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At the Edges of the Communal in the Eastern Mediterranean

Panel VII-15, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Nineteenth-century reforms unleashed a process of re-negotiation in Ottoman state-society relations that continued in many forms after the empire’s early twentieth-century dissolution. In this context, religious groups made new claims for inclusion in the burgeoning order as formal religious equality and representative legitimacy crystallized as principles of rule in the Ottoman domains and their successor states. Gradually, the contours of inter-religious relations stabilized alongside the formalization of communal institutions, state bureaucracies, and discourses of coexistence. Nonetheless, considerable variety remained in how members of religious minority communities imagined the terms of national belonging. Additionally, the shifting forms of popular politics and, in particular, fears of majoritarian chauvinism, often prompted reassessments of the political significance of religious community. This panel focuses on Middle Eastern minority engagements with mainstream nationalist politics in the first half of the twentieth century. The assembled papers explore new approaches to the entanglements between communal and national publics, so often siloed in the historiography of the former Ottoman lands. One set of questions that the panel will ask concerns the genealogies of the terms used to describe objects of communal anxiety, such as sectarianism (ta’ifiyya), fanaticism (ta’assub), and reactionism (raj’iyya). The panel will also examine minority appeals to wider publics, which took form through attempts to reframe inter-religious relations on the terrain of shared norms of care, democracy, history, and more. Throughout, attention will be paid to historical actors and institutions that both defied and re-inscribed sectarian boundaries. The geographical focus of the panel will be on the Ottoman-Arab Eastern Mediterranean, including its diasporas, from the beginning to the middle of the twentieth century. The papers, based on historical research in archives and published works, approach the topic from two general vantages. Several focus explicitly on the institutions of these communities, detailing internal deliberations and external interactions that impacted the form of the communal sphere. Other papers discuss textual sources, interpreting some of the intellectual, cultural, and literary means by which the politics of sectarianism were re-imagined. In this way, the panel juxtaposes a number of experiences, individual and collective, that convey the kaleidoscopic and contingent politics of inter-communal relations in this era.
  • Joseph Leidy
    In 1937, the Hama-born writer and publisher Jubran Massuh sent a letter from the city of Tucumán in Argentina to the Maronite Patriarch Antonius Arida. In addition to two copies of his recent book al-Masīḥī wa al-muslim (The Christian and the Muslim), included as a gift, the three-page letter contained a plea for the Patriarch to prepare to confront Muslim fanaticism (taʿaṣṣub). Only two years after expressing his doubt about Muslim promises of “brotherhood” and “equality” to the Patriarch, however, Massuh seemed ready to leave behind this pessimism. He had, by then, met the exiled Antun Saadeh, founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and was impressed enough with the party’s anti-sectarian principles to become the editor of al-Zawbaʿa, its periodical in Argentina. At this time, Massuh declared in Buenos Aires’s El Diario Siriolibanés that Khalid Adib, a Syrian Nationalist from Tripoli who accompanied Saadeh, was not at all a fanatic and the first Muslim he could genuinely call his brother. This paper situates Massuh’s apparent about-face in the context of his published writings in the nineteen thirties and forties. It will consider what we can learn about sectarian politics in this era from a diasporic perspective. What informed Massuh’s perceptions of Muslim “fanaticism” from Argentina? What do his ideological shifts – including an interest in socialism after he left the Syrian Nationalists in the mid-forties – reveal about transnational middle-class responses to burgeoning Arab-Islamic nationalist mass politics? The case of this Syrian Argentine thinker suggests that affective encounters with Muslims in diaspora may have played an under-appreciated role in coloring contemporary attitudes about majoritarian politics. To trace how Massuh’s thinking in this regard developed over the course of roughly a decade, the paper will consider some of his published articles and books before, during, and after his affiliation with the Syrian Nationalists in a first attempt at an intellectual biography of this tumultous period in his life. It will also offer a close reading of Massuh’s 1937 letter, excavating the continuities between in his published works and this private sectarian polemic.
  • Amy Fallas
    The dilapidated hospital on Ramses Street became a battleground the night of October 9, 2011. The mangled bodies of protesters were rushed in to spiritual and medical caretakers in frantic efforts to save those they could and pray over those they could not. The infrastructure heaved with overworked medical staff, strained equipment, and anxious loved ones. Outside, a scene of chaos ensued from the Coptic Hospital to where the military attacked Coptic Christian protesters and their allies with live ammunition and armored personnel vehicles at the Maspero National Television and Radio Building. Physical and ideological struggles raged on operation tables and in the morgue, between families, protesters, and religious leaders. What would later become known as the Maspero Massacre became at once a fixture in the chronology of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 as well as a specter in the genealogy of the sectarian question in Egypt. In fact, from its conceptualization during the late nineteenth century, the Coptic Hospital has been a fixture in the geographies and genealogies of sectarianism in Cairo. When Boutros Ghali established the Great Coptic Benevolent Society (GCBS) in 1881, he envisioned medical care for the Coptic poor as the organization’s first and primary duty. When they encountered a myriad of logistical issues in erecting the hospital, they pivoted to a broader definition of the purview of the society’s medical outreach that was explicit in opening its care to Christians across communal affiliations as well as Muslims. When the hospital first opened in 1926, it was the pride of the GCBS and not only boasted medical innovation—but one that made specific claims to the sectarian neutrality of medical care while also reifying the religious differentiation they claimed to eschew. This paper examines how the physical and discursive development of the Coptic hospital reflected shifting notions of social responsibility, national belonging, and the very meaning of sectarianism (ta’ifiyya) during early twentieth century Egypt. These developments were also reflected in the establishment of other charitable projects that permeated the landscape in proximity to the hospital—a confessional mushrooming that organized benevolence work according to sect-based affiliation. The Coptic Hospital became one of the most prominent charitable institutions of a Cairene sectarian corridor that continues into the twenty first century.
  • This paper considers a set of laws passed by the Egyptian government in 1927 that regulated institutions of religious and communal authority. I center my study on Law 19 of 1927 which returned the Coptic Orthodox Communal Council to its 1883 charter. In practical terms, this law restored the Council as a fully elected body of laymen and strengthened its authority over religious endowments at the expense of the Church hierarchy. Reading legislative debates and press coverage reveals that beyond its practical manifestations, Law 19 served as a discursive platform for a variety of actors within the Egyptian government and the Coptic community to lay claim on how the Coptic community would be defined, with emphasis placed on the representative character of communal institutions and the state’s prerogative to regulate communal structures through legislation. The passage of Law 19, along with the death of Coptic Pope Kyrillos V one month later, opened the door for the reformulation of Coptic communal authority in line with the ideals of Egypt’s “liberal era,” including popular representation and participatory politics. It also strengthened a legislative precedent for the state’s intervention into and regulation of this process. I read the legislative regulation of Coptic communal organization alongside laws passed in the same year that reformed Islamic educational institutions and heightened the power of Egyptian Jewish notables at the expense of their religious leadership. In spite of the timing of these laws, they have typically not been considered together. I argue that these laws constituted a larger current of Egyptian government efforts to regulate religious communities and their institutions of authority in line with both the promises and the threats of popular politics in the post-independence liberal era. In 1927, this was given urgency due to fears over “reactionism” in the face of the declining health of Wafd party leader and nationalist icon Saad Zaghloul and the prospects of a more factionalized political future. The overall effect of these laws was to make questions of religious authority legible to the logic of the Egyptian government’s legislative regime and to codify religious community as an object of state governance.
  • Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Cairo-based Ottoman historian and man of letters Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914) received countless letters from scholars and laypeople across the Muslim world. They warned the prominent founder of al-Hilal against writing Islamic history within the narrative form of the modern Arabic novel. Zaydan, coming from a Syrian Orthodox working-class background and committed to social and political equality of Ottoman religious and ethnic communities, argued that it was impossible for him to abandon either “Islamic” history or the novel form. Instead, he continued to write a total of 22 novels that were enthusiastically translated by his readership into multiple languages, and which he promoted as works of history under the title “The Islamic History Series.” Contemporary debates around Zaydan’s work were not isolated, but rather an integral part of Arabic intellectual discourses on who could write and make claims over the historical record. Dialogue between supportive and critical readers engaging with Zaydan’s project highlight the uniqueness of his intervention in shaping the Islamic past towards socio-political change in the Ottoman present. Zaydan’s rich and contentious works of historical fiction, and the public debates surrounding their production, provide a glimpse into the intellectual, social, and political struggle for reform that shaped his generation. Further, his novels shed new light on the nahda, whose popular productions have often been ignored in favor of “high” literature and scholarship. This paper examines how Zaydan’s project of rendering Islamic history and its classical and medieval texts within a fictionalized narrative form challenged the normalization of history as part of modern Islamic sciences and negotiated a non-sectarian reformist vision grounded in Ottomanism. The paper situates Zaydan’s novels and the public debates they ignited within the broader context of Egyptian and Syrian Ottoman anxieties over shifting communal boundaries and belonging.