The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies convened the Fourth Annual Conference of Historical Studies in Beirut. The 2017 Conference brings together thinkers and critics under the theme “Marj Dabiq to Sykes-Picot: The Arabs from Sultanates to Nation States.” The conference takes place on Friday and Saturday April 21 and 22, 2017.

Professor Sakr Abu Fakher opened the conference with a welcoming address. Speaking to the assembled panelists and attendees, Abu Fakhr declared the aim of the conference was to create a common field for Arab researchers to interact, exchange ideas, and discuss the many issues brewing in Arab thought today.

Opening the two-day series of talks was a keynote address from Dr. Khaled Ziyadeh, director of ACRPS Beirut branch. Dr. Ziyadeh spoke about an Ottoman-European dichotomy that he said had been in place since the beginning of the 16th century as political diversity around the Mediterranean waned. This was the era of Suleiman the Magnificent, who completed a complex set of administrative, legal, and military structures deriving legal code from the Saljuk tradition. This reformulation of Byzantine heritage crafted the Sultan into a politico-religious symbol taken up in Europe. When Europe had its Renaissance, he continued, it also enjoyed an unparalleled unity of high culture in urban centers, creating a European high culture that the emergence of national languages did not cause dissipate. The proximity of these two changing worlds set Islam in direct confrontation with Europe’s modernity, Ziyadeh concluded, proclaiming that it was for this conference to re-examine the dichotomous relationship in order to find a way out of the impasse that set Arabs in an adversarial position with Europe.

A second lecture, delivered by ACRPS’ director of publications Dr. Wajih Kawtharani, addressed “The Problem of Attributing the Caliphate to an Ottoman Sultanate: Between History and Myth.” Kawtharani spoke about how the Caliphate transformed into a tyrannical monarchy (mulk udoud), a fact averred by even the jurisprudents from the time of the early Omayyad and Abbasid caliphs, and which the caliphs justified on grounds of necessity and realism. In time, however, with the rise of the soldier-princes and the Buyid dynasty in the tenth century, and the Seljuks then the Zengids, the Ayyoubids, and the Mamelukes in the Mashreq, Kawtharani explained that the caliphate became powerless, especially after the devastation of al-Musta’sim at the hands of Hulagu. Kawtharani examined the case of the last Abbasid caliph’s renunciation of his right to the caliphate in favor of Sultan Selim; suggesting it did not stand up to historical scrutiny. No supposedly contemporaneous historical sources mention the event, Kawtharani explained, offering the alternative explanation that when Mustafa Kamal made a distinction between the caliphate and the sultanate, he said that the Sultanate (that is government) was in his and the National Assembly’s hands, and the “caliph-sultan” had renounced his role in government.

Dr. Noureddine Theniou then presented the final keynote on “The Demise of the Caliphate and the beginning of the ‘National’ versus ‘Islamic’ Dilemma.” He began by explaining that the fall of the caliphate derived its force from the international context following the Great War, which had seen the resounding defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The empire did not escape the drive of modern history, which demanded the transition from imperial rule to the rule of the nation state, and in Thanyu’s opinion the fall of the Islamic caliphate expressed the end of the model of religious rule, and a hurdle to building the modern Arab republic.

Following the keynotes the conference proceeded with sessions on two parallel themes:, “Ottoman History and Local Histories,” and “Reform and Tanzimat.” Both themes were explored through three panels.

In the first panel of “Ottoman History,” Dr. Abderrahim Benhadda chaired presentations from Dr. Naçir Eddine Saidouni (Ottoman Algeria in Historical Memory: The Problematic of Algerian Sovereignty in the Ottoman Era); Dr. Lotfi Ben Milad The Islamic West” and its Position on the Rise of the Ottoman Empire: A New Reading in the Origins of Communications and the Positions of the Government and Elites); Dr. Abdelhay AlKhaili (Crisis of the Ottoman Center and Prelude to the Founding of Independent Maghreb States in the 17th - 19th Centuries); and Dr. Mohammed al-Mariami (Tunisia and the Transitional Period 1574 - 1637 AD). 

On Algerian nationalism, Dr. Saidouni said that the focus on sovereignty prior to the French occupation could be ascribed to three factors: hostility to colonial policy, the creation of a national consciousness for the elites, and the nationalist movement. He went on to say that the debate over sovereignty was between those was thought that Algeria was under the control of the Turkish state and ruled by a Turkish minority, and those who thought that Algeria was an independent state whose ties with the Ottoman state were formal and went no further than mutual interest and a spiritual link. Those who accepted Algeria’s independence did not deny ties with the Sublime Porte.

Dr. Ben Milad suggested that relations between the Ottomans and the Moroccans from a late period should not be characterized by hostility, but understood in perspective of the end of Ottoman rule over Asia Minor, Thrace, and the conquest of Constantinople. He explained that the “Venetian-Ottoman wars did not help us follow the course of Hafsid-Ottoman relations,” but said this continued with the Circassian Mamelukes, citing delegations sent to “resolve the border dispute between them.”

In his talk, AlKhaili explained the features of the crisis of central authority in the Ottoman era became clear with the beginning of the decline in the relationship between the Sublime Porte and the Maghreb provinces in the 17th to 19th centuries. This relationship existed “in name but not in substance,” he said, and revealed the beginning of the tendency towards independence from Ottoman power.

Finally, al-Mariami addressed historical Tunisia, noting that some scholars have reduced the transitional period in Tunisia to the conflict between the Turks and the Spanish in North Africa; a conflict that took on a tyrannical religious form, while other scholars see it as the period of the Ottomanization of North Africa or as the period of the reversal of Ottomanization in the region. In his view, all the actions of the Sherifs go back to political authority; Hafsid authority. This transitional idea requires the authority idea. The session ended with a discussion.

In the first of the “Reform and Tanzimat” sessions was chaired by Dr. Antoine Seif and included three papers. The first,Ottoman Reform in Arab Countries through Tanzimat Literature: The Regulations of Abdul Rahman Ben Elias al-Madani” was delivered by Muhannad Mubaidin, who took the position that the Ottoman reforms did not begin with the Edict of Gülhane. Instead, he suggested, they were preceded by efforts of reformists and statesmen who tried to implement ideas to restore the cohesion and lost grandeur of the Ottoman sultanate following the Treaty of Karlowitz, under which the state had ceded part of its territories.

In the second paper, Yahya  Bou Lahya spoke about “The Implications of both the Ottoman Tanzimat and Mohammed Ali Experience on Western Maghreb prior to the French Mandate,” explaining that academic missions to Europe were the main pillar of development gambled upon in Mohammed Ali’s effort to rebuff Western encroachment. However, the educational missions to Egypt did not achieve their desired aims, and the Makhzen realized its previous mistake and decided to send its students to western states like Britain, France, and Germany.

In the final paper, Naglaa Mekawy spoke about “The Political Use of Religion and Law in Muhammad Ali’s Project,” and stated that Mohammed Ali Pasha did have a modernization project, and we think of the modernity of that experiment through the study of the role of religion and law: the function of law; how religion was used; the nature and aims of the project and the conceptions of its author; and its historical context. She asked: Was it an Ottoman reform project with imperial aims that became westernized modernization at the expense of Islamic law, or was it the private project of the ruler of Egypt that was of mixed Islamic-modernist nature? The session ended with a discussion between the panel and the audience.

The conference resumed after lunch. Dr. Abdelhamid Hénia chaired the second sitting of the “Ottoman History” stream, welcoming three new panelists to the floor. The session began with the work of Dr. Jamil Moussa al-Najjar on “The Iraqi National State of 1921: Roots of Ottoman Foundation.” Dr. al-Najjar showed how the geography of the Ottoman province of Mosul was formed when it became subject to Ottoman rule as a part of the central region and a smaller part from the mountainous region, or Persian Iraq. The Ottoman unification of these provinces shows, he said, that they realized the importance of their possessions in those geographical regions and the need to combine them into a buffer zone with Iran.

In the second paper, Dr. Nahar Mohammed Nuri spoke about “The Iraqi Tendencies and their Significance in the long 19th Century: Refuting the Assumption of an Artificial State.” Nuri said that a key feature of the emerging identity that accompanied the period of Ottoman administration in the provinces of Iraq was the declaration of a unified central Iraqi administration under the command of Baghdad province simultaneously with the socioeconomic assimilation of the provinces.

In the final paper Dr. Anisse Elkaissi spoke about “Political Relations between the Ottoman State and Morocco under the Saadian Dynasty: Study in the Problematic of Neighborhood-Dependence and Independence (1550-1603 AD),” noting that “The Ottoman state did not intend to annex Morocco, but tried to make it a vassal or establish an alliance that ensured allegiance to the sultan. The Ottoman-Saadian clash was an outcome of the proximity that formed a challenge to these two Islamic powers.” The session concluded with a discussion.

Dr. Issam Khalifeh chaired the second parallel session, under the subheading: “Avenues of Western infiltration.”

In the first presentation, Dr. Mohammed Moraqtan spoke about ‘Spies in the Holy Land: Western Travelers, Archeological Discoveries, and Paving the Way for the Zionist Project (1800-1914).” He said that from the beginning of the 19th century Palestine became a destination for European and American exploration with a religious aim. The spiritual relationship between Europe and Palestine had remained unbroken since the Crusades, with pilgrims, evangelical missions, travelers, and Biblical scholars all heading to Palestine. He spoke about how the books of Western travelers and the reports of archeological expeditions in the Arab Mashreq form an important source for studying the history of Palestine in the 19th century.

Next, Dr. Laith Majid Hussain addressed the “Berlin-Baghdad Railway: The Economic and Scientific Ambitions of Imperial Germany in Iraq.” He showed that the railway line from Berlin to Baghdad was one of most complex challenges that faced European colonialism in its confrontation with the German policy of “push to the East” and to maintain the French and British concessions in the Ottoman state. In his view, the Berlin-Baghdad-Basra railway project was an indirect factor for the outbreak of World War I, since it sowed doubt between the parties about the new European colonialism.

In the final paper, Dr. Amjad Al Zoubi addressed “The German Infiltration of the Ottoman State through Orientalism: A Study in the Functions and Roles in the Last Quarter of the 19th Century,” and addressed the relationship of colonial infiltration with orientalism as dialectical. He said this was based on the arrogant civilizing mission of the German nation and its understanding of a natural right to build a nation state and lead the world. The West was under the illusion of its civilizing mission at the expense of the sleeping Orient, he said. The Germans believed they were the inheritors of Hellenistic civilization that would be reborn through the young German nation, and the slow Ottoman awakening pushed historians to coin the term “the Oriental question.” The session concluded with questions from the audience.

After a short break, the third and final sessions of the first day began in the third panel exploring “The fraught relationship between independence and Ottoman Westernization,” as part of the “Reform and Tanzimat” theme. Dr. Najla Makawi welcomed the participation of Dr. Fadwa Abdel-Rahman Ali Taha to start off the session speaking about “British Policy in Sudan (1821-1914): Methods to Contain and Eliminate the Ottoman Presence and the Egyptian Influence in Sudan.”

In her paper Dr. Ali Taha discussed the period after the Ottoman state took control of Egypt, saying it did not try and exert real control over Sudan, but was content with a nominal sovereignty, and failed to consolidate its rule there. At the same time, she explained, “Britain found the way prepared for it to impose its control over Sudan since it was the most powerful colonial empire with skilled diplomacy.”

The second paper came from Qaisar Musa El Zein on “Transformations from Cultural Arabization and Ottoman Turkization in a Changing Political Context in the ‘Peripheries’ of the Arab World: The Case of Sudan (1504-1885).”In al-Zein’s view cultural Turkification was limited in Sudan, and the Turkish presence was superficial and governed by the desire to exploit Sudan economically and to avoid conflict with the population, whether out of arrogance or fear. He said that Islamization and Arabization were intensified in Sudan as a result of this Turkification.

Dr. Amal Ghazal delivered the final paper of the session, “From Tripoli War to World War I: North Africa Between Independence and Ottoman Union and the Case of Wadi Mizab.” She took the position that it was necessary to create a single narrative linking the Italian occupation of Western Tripolitania (1911) and the course of World War I in North Africa. The Italian occupation, she explained, solidified the coming together of Moroccan political activists around the Ottoman federation as a means of survival. This was because they were afraid that the occupation of Tripolitania would end the Ottoman presence in North Africa and end the hope for Ottoman support to restore sovereignty from the European occupation.

In the final session on “Ottoman History and Local History” Dr. Nasser Al Saadi delivered a paper on “The Emergence of a State in Oman in 1624 AD: A Study of the Political and Social Transformations during the Ottoman Era.” He began by stating that Oman was the first state in the Arab Mashreq to confront the first colonial wave in the form of the Portuguese who ruled the Omani coast for around 100 years. The efforts of the ulema to restore Oman to its ulemas did not succeed however, he explained, and resulted in them being pushed out of the picture while the tribes took over politics. This remained the case until the creation of the Sultanate of Oman and the United Arab Emirates post 1970 on the territory formerly known as Oman. The session concluded with a comprehensive discussion.