Ussama Makdisi

Tuesday, 08 May 2018, 5.00 pm - 6.30 pm |
Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstr. 14, 14193 Berlin

Oecumenism and Sectarianism in the East of the Mediterranean since 1918

Ussama Makdisi
(Rice University / American Academy in Berlin Fellow 2017/18)

Comment & Chair: Seda Altuğ
(Boğaziçi University / EUME Fellow 2017/18)

Ussama Makdisi's comments on reinterpreting coexistence draw from his new book manuscript which is entitled The Ecumenical Frame: Antisectarianism and Coexistence in the Modern Middle East. The work focuses on the modern Arab Mashriq (the region that includes the Levant and Egypt), and seeks to clarify three important points. First, to appreciate that the contemporary Arab world is far more than just the setting for allegedly age-old endemic sectarian antagonisms; it is a dynamic place where often inspired commitments to cultural and political commonality have emerged in the modern era, or what I call an anti-sectarian tradition that took root after 1860. Second, to remind us that the struggle for meaningful diversity, equality and justice remains everywhere a complex and controversial process—in the Arab world to be sure, but also in Europe, in India, and in the United States. Third and finally, to get beyond writings about the Arab world that demonize the Arab world or romanticize its coexistence.

The beginnings of the modern ecumenical frame are inseparable from the mid-century Ottoman context that produced it. First and foremost, there was the transformation and secularization of the legal structures of commercial and criminal Ottoman law during the Tanzimat, culminating in the 1869 Law of Nationality, the 1876 Ottoman constitution and the codification of the great civil code known as the Mecelle between 1869 and 1876. These created the legal and ideological platform for Arabic anti-sectarian tradition insofar as they created the juridical and political space for secular Ottomanism that broke manifestly with premodern Ottoman Muslim primacy over non-Muslims. Second, there was constant intrusion of European power, missions and capital that created enough pressure on Ottoman sovereignty to uphold the ecumenical frame without destroying this sovereignty—and indeed that was crucial to create vibrant cosmopolitan spaces in cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Aleppo and Beirut. Third and foremost, there was the local agency of Arab subjects themselves who were at the heart of defining and debating the nature and limits of the new post-1860 culture of coexistence.

Ussama Makdisi is Professor of History and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University. In 2012-13, he was an invited Resident Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin). In April 2009, the Carnegie Corporation named Makdisi a 2009 Carnegie Scholar as part of its effort to promote original scholarship regarding Muslim societies and communities, both in the United States and abroad. He was awarded the Berlin Prize and is spending the spring 2018 semester as a Fellow at the American Academy of Berlin.
Makdisi is the author of Faith Misplaced: the Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001 (Public Affairs, 2010). His previous books include Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2008), which was the winner of the 2008 Albert Hourani Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association, the 2009 John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association, and a co-winner of the 2009 British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize given by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. He is also the author of The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (University of California Press, 2000) and co-editor of Memory and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa (Indiana University Press, 2006). He has published widely on Ottoman and Arab history as well as on U.S.-Arab relations and U.S. missionary work in the Middle East. Among his major articles are “Anti-Americanism in the Arab World: An Interpretation of Brief History” which appeared in the Journal of American History and “Ottoman Orientalism” and “Reclaiming the Land of the Bible: Missionaries, Secularism, and Evangelical Modernity” both of which appeared in the American Historical Review. Makdisi has also published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Comparative Studies in Society and History, and in the Middle East Report. He is now working on a manuscript on the history of coexistence and anti-sectarianism in the modern Middle East to be published by the University of California Press. 

Seda Altuğ is a lecturer at the Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. She received her PhD from Utrecht University, Netherlands. Her dissertation is entitled “Sectarianism in the Syrian Jazira: Community, Land and Violence in the Memories of World War I and the French Mandate (1915–1939)”. Her research interests cover state-society relations in French-Syria, land issues, empire, minorities, border and memory. She has recently started working on land and property regimes in the Ottoman East and Syria under the French mandate. She published various pieces on the minority regime and refugee issue in French-Syria, as well as on Armenian and Kurdish history in post-genocide Syria. She also wrote extensively on current affairs in Syria and the wider Middle East. In the academic year 2017/18, she is an Irmgard Coninx Prize EUME Fellow.