FOLDED CORNER >Remapping the Ottoman Middle East

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‘Remapping the Ottoman Middle East: Modernity, Imperial Bureaucracy and Islam’ by Cem Emrence (IB Tauris, 192 pages, $29)

Maps of the Ottoman Empire tend to show a big unbroken block of color covering broad sweeps of the Middle East. This is quite misleading. In reality, that swath of territory contained vastly different administrative arrangements and varying degrees of imperial control. As in all empires, the center’s grip on the periphery was weak to non-existent; its sovereignty was nominal at best.

This became more obvious during the 19th century, when the empire strived to modernize. The long push to modernity put pressure on the sheer variety of unwieldy arrangements that the Ottoman Empire encompassed. Ottoman reformers came in many ideological flavors – from liberals to religious conservatives. But all agreed on the importance of centralization and strengthening Istanbul’s authority. The reality of disparate imperial territories would constantly frustrate them.

“Remapping the Ottoman Middle East” by scholar Cem Emrence is an attempt to chart Ottoman modernization using this variety as a starting point. Historians have traditionally focused on mono-causal explanations – be it Westernization or capitalism, or resilient local dynamics – to trace the Ottoman 19th and early 20th centuries. Emrence argues that a “regional trajectory framework” is a better analytical tool. This framework reveals alternative paths to modernity and gives more authorship to the Ottoman state and local actors. It is based on three distinct political geographies: The coast, the interior, and the frontier. Each of these had vastly different political economies, social arrangements, and relations with both the Ottoman state and the outside world. Each represented a distinct path to modernity in the Middle East.

The Ottoman coastal regions were connected to global networks, fostered middle-class alliances, and initiated new forms of political conflict. Port cities like İzmir and Salonica were “multi-ethnic and multi-religious environments characterized by an expanded public sphere and a variety of global connections,” Emrence writes. Reformist ideals and modern class politics were integral components of the coastal experience during the 19th century. As a result, the coast slipped away from effective imperial control:

Shaped by free-trade, the coastal path was controlled by non-Muslim merchants whose economic fortunes depended more on the global economy than the Ottoman state. Port cities amassed enormous economic wealth, which elevated the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie to a leadership position, gave birth to a nascent civil society, and sponsored a discourse of urban autonomy.

The Ottoman interior, on the other hand, was far more firmly attached to the imperial universe. Anatolia, Syria and Palestine were under no threat of foreign intervention and global markets had a very limited presence, so state-led transformation and conservative values dominated. These inland regions belonged politically, socially and materially to the Ottoman world, so the empire was able to shape them around its own priorities, making the state a hegemonic force there. “The interior trajectory came into being with imperial centralization, and reflected the priorities of the Ottoman state and the urban Muslim bloc,” Emrence writes. “The Ottoman state held the key to political power, economic resources and religious authority in these regions. In turn, the Muslim bloc enjoyed an almost complete monopoly over these domains.” 

Unlike the coast and the interior, the Ottoman frontiers were politically volatile, economically underdeveloped, and demographically sparse. Regions like east Anatolia, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula were ruled by culturally distinct and politically autonomous leaderships. Characterized by what Emrence calls “thin rule,” the frontier exposed the limits to Ottoman sovereignty. Protection rents of frontier leaders constrained Ottoman state-building efforts, and “the Ottoman state operated with little institutionalization, relying on mutual cooperation, high trust, or coercive incorporation.” Unable to connect with the local elite or transform the region with imperial institutions, the Ottomans turned to a moral agenda. But the confessional Sunni emphasis often backfired, turning eastern Anatolia into an even more contentious zone during the 1890s (when the grim fate of the Armenians was becoming clearer). Geopolitical competition also blocked the path to successful state-building in the frontiers, as rival powers probed the Ottomans’ soft underbelly. This ultimately helped local interests bargain with the central state for autonomy.

The Ottoman Empire collapsed during the First World War. But Emrence’s three-trajectory model can be read beyond the Ottoman era – and even beyond Turkey itself. As he writes, “despite the political intervention of the nation-state framework later in the 20th century, the coast preserved its global outlook; the interior kept its conservative identity; and the frontiers utilized insurgency and heterodox Islam to make political statements.” He argues that “several layers of the same trajectory or rival trajectories were bundled together in all post-Ottoman states.” Perhaps this contributed to the legitimacy deficit often cited as a cause of persistent instability in the Middle East. 

The model also has resonance in the “frontier” region of Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast. As in the Ottoman era, the state continues to struggle to assert its authority, and continues to pitch its appeal based on moral religious solidarity. If Ottoman history is anything to go by, such an approach has limited potential for success.

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