Sunday, April 24, 2011
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Monday, April 4, 2011
The harassments that Christians are facing today in countries like Iraq and Egypt tend to be seen in isolation to similar problems across the middle east, on one hand, and from historical precedents on the other; and while routinely associated with a surge in Islamic values across the Arab and Islamic worlds, their economic underpinnings are overlooked.
In the old Islamic empires, Christian and Jewish minorities were simultaneously referred to as “the people of the book” and ahl al-dhimma, the former referring to the identification of minorities with their holy scriptures, while the latter limited them to their status as minorities, in particular in matters of political representation and taxation (the special jizya tax). In Ottoman times, such minorities were integrated within the millet system, which grosso modo implied, as with the previous empires, poor political representation and special taxes, together with the legalization of economic practices that were forbidden to the majority of Muslims under sharia law. Thus, when Jews fleeing the Spanish inquisition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries opted for the Ottoman empire, they were greeted within the millet system, on one hand, and as potential moneylenders on the other. Such historical millet-specific economic functions tend to be overlooked these days, in particular in relation to the hardships that Christians have been going through in the middle east. That 2010 implied the end of Christianity in Iraq, and that the hardships of the Copts in Egypt have been under the hood during the Mubarak autocratic rule, and have only accelerated since his departure, beg the following questions: How come autocratic régimes, like Baathism under Saddam Hussein, Nasserism up to Sadat and Mubarak, or Syrian Baathism, manage the status of minorities far better than the more “democratic” ones? It is, for instance, no secret that under Saddam Hussein the Christians of Iraq were much safer than now, and that an explanation of the kind that they have been targeted because of a sudden rise of Islamic jihadic groups, which the nascent federal state is unable to control, would certainly not suffice, and is inadequate as an explicans. What needs to be explained here—the explanandum—is the relative “security” that Armenians, Christians and Jews, in their lives and properties, have benefited from in Ottoman, colonial, and postcolonial times, but only when the postcolonial independent state acted like a mini-Ottoman state, with millet rights and privileges. There seems therefore, prima facie, at face value, a contradiction, which is precisely what needs to be explained: Why under autocratic conditions, in countries like Iraq, Syria and Egypt, minorities feel much safer than in less autocratic and more open conditions? The reason is that postcolonial autocratic states have stabilized around post-Ottoman notions of power, where millets were kept with similar economic rights and privileges. Whenever such autocratic states have shifted in another direction, as is the case in Iraq and Egypt, the “protection” accorded by the state is not there anymore, and the minorities find themselves competing with other groups, in particular the Muslim majority.
The real secret here may well be the so-called “pluralism” in sharia law, which permitted a special legal status to minorities and foreigners. Up to the early 19th century, such special legal status did not create large economic discrepancies between communities. By the 19th century, however, competition across the Mediterranean pushed for greater legal autonomy to minorities. In areas where sharia law was particularly weak, such as partnerships, moneylending, and corporations, minorities benefited from their special legal status, namely, the fact that laws outside the sharia system were applicable to them—and to them only—either within their own confessional millets, or else through capitulations and special mixed courts.
It is, indeed, that relative economic “success” of minorities that is often overlooked today. Is there any connection between the economic and cultural edge that minorities were able to secure, and the harassments and massacres that they had to endure? Let us note here that the first calls for autonomy, in the form of regional and territorial nationalisms, in the Ottoman empire, were to erupt in Greece and the Balkans, in regions where the Greek Orthodox faith was predominant.
In a recent book, the economist Timur Kuran notes that until the late 18th century Muslim role in trade and commerce was significant, as there is no historical evidence that Muslim merchants left trade to Christians and Jews, even though both Islamic economic and legal practices lagged behind their counterparts in medieval and early modern Europe in practices like partnership, the corporation, the legal person, primogeniture (as opposed to equal inheritance), money lending, the letter of credit, trust funds (as opposed to the closed waqfs), stocks, bonds, treasuries and public debt. But with the expansion of capitalism, the industrial revolution, trade and colonialism, the trend has begun to shift towards non-Muslim minorities, as more aggressive trade practices were needed. As sharia law leaves the door open for “legal pluralism,” the denominational communal courts served the purpose of granting legal protection for practices that the sharia courts would otherwise not have permitted. Better still, non-Muslim minorities had that unique option to opt for the legal authority of their own choice, pending on what was at stake. “By the end of the 19th century,” however, “the Ottoman Empire’s Muslim merchants were decidedly secondary players in its external trade with Europe, and at home, too, they had lost enormous ground to local minorities” (Kuran 191). Soon, the dhimmi communities who were commercially active became, like the foreigners of the empire, protégés of European powers or of their inside cohorts. Some, seeking better protection, or to be exempted from specific taxes, either became consuls or dragomans (tercümans) in consulates.
Herein lies the shift that occurred from the “protected” millet status to one that was life threatening to non-Muslim minorities. To understand the significance of such a shift by the late 19th early 20th centuries we need to go no further than the decline of the populations of non-Muslim minorities in Anatolia. Historians of the empire (Kemal Karpat and Justin McCarthy) give on average 10 to 25 percent for non-Muslim minorities in Ottoman Anatolia, when it was still within the empire’s jurisdiction. But with the killing and deportation of close to 1.5 million Armenians, and other minorities (primarily Greeks) by the end of WWI, Turkey’s population of today’s minorities stands at less than 1 percent of the total of the republic. Nor was such a movement of deportation and harassment to stop with the foundation of the republic or in the aftermath of WWII for that matter. The last episode, known as “the pogrom against Greek businesses,” on 6 and 7 September 1955, when Adnan Menderes was prime minister (1950–60), emptied the heart of Istanbul, the Beyoğlu (Pera) area, from its Greek businesses, amid large scale riots that pushed many Greek families to leave their homes and fortunes behind in their rush for more secure countries (Zürcher 231). Ironically, the Greeks were targeted at a time when Turkey’s economy was most successful, achieving a 9 percent growth rate over the ten-year period of the Menderes administration, with rapid urbanization and industrialization, thanks partly to foreign aid. Which begs the question, Why are minorities targeted even in times of relative economic success, when the country is not challenged by external enemies?
Yet, Turkey is the only country in the region to have successfully industrialized and modernized, well situated within the prestigious G–20 membership. Why was it the first Islamicate society to systematically eliminate its minorities? Was the elimination of minorities an operation necessitated by the growth of the nation-state, industrialization, modernization, laissez-faire capitalism? In other words, does the “imagined community,” which acts as a prerequisite for the nation-state, necessitate that “minorities” be targeted to create a “coherence” in the imagined ideology?
Saturday, April 2, 2011
The events in the Middle East are portrayed as people versus their despotic rulers, innocent masses against corrupt states, utopian crowds versus crony capitalists of the nouveaux riches, religious versus secular, and tribalism versus the cold raison d’état of the statism. That politics is perceived as a theater of expressivity against corrupt and oppressive rulers, good guys versus bad guys, is commonplace. In the wake of the financial collapse in the US and the rest of the world in 2008–09, the bad guys were the Wall Street bankers, who, behind our backs, and while benefiting from our trust (in the money that we’ve safely deposited in their banks), they went ahead and engineered all kinds of “immoral” (rather than illegal) transactions. The financial collapse was thus seen in terms of individuals defecting as a group from common sense behavior against the majority of innocent actioners. Similarly, the middle east uprisings are portrayed as an action of an innocent majority versus a corrupt minority in power. But how come such a minority managed to rule the uncorrupt majority? By sheer force? What political discourse and analysis hardly reveal is the amount of consensus behind political power, whatever the degree of coerciveness involved: indeed, it all comes to a matter of degree rather than deeply rooted principles. That oppressors and oppressed belong, therefore, to the same cultural landscape (ethos), that they may share similar cultural values, is what is often overlooked once the veil of consensual coercion has been broken—but to what kind of political order exactly? In other words, once the consensus that lies behind political power (from the most totalitarian to the most liberal) seems to have been broken, amid, for instance, street protests and violence, political power is de facto portrayed as “out of sync”—or out of touch—with the masses, hence hiding (repressing) the very idea of consensus even behind coercion and oppression, not far away from the consensus that we find in liberal democracies. That is to say, what is occulted here is what protesters are finally aiming at. Thus, when we ask the trivial question, What is it that they want, what is it that they are aiming at?, we get the trivial answer, They want political freedom, uncorrupt governments, and a radical régime change. Whether to some this implies western laissez-faire liberalism, or on the other end, a Muslim radical theocracy or a moderately Islamic liberal government (in the style of the Muslim Brothers), important as it may as an issue, is not what is at stake here, at least not for the centrality of the revolts. We want to unmask what has been left out in all this: the real motivations of the protesters, why they’ve been coming, with their bodies, alone or en masse, day after day. We want an analysis along the following lines: the body, the visible, the gaze, time and (public) space, all of which pertain to a particular political culture. We want to argue that the broad movement launched across the middle east, which is now shaped as a region whose coherence (or lack thereof) is being made and unmade through the protests, targets an entire cultural landscape, between oppressors and oppressed, wealthy and poor, the state apparatuses and those outside them.