Ottoman cosmopolitanism and the myth of the sectarian Middle East

Ottoman cosmopolitanism and the myth of the sectarian Middle East

Ussama Makdisi writes:

The Arab East was among the last regions in the world to be colonised by Western powers. It was also the first to be colonised in the name of self-determination. An iconic photograph from September 1920 of the French colonial general Henri Gouraud dressed in a splendid white uniform and flanked by two ‘native’ religious figures captures this moment. Seated to one side is the Patriarch of the Maronite Church, an Eastern Christian Catholic sect. On the other side is the Sunni Muslim Mufti of Beirut. Gouraud’s proclamation of the state of Greater Lebanon, or Grand Liban, which was carved out of the lands of the defeated Ottoman empire, served as the occasion. With Britain’s blessing, France had occupied Syria two months earlier and overthrown the short-lived, constitutional Arab Kingdom of Syria. The pretext offered for this late colonialism was one that continues to be used today. The alleged object of France in the Orient was not to aggrandise itself, but to lead its inhabitants, particularly its diverse and significant minority populations of Lebanon, towards freedom and independence.

France separated the Christian-dominated state of Lebanon from the rest of geographic Syria, which itself was parcelled out along sectarian Alawi, Druze and Sunni polities under overarching French dominion. This late colonialism was allegedly meant to liberate the peoples of the Arab world from the tyranny of the Ottoman Muslim ‘Turk’ and from the depredations of notionally age-old sectarian hatreds. Thus General Gouraud appeared in the photograph not as a vanquisher of supposedly barbarous native tribes; he was neither a modern Hernán Cortés toppling the Aztec Montezuma nor a French reincarnation of Andrew Jackson destroying the Seminoles of Florida. The French colonial general who had served in Niger, Chad and Morocco was portrayed as an indispensable peacemaker and benevolent arbiter between what the Europeans claimed to be the antagonistic communities of the Orient.

The colonisation of the Arab East had come after that of the Americas, South and Southeastern Asia, and Africa. This last great spurt of colonial conquest ostensibly repudiated the brutal and rapacious rule of the kind that King Leopold of Belgium had visited upon the Congo in the late-19th century. Instead, after the First World War, Europeans ruled through euphemism: a so-called ‘mandate’ system dominated by ‘advanced’ powers was established by the new British-and-French-dominated League of Nations to aid less-able nations. The new Lebanese and Syrian states blessed by the League were ‘provisionally’ independent, yet subject to mandatory European tutelage. Drawing on the British experience of ‘indirect’ rule in Africa, the victorious powers cultivated a native facade to obscure the coloniser’s hand. Perhaps most importantly, this late colonialism claimed to respect the new ideals of the US president Woodrow Wilson, the presumptive father of so-called ‘self-determination’ of peoples around the world. [Continue reading…]

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