friends were clergymen. Like Mr Elton, her father, George, was genteel but far from rich. As a result, George Austen had to open a small private school to make ends meet. It was at another such little ‘Academy for Gentlemen’ — this one run by a provincial vicar called John Bisset — that Mirza Salih learned English (and, like Jane from her father, French). Like George Austen, John Bisset was an Oxford graduate. He passed on the varsity’s lessons to Mirza Salih, who was forbidden to enter Oxford as a Muslim just as the similarly ‘vicarious’ student Jane was forbidden entry as a woman.

As I researched my book about Mirza Salih’s adventures in England, it often seemed as though he was miming scenes out of Emma, whether at study or at play. He even recorded an amorous coach journey through the West Country that mirrored the travels of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax en route to their tryst in Dorset.

While there is every reason to celebrate the bicentenary of Emma this month, it’s also an occasion to resurrect its lost Muslim counterpart. For that forgotten Persian diary is also a part of England’s, if not English, literature.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include The Love of Strangers and  Sufism: A Global History. He lives in Los Angeles.

Six Muslim Students in Jane Austen’s England

A true antidote for the tenor of recent discourse, this is the most welcome of stories about the Middle East and the West: one of friendships. Nile Green, Professor of History at UCLA, chronicles the frustration and fellowship of six young men abroad and the transformative encounter between an Evangelical England and an Islamic Iran at the dawn of the modern age.

Selections from the Persian Diary of Mirza Salih Shirazi

Translated by Nile Green

Muslim Views on the Enlightenment: On Famous Thinkers & Social Niceties

Green jacketAs part of their quest for learning, Mirza Salih and his companions became fascinated by the lives of famous Western thinkers, both male and female. As Muslim conduits of the European Enlightenment, they were especially interested in social reformers and philosophers. In his diary, Mirza Salih included a long summary of the historical writings of David Hume, the paragon of the Scottish Enlightenment. But the Muslims students also understood that ideas have social contexts. Like pioneer anthropologists, they tried to understand British manners and habits with sympathy. Sometimes that meant demanding forms of Austenesque etiquette; sometimes it meant finding new ways to charm Miss Austen’s Regency misses.

On the pioneering woman writer Hannah More: “Because Miss More has written a number of books of her own, and published them as well, everyone – whether foreigners or locals, of high or low standing – comes to call on her. She has a large library of her own and lives in a house twelve miles outside Bristol, set between two mountains and positioned alongside the foot of one of them.”

On Newton’s statue in Cambridge: “Sir Isaac Newton was a philosopher who was both the eyes and the lantern of England.”

On Americans: “Benjamin Franklin was one of the philosophers and learned ones.” Mirza Salih goes on to describe with sympathy Franklin’s unsuccessful mission of conciliation to the English parliament and to respectfully describe “General George Washington” and his war for independence.

The Original Bluestocking: Hannah More

The Original Bluestocking: Hannah More

On breakfasting with the British: “Before arriving at the breakfast table, it is important to don elegant dress, to wash one’s hands and face, and for men to shave. At table, no-one is allowed to exchange their utensils with those of another person. And one must also display good manners and make polite table-talk throughout the meal.”

On cultural assimilation: “If they strive to make me wear English clothes because they think that way I will learn something and that it is the appropriate thing to do, then that is easy enough for me. And anyway, being in conflict with this or that, whether to prefer a fur hat to a foreign beret, is also quite enjoyable.”

On social calls: “Gentlemen like to call on ladies at around four in the afternoon. The ladies then serve them cheese and wine. They call this ‘tiffin.’”

Muslim Tourists in Miss Austen’s England: On the Virtues of British Cities

Birmingham Persian: ‘Justice’ Coin Minted by Matthew Boulton (1219/1804)

Birmingham Persian: ‘Justice’ Coin Minted by Matthew Boulton (1219/1804)

Although they were based in London, the six Muslim students made tours to other parts of England, all of them described in Mirza Salih’s Persian diary. Wherever they went, they were greeted like celebrities, with the tabloids of the day describing their fashionable taste in clothes and books. In Bath, they flaunted their fine fur pelisses; in Cambridge, they showed off their knowledge of Milton. At times, they wandered right into Jane Austen’s milieu, even walking past her former home in Bath. At other times, their tours of factories and textile mills remind us of the industrializing England that was hidden behind the hedgerows of Pride & Prejudice’s Pemberley.

On London’s parks: “One is Hyde Park; another is St James’ Park; another is Green Park; and another is Regent’s Park. In each of them, the people of London come there at one o’clock in the afternoon to spend time strolling around and conversing. Men and women, who might be family of friends, lock hands as they stroll. Those who have their own carriages go there in their carriages; other people ride horses. They stay there, ambling around, till it gets dark. But it is the custom there that no-one at all speaks loudly. If a blind person went there, he would imagine that none of the English can speak or that speaking has been banned there!”

On visiting Bath: “They have built six hammams around the hot waters and in those baths the hot water flows directly out of the ground. Men and women go together to the same hammam. But so that it is not unseemly, the women wear dresses that cover their entire bodies.”

On the lackluster view along the Thames: “There are some good houses, buildings and other places along the way.”

On the booming British arm’s industry: “Birmingham is a city that is famous for manufacturing weapons of war, including muskets (tufang), swords (shamshir), pistols (tubancha), daggers (chaqu) and other weapons. There are many factories there with large crowds of people are busy at work.

A Muslim Assessment of Oxford: A Baffling Visit to the Varsity

After working so hard on their English grammar and Latin prose, Mirza Salih and Mirza Ja‘far dreamt of becoming the first Muslims to study at Oxford. At a time when Catholics and even Baptists were banned from studying there, it was a high ambition. And as they learned more about the social hierarchies that surrounded English learning, they realized they needed more than an acquaintance with subjunctives and Cicero to win them entry to the varsity. They would also need patrons. For over a year, they networked hard. Then, at the beginning of Michaelmas term 1818, Salih and Ja‘far boarded the Oxford stagecoach from London. They had been invited to attend Encaenia, the dazzling degree ceremony that attracts thousands of tourists to this day. But the young Muslims were no fans of ritual and pageantry. They had seekers of science.

We ate lunch and then went out to the palace in which the Vice Chancellor, who is the master of Oxford, examines people for the degree of doctor… When the Vice Chancellor came in all the people rose from their seats. Several persons walked in before him bearing long maces of gold and silver, and after them came the Vice Chancellor himself, dressed all in scarlet and wearing a garment like a bashliq thrown over one shoulder. He entered with extreme pomp and then sat down at the head of the assembly. On two chairs to either side of him were sat two other people known as ‘proctors.’ Two other men, previously among the lords of learning, had examined the scholars of the colleges, written something and passed it to their hands; this was composed in the Latin tongue. So the Vice Chancellor stood up from his place and read out this announcement as the whole assembly listened. Then the two proctors rose from their seats… There were three such to-ings and fro-ings in this way before the gaze of the whole assembly. In our eyes especially it seemed nothing but tomfoolery and excess.

 At the degree ceremony, two people were given scarlet gowns and awarded the title of Doctor. Several people from among the examiners testified in Latin that they were proficient in such and such a subject, the Vice Chancellor awarded the two candidates their degrees and then the assembly disbanded. Both of their names, degrees and branches of learning were recorded in ledgers. Although the Vice Chancellor is no greater a doctor than anyone else, as the master of Oxford he is one of the notables and great ones of England, such that the aforementioned doctors become his deputies. For this reason, he was arrogant towards us in a way that none of the other khans of Oxford were. Indeed, from when we entered the hall until the time we left, he did not so much as utter a word to us, nor even offer a glance in our direction. And so neither did we utter a word to anyone as we exited and walked towards the festivities in the ‘botanic’ garden….

“We Are All Made of Stars: The Radcliffe Observatory as the Students Saw It”

We Are All Made of Stars: The Radcliffe Observatory as the Students Saw It

 Nearby is a mansion that is called the ‘Observatory’, which is a place where astronomy is taught. Huge telescopes and astrolabes are kept there, and the people who are studying astronomy go there and with these telescopes trace the orbits and trajectories of the planets. The setting of the mansion is a place like paradise; the building itself large and splendid.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include The Love of Strangers and Sufism: A Global History. He lives in Los Angeles.

New Middle Eastern Studies Catalog 2016

We invite you to scroll through our new Middle Eastern Studies catalog:

IslamPrinceton University Press extends its condolences to the family, friends, and close colleagues of our author Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015). We are honored to be the publisher of his book What is Islam?, which was in the late stages of production at the time of his death. In this extraordinary work of scholarship Shahab Ahmed offers an original and challenging definition of Islam profoundly informed by more than 1,000 years of history, poetry, mysticism, science and philosophy. What is Islam? is sure to have a deep and lasting impact in Islamic Studies





StrangersThe Love of Strangers by Nile Green follows six Iranian students of the early nineteenth century who travel to London to learn about modern science and how it had contributed to the modernization of Europe. It is a story of what happens when East met West at the beginning of the modern age.







MahmoodScholars and students in Middle Eastern Studies will also want to consult Saba Mahmood’s long awaited new book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, which draws on the author’s extensive fieldwork in Egypt among Coptic Orthodox Christians and Baha’is.






For more information on these and many more titles in Middle Eastern Studies, look through our catalog above. If you’d like updates on new titles emailed to you, you can subscribe to our newsletter.

If you’re going to the Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting from November 22 to November 24 in Denver, visit PUP at booth #3! Follow along on Twitter with #Mesa2015Denver.

Harvard Divinity School interviews Lihi Ben Shitrit about RIGHTEOUS TRANSGRESSIONS

Female activism and conservative religious movements would not seem to go hand in hand. But the bounds of gender expectations are regularly crossed in such communities for the political good. Harvard Divinity School recently interviewed Lihi Ben Shitrit about her new book, Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right. Listen below for a fascinating discussion of how women in Jewish West Bank settlements, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the Palestinian Hamas, expand spaces for political activism in ways that go beyond their movements’ strict ideas about male and female roles.

Ellen McLarney talks about SOFT FORCE on ISLAMiCommentary

In the years preceding Arab Spring, when Mubarak’s authoritarian regime fell from power, Muslim women took a leading role in developing an Islamist presence in Egypt’s public sphere. Their success in opposing secular dictatorship hinged on their use of something called “soft force”, a women’s jihad characterized by nonviolent protest.

ISLAMiCommentary, a web forum for public scholarship based at the Duke Islamic Studies Center, recently interviewed Princeton University Press author Ellen McLarney about her new book, Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening.

From the book’s introduction:

Soft Force jacketOne of the most visible public faces of the 2011 revolution in Egypt was Asmaʾ Mahfouz, a young woman who posted a video blog on Facebook calling for the January 25 protest in Tahrir Square “so that maybe we the country can become free, can become a country with justice, a country with dignity, a country in which a human can be truly human, not living like an animal.” She describes a stark imbalance of power: a lone girl standing against the security apparatus of the state. When she initially went out to demonstrate, only three other people came to join her. They were met with vans full of security forces, “tens of thugs” (balṭagiyyīn) that menaced the small band of protesters. Talking about her fear (ruʿb), she epitomizes the voice of righteous indignation against the Goliath of an abusive military regime. “I am a girl,” she says, “and I went down.” The skinny, small, pale girl bundled up in her winter scarf and sweater speaks clearly and forcefully, despite a slight speech impediment, rallying a political community to action against tyrannical rule. Mahfouz’s vlog is not necessarily famous for actually sparking the revolution, as some have claimed in the revolution’s aftermath. Rather, she visually embodies and vocally advocates what the Islamic activist Heba Raouf Ezzat calls “softforce,”al-­quwwa­al-n­āʿima.

You can watch the interview here:

Read the full article here.

Ellen McLarney is assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture at Duke University.

Ronald Suny on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide

Suny jacketToday marks the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Armenian Genocide. Beginning on April 24, 1915, up to 1.5 million Armenians would die in massacres at the hands of the Ottoman government. The executions took place during and after WWI, targeting able-bodied males, and sending women, children, and the infirm on death marches into the Syrian desert. And yet, as Armenians around the world commemorate the anniversary, and numerous nations offer condolences to the descendents of the victims, the use of the term “genocide” to describe these atrocities has been politically fraught. Turkey, as the successor state of the Ottoman empire, has taken a stance of denial; Obama stopped short of using the term, with Israel seeming to follow his lead. Ronald Suny, author of the new book “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”, argues that the fact of the Armenian Genocide is indisputable. In his op ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Suny writes about the “cost of Turkey’s genocide denial”:

…governments that fail to accept and confront the harsh consequences of historical truth are giving comfort to ultranationalist and anti-democratic forces that threaten liberty and democracy in Turkey.

Read his full New York Times op ed here, and his piece in The Daily Beast, in which he discusses the term “genocide” and its application. Suny recently took time to answer questions about the genocide, his book, and the inherent difficulty in explaining events that remain for many—at least emotionally—inexplicable.

What was the status of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire before the Genocide began in 1915? Did the government openly discriminate against them?

RS: The roughly two million Armenians in the Empire were distinct — religiously distinct, as Christians in a majority Muslim society, as well as culturally and linguistically distinct in many cases. Most of them were peasants and townspeople in the six provinces of eastern Anatolia, often living in homogeneous villages and sections of towns, and occasionally dominated larger rural and urban areas. The most influential and prosperous Armenians lived in the imperial capital, Istanbul (Constantinople), where their visibility made them the target of both official and popular resentment. But they of course were Ottomans, so they were part of this society. Many Armenians even spoke Turkish and not Armenian and so forth, but at least you could identify who they were – they went to different churches and clubs, etc., and they lived in concentrated areas. At a certain point, resentment developed against Armenians who were better off, more closely tied to Europe, and better educated. Then as the propaganda about Armenians and Greeks, another Christian minority, developed suggesting they were linked to foreigners, that they were threat to the Empire, etc., more and more people begin to turn against them. So eventually fear, anger, and resentment became hatred.

The Assyrians are also part of your book – were they seen as a distinct group from the Armenians at that time?

RS: They saw themselves as distinct groups, but the Assyrians, who as another Monophysite Christian group, were often identified with Armenians. Some of them were part of ermeni millet, the official Armenian community, and they were also perceived to have links with foreigners. So the Assyrians were somewhat outcasts, both in Persia and in the Ottoman Empire, and they also suffered tremendously.

Why did the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire perceive the Armenians and Assyrians as a threat, and why they chose such an extreme approach to handle them?

RS: That is the central question of this book. There is a tendency on the part of some scholars – particularly Armenians – not to try to explain the genocide because – “why do you need to explain it? These are Turks, this is what they do, and this is the kind of regime it was.” Or, slightly more sophisticated – “oh, it’s Christians and Muslims – they are inevitably in conflict.” Or — “it’s clashes of nationalism.” Now for me, religion, nationalism, the nature of Turkish culture, Ottoman society, the state – all of these are the questions to be asked, not the answers. That is, they need to be investigated. The way I would explain this genocide, and I think it has relevance for other kinds of ethnic cleansings and mass killings, is that the regime developed what I call an “affective disposition” – that is, an emotional understanding of who the enemy was. They constructed the Armenians as an existential threat to the Ottoman Empire and to the Turkish nation, what they conceived as the Turkish nation at that time. I try to explain the origins of this affective disposition – this mental universe – in which emotion, fear, anger, and resentment combined to create an image of Armenians. Armenians originally had been thought of as a loyal part of the empire, but by 1878 they became an instrument of certain foreign powers to intervene in the Ottoman regime and internal policy — the Ottomans began to see them as a threat.

Remind us what happened in 1878.

RS: This was the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Russians beat the Turks, and they were going to enforce reforms on the Ottoman Empire, and that was the beginning of the new “Armenian question” that continued right up to the war. Now, some people would say “well, you don’t need to go into emotions – it was a perfectly strategic, rational choice. The Armenians were actually a threat in World War I, and the Turks decided to get rid of them for national security reasons.” My view is that’s an insufficient explanation. Why did they see them as a threat? A threat is always a perception. It’s about emotion, it’s about understanding, feeling, sentiment, and construction – both cognitive and emotional construction. I’m taking a step backwards to see how they got into the position that they could imagine people this way and then carry out the worst possible kinds of things. I’m bringing emotion into it.

By some accounts, Armenians sided with Russia at the beginning of World War I —was that something the Ottomans could point to that the Armenians were a threat?

RS: This is the problem. You can’t say the Armenians sided with Russia. That is what the Ottomans would say, and they perceived that. So there are people who try to justify what the Ottomans did to the Armenians by saying they were with the enemy. What I try to show in the book is that the overwhelming majority of Ottoman Armenians wanted to stay in the Empire and attempted to prove to the Turks that they were loyal, but they also wanted reforms to protect them and allow them to prosper. They wanted Kurdish predations against Armenians to be contained, for example. The Ottoman government was opposed to these reforms, but ultimately had to agree to them in February 1914. When the war came, though, they used the first opportunity to get rid of them. I’ll give you an example. As the Ottomans are going to war, they mobilize the population. Hundreds and thousands of young Armenian men are drafted and join the Ottoman army. A few desert and go over to the Russian side. Some prominent leaders go over to the Russian side. The Russians form Armenian voluntary units on the Caucasian side against the Ottomans, but the Turks see this as treachery and demobilize hundreds of thousands of Armenian soldiers, take their weapons and uniforms away, turn them into labor battalions, and eventually murder them. So it’s a very different thing. It’s not that there wasn’t sympathy among some for Russia, but there was also no particular love for Russia. Russians didn’t like the Armenian nationalist revolutionaries any more than the Turks did so they were persecuting them as well. The Armenians were in an unfortunate position – in Persia, in Russia, and in Turkey. They were like the Kurds today.

How did they try to prove their loyalty?

RS: They mobilized their young men to fight in the army, they raised money for hospitals and aid to the government, they spoke in favor of the war effort, and many other things. They told them – we’re loyal, don’t push us into opposition. But there was an imbalance of agency. You see this today in the Armenian and Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh, or the Israel-Palestine conflict. One side has more power and has more cards to play: the Israelis in the case of Palestine, the Armenians in the case of the Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict, and the Ottomans in 1915. The Armenians had what I’d call a dilemma of the damned. As they were being constructed as the enemy, there was very little they could do. And then they were disarmed, their leaders were arrested, they were systematically deported, and many hundreds of thousands were murdered.

The Ottoman Turks mobilized the population, in a completely chaotic and disorganized way, and there was dislocation, food shortages, soldiers marching hundreds of miles to get to the front. They were inadequately equipped, and huge numbers of desertions took place. There were half a million deserters, Muslims as well as Christians and others. Many of those deserters would either pillage villages for food, rape women, or clash with the army, and the Ottoman government claimed these were Armenian revolts. A lot of soldiers deserted, and it was general chaos.

To what extent did ordinary people participate or was it mostly carried out by special military forces?

RS: Genocides are ordered from the top: secret orders go out that say “take care of these people” (start the deportations), but we don’t have very good records on that. The orders bring about massacres, and in a systematic way. In the Armenian genocide, the deportations and massacres were often carried out by nomadic Kurds, Circassians (or, Cherkess, as they’re also called), Chechens — many of them refugees from the Caucasus or the Balkans, so called mujahedeen, other refugees who were to be settled in the Armenian villages, and ordinary people, even women. We have reports of women cutting down people so there is some popular participation.

One problem I have is – how much did the Ottomans understand what they were doing, and how much did they believe in it? There were some Ottoman governors who refused to carry out the killings and the deportations. And there were Turks and Kurds who took Armenian refugees into their homes, sometimes forcibly making women part of their harem or family, converting them to Islam. But others believed in the necessity of the massacre. You can now access intelligence reports, and certain commanders were sending reports of Armenian insurrections. Some scholars have read these reports — a kind of new, sophisticated denialism — and taken the Ottomans at their word that there really was a revolt. While there were individual moments of resistance, as at Van or Musa Dagh, because they were being attacked. there was no coordinated, general insurrection of Armenians during the war.

Were the Chechens and Circassians specially sought out for the killings or were they already living in the Empire?

RS: There had always been clashes between Kurds and Circassians and Armenians about land so there was a base of hostilities and tensions. The Ottoman government would often recruit them into special organizations, which hired them as well as criminals and others into gangs, and these people carried out a lot of massacres. The Kurds today, in the Republic of Turkey, are one major group who recognize the genocide, who have apologized for what they did, who believe they were used by the Turks, and they are trying to make up for that now. For example, in the city of Diyarbakır where my grandmother is from, the local Kurds have opened churches and talk about living in the land together with Armenians.

So the Kurds have tried reconciliation?

RS: Yes, because they also feel persecuted by the Turks. Kurdish discourse is something like “they had you for breakfast, and they’re going to have us for dinner.” I really think Turkey is the country to watch. Something’s happening there, and we don’t know where it will go. We don’t know where Russia or Armenia will go either.

Armenians began to view themselves as a nation during this period – how did the genocide contribute to that process? What caused the growing sense of a nation?

RS: I’m a constructivist — I believe that nations are creations of human beings. At a certain point people begin to think of themselves as a nation rather than a religious group or other identity, and this happened for the Armenians in the 19th century. Turks began to think this way a bit later, more in the 20th century, and Kurds even later than that. The genocide happened at a time when some people were thinking in this nationalist idiom, but simultaneously, many others were thinking of themselves as Ottomans, with special Armenian characteristics. Armenian nationalism in a sense won the day in World War I, and the post-war period, until, of course, the Soviets took over the Armenian republic, and nationalism became an alien ideology that couldn’t be expressed openly. It then became the ideology of the diaspora.

Yes, the Armenian genocide was just that, says Ronald Suny’s new book

Suny jacketApril 24th marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century, though lesser-known, and more contested than other crimes against humanity that followed. Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide claims that the massacres did indeed constitute genocide, and chronicles the human catastrophe through eyewitness accounts and archival documents. The end result is a deeply researched narrative history of how and why the atrocities were committed. The Sunday Times writes, “Suny is admirably dispassionate in explaining the particular circumstances that led the Ottoman government to embark on a policy of mass extermination…”

Check out this video where Suny, Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, gives an overview of the genocide’s history, Turkey’s denial, and his own Armenian family’s experience:

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Of particular interest is Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter by Jonathan Marc Gribetz. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists, aspiring peacemakers continue to search for the precise territorial dividing line that will satisfy both Israeli and Palestinian nationalist demands. The prevailing view assumes that this struggle is nothing more than a dispute over real estate. Defining Neighbors boldly challenges this view, shedding new light on how Zionists and Arabs understood each other in the earliest years of Zionist settlement in Palestine and suggesting that the current singular focus on boundaries misses key elements of the conflict.

Also be sure to note Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict by Maud S. Mandel. This book traces the global, national, and local origins of the conflict between Muslims and Jews in France, challenging the belief that rising anti-Semitism in France is rooted solely in the unfolding crisis in Israel and Palestine. Mandel shows how the conflict in fact emerged from processes internal to French society itself even as it was shaped by affairs elsewhere, particularly in North Africa during the era of decolonization.

And don’t miss out on A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations:From the Origins to the Present Day. This is the first encyclopedic guide to the history of relations between Jews and Muslims around the world from the birth of Islam to today. Richly illustrated and beautifully produced, the book features more than 150 authoritative and accessible articles by an international team of leading experts in history, politics, literature, anthropology, and philosophy. Organized thematically and chronologically, this indispensable reference provides critical facts and balanced context for greater historical understanding and a more informed dialogue between Jews and Muslims.

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