The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies convened the second day of its Fourth Annual Conference of Historical Studies in Beirut on 22 April. The 2017 Conference brings together thinkers and critics under the theme “Marj Dabiq to Sykes-Picot: The Arabs from Sultanates to Nation States.”

The second day of proceedings was opened with a public lecture chaired by Dr. Fahima Charafeddine, hosting Dr. Sayyar al-Jamil and Dr. Mohammed Jamal Barout, who spoke about  How do we Read Modern History (1516-1916): Reconsidering Dimensions of Formation,” and  “From Sykes-Picot to the Treaty of Lausanne: A decade of Great Transformations and the Structural Implications on State Formation in the Arab Mashreq” respectively.

In the first talk, al-Jamil focused on the question of the Arabs, and how they were created as one of the largest political bodies under the Ottomans in large part as a result of the Conference of Versailles (1919). The Arabs had not been in charge of what happened on their territory and their seas for the previous 400 years, “because the Ottomans were the ones really in charge of our history by means of coexistence with other communities (milla) under the umbrella of the sultanate.” The effects of Ottoman rule changed in the 18th century, however. No longer was rule manifest through subordination to Ottoman centralism, but through forms of local government that they created in the Arab environments, represented by local dynastic families such as Al al-Azm in Damascus and Al al-Jalili in Mosul, or by the rule of Mameluke pashas in Baghdad and beks in Egypt, or both such as the Maanis and Shihabis in Lebanon, military oligarchies such as Dahir al-Umr in Palestine, the beys of Tunis or deys of Algiers, or the Karamanlis in Tripolitania. 

The second lecture looked at a different agreement, and its effect on the Arab polis. Barout said that the period between the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreements and the Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne was decisive for the transformation of the system of empires into the system of European nation states. Within this period was when the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Tsarist Russian Empires fell, a collapse heralding this as the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of a new era based on the nation state. He continued, “All of those empires were the seats of a universal religious apostolic imperium: the Hapsburg Empire was the successor to the universal sovereignty of the Apostolic Catholic Church; the empire of the Romanovs in Russia and Al Othman were inheritors of the old Eastern Greco-Roman empire in terms of Tsarist Russia belonging to the Byzantine Church in Constantinople, while the Ottoman Empire inherited the central position in the Islamic world.” What Sykes-Picot did, he concluded, was nothing more than to consolidate zones of influence that had been included in Ottoman-European agreements prior to the War, which transferred the German zone of influence to France and Britain.

The following two sessions saw parallel tracks hosted across the conference location. In the first track Dr. Ahmad Mefleh hosted a panel on “Ottoman Sultanate and Issues from Arab Civil Society.” Dr. Fadel Bayat presented the first paper, on “Local leaderships and the Ottoman State: A New Perspective from the Archives.” He addressed what he called an ignorance of Ottoman documents and sources, which has occluded the history of the local leadership in Arab countries and the relationship between them of the Ottoman. Bayat spoke about some examples, where Arab leaders had enjoyed autonomy. Some of these leaders were overthrown, he explained, but some fought for survival by bowing to the state when it was strong or rebelling against it when it was weak. He also explained the diversity of leadership, some with a religious-political character that the Ottoman state had to work with, or tribal-Bedouin leaderships, some of which insisted on remaining nomadic, while others were forced to settle down in areas defined by the state.

Dr Fatima Zahra Kachi delivered second paper on “The Ottoman Authority, Tribal, and Urban Leaders in Algerian Eyelet (16th -19th Century).” She spoke about the relationship between the Algerian leadership and the Ottoman Empire, explaining how Algerians did not request separation from the Ottoman sultanate, but rejected the way the governors dealt with them. Within this context, the emirs of the coastal cities sought help from the Barbarossa brothers to defend Islam against the Spanish. However, local leaders refused to concede their influence and authority to the new delegations. The confrontation was violent going as far as murder. The Ottomans were unable to found a modern state in Algeria that absorbed the local tribal and religious leaderships, making a unified project impossible.

In his project, Dr. Joseph Abu Nahra addressed another aspect of the questions through his papers titled “The Christians of the Mashreq, from Marj Dabeq to Sykes-Picot: From Confessional with Protection from the Sultan to Privilege and Protection from Europe.” He saw Marj Dabiq as a turning point for the Christians of the Mashreq. Before this point, he argued, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror had recognized three confessions as having dhimmi status: Byzantine Christians (al-rum), Armenians, and Jews. After Marj Dabiq, however, the number of recognized Christian denominations rose to 16. By the 19th century, restrictions Christians suffered did not cause confrontation with the governing authority, sectarian conflicts with non-Christians, or even conflict between Constantinople and Rome. In fact, he said, after this turning point the proportion of Christians in the Fertile Crescent grew from 7% in 1517 to 26.4% in 1914.

The final paper of the panel was presented by Dr. Ali Darwich, addressing “The Ottoman-Safavid Conflict and its Impact on Shiites in Countries Governed by Ottomans.” The paper argued that the Ottomans and Safavids got along at the beginning of the establishment of their two states, and both emerged from the womb of Sufi movements that revered the household of the Prophet and took Ali ibn Abi Talib as a model for asceticism. Things changed, however, when the Safavids created their state and adopted Twelver Shiism as the official creed, and the Ottomans adopted the Hanafite creed. The conflict between the empires took on a sectarian character putting Sunni against Shia, a split that has continued to cause frequent conflict in Islamic history. The session ended with a discussion.

The parallel panel “New Implications of Post-Ottomanism” was chaired by Dr. Issam Nassar, and opened with the work of Dr. Yasser Djazaerly on “Lawrence and Brémond and the Sykes-Picot Strategy.” Djazaerly positioned the Sykes-Picot agreement as one that represents a colonialist strategy, and not just an agreement. He suggested it be placed in the context of the policies followed by the colonial states since the beginning of their control over parts of the Arab world, and read as the product of orientalist discourse developed in the 19th century. When we study the course of history and politics that led to Sykes-Picot in this way, he suggested, we must study the discourse that arose from these policies and made them possible. Sykes-Picot, he concluded, is the extension of European discourse after the weakness of the Ottoman Empire became clear following Napoleon’s campaign against Egypt and the entrance of Mohammed Ali’s army into Syria.

The second paper, written by Dr, Bilal Shalash and read by Dr. Nasser addressed the Sykes-Picot from another angle: “Between Draft and Reality: Implications of Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration as Seen by Palestine’s Elites (1918-1948).” The paper claimed that Sykes-Picot went further than a draft agreement for British colonial projects in Palestine in favor of a new colonial project based on the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration was present in the writings and positions of the elites of Palestine as a continuation of the presence of Sykes-Picot and as a model example of betrayal, oppression, and hostility. That promise, the paper found, was the entryway for writings in protest against the colonial authorities and incitement against them, and was used to affirm the centrality of British colonialism to the origins of the ordeal, in the context of the attempt to link the question of Palestine with Zionism alone.

Dr. Mounia Aït Kabboura  presented the final paper, on “Identity and Utopia: Post Sykes-Picot Islamist and Nationalist Projects,” which explored how nationalist thought and political Islam made the moment of the Sykes-Picot agreement a moment of conspiracy and betrayal and a reference point for the interpretation of defeats and political and social imbalances. She offered a rereading of this foundational moment as a historical and epistemological moment saying such a shift was necessary to understand the current Arab political reality without interference from pragmatic ideological debates. She connected this position to the current thinking of Arab nationalists, who consider the time after the Arab Spring as a second moment for Sykes-Picot and a new western conspiracy to re-fragment the Arab region by means of ISIL, which is uprooting Arab nationalism. The session ended with a wide-ranging discussion.

Following a short break in the program for lunch, the second set of parallel panels began, the first of which examined the broad topic of “Political and Cultural Relations” in the period demarcated by the conference topic, chaired by Dr Hussain Alomari.

Kicking off the session was Dr. Mohamed Ahmian, who looked at exchange in his paper titled “Piracy on the Countryside Coast and its Impact on Western Maghreb Economic Conditions and Foreign Relations during the 19th Century.” In his talk Ahmain spoke about how the “axes of trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic after the geographical discoveries, and the economic center of gravity shifted towards the Atlantic.” After the digging of the Suez Canal, he continued, life returned to the Mediterranean, despite the threat of piracy off the African coast to European ships. The Conference of Vienna (1814-1815) criminalized piracy and allowed for the pursuit of pirate vessels, however the tribes of the Rif continued to engage in piracy as a form of popular struggle against European ambitions, seeing this type of encounter continue.

The second paper in the panel was presented by Dr. Ahmed Saadaoui on “Official Architecture in Ottoman Maghreb Eyalats: A study of the Relation between Center and Periphery.” The paper examined how Moroccan architectural works of the Ottoman period remained closely tied to the local medieval tradition in its African, Moroccan, and Andalusian aspects. It went on to explore how the Ottomans influence was restricted to some details or partial elements found in official or religious buildings specific to the Ottoman rulers.  He showed how European influence exceeded Ottoman influence in the use and carving of marble, which was imported from Europe, particularly Italy. The various settler ethnicities in the Maghreb provinces—locals, Turks, Arabs from the east, Andalusians, Europeans, and Sephardic Jews—contributed to the production of distinctive Maghreb arts open to neighboring regions.

The final paper was delivered by Dr. Sher Ali Khan on “Translation from Arabic and other Languages into Turkish and Vice Versa in the First (Prosperity) and Second (Decadence) Eras,” which looked at the mingling of Arabs and Turks. In this period, he found, the Turkish language began to be influenced by Arabic, which left a strong impression. The Turks began to translate their cultural tradition into Arabic and translated Islamic religious rites, books of exegesis, and all the literary and Islamic arts into Turkish. In the Ottoman age, he showed, translation had two important roles: translation from Arabic into Turkish, and translation from Romance language, Persian, and Turkish into Arabic, and translation from Turkish into them.

Dr. Ahmad Dallal chaired the final of the parallel sessions, where papers explored “The Caliphate Issue” in broad terms.  Opening up the panel was Dr. Ahmed Abo Shok, who spoke on “The Ottoman Caliphate in its Last Half Century (1874-1924): The Power-Conflict and the Debate over Terminology.” The paper explored what Abu Shouk called, “The political challenge to the Ottoman caliphate,” which “began with the revolt of the Mehdi in Sudan who called for the establishment of a greater Mehdian caliphate in place of the Ottoman caliphate,” and continued through the Arab Revolt in the Hijaz. In his view, the influence of the Kamalists in Turkey grew and they made bold plans regarding the separation of the sultanate from the caliphate, which gave birth to a broad jurisprudential debate between opponents and advocates of the separation. Leading the opponents was Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Rida, he said, who opposed the thesis of Sheikh Ali Abdel-Raziq and described his book “Islam and the origins of government” as a demolition of the rule of Islam and its law.

Investigating “The Positions of Muslims in India on the Pan-Islamic Movement and its Impact on the Caliphate Movement in India: A Historical Study based on the Indian Sources and British Archives,” was Dr Saheb Alam al-Nadwi, who looked at the political and religious struggle over the caliphate as one that caused broad debate in scholarly circles. Since critics wrote that it was political incitement against foundational principles of the Islamic state, he said, they were not interested in the cause of Indian independence. He concluded, “The caliphate movement failed in its religious and political fronts in India, but it was able to spread political awareness among Muslims and form their political leadership. It left a specific from on political theories which Indian Muslims tried to follow both before and after Indian independence.”

In the final paper of the parallel sessions Dr Abderrazzak Essaidi spoke about “The Ottoman impact on relations with the Western Maghreb: A Study on the Dialectic of the Religious and the Political Dimensions in the Modern History of the Western Maghreb.” In his paper, he spoke about how the Ottoman and Saadian powers competed for Moroccan, Mediterranean, and global economic resources despite the inequality between them. This competition, he said, was an expression of the difference in the authorities for the political model: where the Ottoman model rested on the state of jihad and the concept of the umma, the Moroccan and Maghrebian model rested on traditional local concepts. The session ended with a discussion.

Dr. Nasreddine Saidouni chaired the final Plenary Session, which saw four speakers address diverse issues of leadership, state building, and governance. Opening up the plenary, Dr. Saleh Alouani addressed “The Maghreb Countries between 1518 and 1920: A Unique Opportunity for Mashreq-Maghreb and North-South Intersections, and the Social Implications.” He began by noting that “The Maghrebian states were formed at the end of the 16th century out of the conflicts with the northern shore of the Mediterranean, without overlooking the presence of the action of the Ottoman sultanate and its effect on the formation of the modern history of the provinces of Tunisia and Algeria, while Morocco remained outside of Ottoman influence.” In his view, the ‘eastern question’ did not impinge on North Africa, but it made clear how the regime in Istanbul had become unable to defend itself. He concluded that, since the time of the French occupation of Algeria, the term North Africa emerged to replace Islamic Morocco or the Moroccan lands.

Examining questions of relations from a different angle was Dr. Masoud Deilami, who addressed “The Formation of the Nation-State and the Territorial State in the Arab Levant in the aftermath of World War I.” The paper suggested that Mustafa Kamal’s resistance founded the Turkish republic as a national state according to the principles of secularism and nationalism and abolished the Islamic caliphate. The Turks, he said, were thus able to form a Turkish nation state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. By contrast, he said, the Arabs found themselves with the option of the territorial state with borders defined by Sykes-Picot.

On the question of economics, Dr Mohamed Lazhar Gharbi presented on “Kheireddine Ettounsi  and the Economic Issue,” and spoke about how Khayreddine al-Tunsi stood out from other Mamelukes for his role theorizing the reforms he thought necessary to improve the condition of the Islamic nation.

Then, in the final paper, Dr Simon Badran spoke about “’The Ottoman Constitutional Kingdom’ and its Influence on the Pioneers of Arab Constitutional Thought.” In his presentation, he urged historians to plunge into the study of the Ottoman tanzimat before scrutinizing the Ottoman constitution of 1876. The vanguard of Ottoman constitutional thought, he said, emerged with the move of the new Ottomans during the later period of the tanzimat period, when they established a “constitutional culture for Islam.” The Committee of Union and Progress considered this consolidation of the constitutional method the corner stone for strong and effective government, but their amendments ended up supporting the powers of parliament and the Supreme Porte, rather than curtailing the powers of the palace.