MESA Banner
Conceptualizing the Social in the Late and Post-Ottoman World

Panel II-23, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel examines concepts of society that gained currency in the Middle East in the late and post-Ottoman world. Reading primary material across Arabic and Ottoman/Turkish, the papers demonstrate how thinkers across the region sought new ways of envisioning society and understanding the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whether mobilizing new concepts from emerging forms of knowledge such as political economy and sociology, or reworking older ones from the Arab and Islamic tradition, these figures sought to make sense of the tumultuous political and economic transformations of the era. Therefore, rather than relying on a history-of-ideas approach that solely traces concepts to their discursive origins, these papers ground novel concepts within the broader sociohistorical environments in which they are used. The panel interrogates how concepts of society, political economy, freedom, and civilization came to resonate with thinkers, and to what ends they were mobilized. Furthermore, by thinking the Arab and Turkish intellectual worlds together, the panel aims to overcome the siloing of Arab and Turkish studies into separate research fields by demonstrating the shared political-economic conditions and intellectual heritage from which new social theories emerged. We begin by considering how a concept like tamaddun transforms between the work of Khalil al-Khuri and Farah Antun, taking stock of periods of enchantment and disenchantment with capitalist modernity. The following paper focuses on the overlaps and divergences in the works of Namik Kemal and Rizqallah Hassun by analyzing their use of hurriyya/hürriyet, seeking to understand the societal conditions that may have prompted the writers to draw on this newly coined/reconfigured concept in Ottoman-Turkish and Arabic. The third paper traces how ideas of national political economy gained steam in the Syrian nationalist movement against the French Mandate, tracing the origins of this discourse to the politics of the late Ottoman era. The fourth and final paper traces the evolution of “the luminary (münevver) vs. the people (halk)” dichotomy from the late Ottoman period into Republican Turkey, demonstrating the ways in which the official ideology’s fluctuant conceptualization of social strata eschewed the notion of class struggle.
  • Recent works in Arab intellectual history have aimed to rethink the “long nineteenth century” and its relationship to “the modern”. Challenging both the presumptions and the conclusions of Albert Hourani’s 1962 classic Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, this scholarship has sought to complicate the notion of a single modernity by drawing attention to the variety of ways in which Arab intellectuals indigenized, and at times pushed back, against concepts and currents of thought they encountered in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Though this work is no doubt unfinished, it has unearthed a variegated and unexpected Nahda – the so-called Arab awakening –– contrary to its anachronistic reading as the incubation period of a latent nationalism. Curiously, yet another 1962 classic, Şerif Mardin’s The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought, has not figured as catalyst of a similar uptake in Ottoman-Turkish intellectual history, having only been translated into Turkish nearly half of a century following its publication. Though the causes for this discrepancy in revisionist work are doubtless plenty, a central reason may well to do with the obstinacy of nationalism in informing historical study: that is, irrespective of how far we consciously intend to expand our understanding of the Nahda and Ottoman-Turkish modernisms, they nevertheless figure as “Arab” or “Turkish” phenomena. This paper ventures to rethink the Nahda and Turkish modernism together through the concept of freedom in the works of two figures: Namik Kemal (1840-1888) and Rizqallah Hassun (1825-1878). Starting with their personal relationship which began in the Istanbul of the 1850s and continued as exiles in London in the following decade, I first excavate both authors’ preoccupation with the notion of freedom as the fulcrum of their criticism of the Ottoman government and programmes for progress in their Hürriyet (1868-9) and Mir’at al-Ahwal (1876-7) respectively. Despite their different subjective positions and political objectives, both thinkers were compelled, I show, to work with a relatively new concept to articulate the type of socio-political malaise afflicting their society, and the legal and institutional reforms needed to improve it. Finally, against thinking about the resonance of freedom for Ottomans as enabled by their encounters with liberal or republican thought, I argue that a close-reading of Kemal and Hassun’s treatises on freedom yields partial insights into an Ottoman society that was being transformed by new practices associated with capitalist production and circulation.
  • This paper traces the emergence of a discourse of “national economy" in Syria in the early twentieth century. In the beginning of the century, a number of global and regional conditions led to a decline in the viability of liberalism as an economic doctrine. Factors such as the relative success of the locally financed infrastructure projects in Syria as well as the economic rise of Germany and the US using protectionist policies led a number of Syrian thinkers to grow interested in national political economic ideas as alternatives to ideas of Smithian political economy and Ricardian comparative advantage. After the July 1908 Young Turk Revolution, this economic tendency grew hegemonic within the Syrian intelligentsia. After the ruling Committee of Union and Progress party relaxed Ottoman censorship laws, a number of new journals and newspapers were established in Beirut, Damascus, and other cities around Syria. Many existing Syrian journals also moved back to Syria from the diaspora. Through a close reading of a number of these publications, I show how Syrian intellectuals and political figures increasingly embraced a politics of national economy, calling for protection and development of local industries, increased state intervention and investment, and an end to trade capitulations and the dominance of foreign companies in the region. Such an argument goes against the conventional historiography, which portrays the Young Turk Era after 1908 as one which saw an Arab liberal faction coalesce against the more state-nationalist tendencies of the Turkish-dominated Committee of Union and Progress. I argue that such novel approaches to political economy cannot simply be reduced to the reception and application of neo-mercantilist models from abroad. Instead, I historicize this new economic tendency by demonstrating what sociohistorical conditions made ideas of national economy attractive to Syrian political factions after 1908: the increasing presence of foreign-controlled companies and infrastructure in Syria, nationalist boycotts of aggressor states against the Ottomans, and elite anxiety over militant worker strikes, among other factors. Furthermore, I show how ideas of national economy during this era carried on into the post-Ottoman era, as many of the chief ideologues of this tendency went on to dominate the Syrian nationalist movement against the French Mandate, and participated in the institutional and discursive construction of a Syrian “national economy” in opposition to France’s economic vision for the region.
  • In Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, Abdelfattah Kilito describes the predominance of the trope of fundamental differentiation in nineteenth century Arabic literature, which functions on the horizontal axis of comparison. Kilito ascribes this reliance on the horizontal axis of comparison to European dominance. This paper heeds Kilito’s description and traces how the concept of tamaddun (civilization) was deployed in the nineteenth century as a means of differentiating and approximating (cultural) value. I read tamaddun as a conceptual term that reflects the ascendency of the value form and the corresponding anxiety of finding commensurability between varying genres of social existence, while also accounting for notions of the universal and the particular. As a concept, Tamaddun, I argue, allows Nahda intellectuals to think through the problems of (in)commensurability and (un)translatability by providing world models and world pictures that corresponded to the emerging logic of capitalism. I look at two iterations of tamaddun, one from Khalil al-Khuri and the other from Faraḥ Antūn and investigate how each author’s respective understandings of tamaddun produces two different forms of communities, one based on communal closure, the other on universal openness. I closely read select articles from al-Khūrī’s Hadiqat al-Akhbar (Garden of News) and Antun’s Al-Jāmiʿah (The Community) to account for the different understandings of tamaddun between the two authors, and investigate how these differing understandings of tamaddun reflect the expansion of capitalism and imperial consolidation by the turn of the century. By pondering these questions, I also demonstrate how tamaddun must be considered as a keyword in the study of capitalism and modernity in the Arab World.