Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East
Columbia Global Reports, 2016, 183 pp., $13.99 (paperback)
Charles Issawi taught economic history in the Department of Near East Studies at Princeton University in the 1970s and 1980s. Issawi was a true Levantine, a cosmopolitan product of the diverse peoples and vibrant cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean. Born in Cairo in 1916 to a Greek Orthodox Syrian family, he was educated at Victoria College in Alexandria, the preferred school for the sons of the city’s elite, and then at Magdalen College, Oxford. His subsequent academic career took him first to the American University in Beirut, and then to the United States.
At Princeton, Issawi was a favorite of graduate students, both for his enormous erudition and for his kindly demeanor and mischievous wit. Once, when reflecting upon the intractable conflicts that plague the Middle East—Arabs vs. Jews, Armenians vs. Turks, Turks vs. Kurds, Sunnis vs. Shi‘a, and on and on—he remarked that all the region’s problems could probably be resolved if only the Ottoman Empire could be revived. The remark was intended to draw a laugh, but behind it was a serious point: The Ottoman Empire, far better than the modern would-be nation-states that have replaced it, managed those conflicts and kept ethnic and sectarian rivalries in balance. The conflicts did not disappear under Ottoman rule, but for the most part they did not burst into open wounds that bled for years on end.
Nicolas Pelham, in Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East, in essence makes the same argument. He advocates no quixotic political plan. The current claimant to the throne of Osman is a 92-year-old retired librarian living in New York City, and Pelham does not suggest that he return as Sultan of a reconstituted empire. But Pelham is making an important point often overlooked by Western observers of the Middle East.
We frequently despair at the region’s seemingly intractable violence, and dismiss that violence as the product of timeless, existential conflicts. Most of those conflicts do indeed stem in some way from old cultural differences, but what’s new about them is the violence, or at least the degree and persistence of violent conflict, and, more broadly, the effort to suppress or drive out minority cultures to which much of that violence is related.
Sunnis and Shi‘a, Arabs and Kurds, Turks and Armenians identify communities that have in some form been around for centuries—and these by no means exhaust the list. During the premodern period, the inhabitants of the region experienced a level of diversity that those living in Europe or North America have simply never known, at least until recent decades. Of necessity, they developed mechanisms for handling that diversity and navigating the difficult shoals of cultural difference. It is only the conditions of the modern age that have upset the balance, turning difference into devastating conflict. So what are these conditions?
The number of inter-communal conflicts plaguing the Middle East, and the violence in which they are often expressed, are certainly numbing. At the moment, the ones associated with the so-called Islamic State claim the most attention. There is much one can say about the Islamic State, but broadly speaking, its political agenda is one of programmatic intolerance. The violence that repels us reflects a campaign to marginalize and, where possible, eliminate cultural, religious, and sexual differences that challenge the Islamic State’s narrowly defined norms. Their targets have included the ancient Christian communities in the lands they control in northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Churches have been closed, and many Christians have fled. Those who remain have been forced to pay what the IS calls jizya, a head tax that classical Islamic law imposed on religious minorities in exchange for the protection of the Muslim state, but which, with the infiltration of modern notions of equality, was abandoned in most of the Middle East in the 19th century. Other religious communities have fared even worse—Yazidis, for example, followers of a syncretistic religion that draws on elements of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and ancient Mesopotamian traditions. The Yazidi community has been devastated in recent years, with thousands killed, tens of thousands driven from their homes, and Yazidi women and girls cast into slavery to serve the sexual demands of IS fighters.
While the indignities and violence inflicted on non-Muslims has captured our attention, the Islamic State may be even more obsessed with its Muslim enemies. The IS is militantly Sunni and regards Shi‘i Muslims as heretics. The IS calls them the “rafida,” using a medieval Arabic pejorative meaning “those who refuse” (that is, those who historically followed Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, rather than the first three caliphs). That refusal, in the eyes of the IS and other Sunni militants, constitutes a rejection of the course of Muslim history, and therefore of God’s plan for the world—an error which marks out the Shi‘a for condemnation. Understandably, the Islamic State’s 2015 advance on Baghdad sparked panic within Iraq’s Shi‘a majority and, as Pelham recounts in a particularly fascinating chapter, prompted its squabbling leaders finally to come together to organize a response.
And it is not only Shi‘i Muslims who earn the Islamic State’s wrath. Salafism, the larger revivalist and reactionary form of Sunni Islam, of which the Islamic State is perhaps the most militant avatar, generally has been dismissive of Sufism, a millennium-old and generally tolerant spiritual orientation that, until fairly recently, was arguably the dominant form of piety in much of the Muslim world. The world has expressed horror at the Islamic State’s destruction of pre-Islamic antiquities at Palmyra and Nineveh, but IS control has been even more disastrous for a network of Sufi shrines, mosques, and mausoleums. Almost any shrine can become a target for destruction. Among those bulldozed or dynamited into rubble is a Sunni mosque in Mosul that was built over what Muslims and Christians both consider the tomb of the Biblical prophet Jonah (Yunus, as he is known in the Qur’an).
The intolerance of the Islamic State is exceptional, even pathological, but it is hardly unique. The IS has destroyed tombs and Sufi shrines in Iraq and Syria (as have its acolytes in Libya) and has persecuted those Shi‘a unfortunate enough to live under its rule, but so have the Wahhabi authorities in America’s premier Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. And while it has rarely been expressed with such violence, intolerance is in fact a leitmotif of Middle East history over the past century and a half. The effort to impose a dominant model or norm (cultural, religious, or ethnic), or to marginalize the “other” or even deny its existence, has been a recurring theme of one political program after another. Above all it has been present in the various nationalisms that, until recently, have set the political agenda throughout the region. It lies behind the Turkish government policy of denying the Kurdish population autonomy and its efforts to suppress Kurdish culture and identity. (For many years, Kurds in eastern Anatolia were dismissed as “mountain Turks.”) It is woven into the fabric of the messianic Arabism propagated by Michel Aflaq, founder of the Ba‘ath Party. Both Israelis and Palestinians have at various times denied the other’s very identity, as well.
The Ottoman Empire, by contrast, was remarkably tolerant of cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. It was a Turkish state, in a certain sense, in that its roots lay in the wave of Turkish settlement in Anatolia that followed the defeat of a Byzantine army at the battle of Manzikert in 1071, and in the fact that Ottoman Turkish (along with Arabic and Persian, for religious and literary purposes) remained the official language of the state. But it was not Turkish in any exclusive ethnic sense, at least until its later years. On the contrary, for much of its history, ethnic Turks were, in theory at least, excluded from many leading positions in the state and its armed forces. Rather, the ruling elite was recruited through an irregular tax known as the devşirme, in which young boys from among the empire’s non-Muslim subjects, principally the Christian communities in the Balkans, were taken from their homes, made slaves of the sultan, converted to Islam, and trained to be soldiers and statesmen.
The purpose of this unusual system was to create a military and administrative caste whose loyalty focused explicitly on the sultan and the state, and therefore rose above the claims of any particular ethnic community or patrimonial lineage. The institution certainly offends modern sensibilities, although it was understood at the time, even by many of its “victims,” as a fast track to enhanced status and power. In any case it meant that the Grand Vizier and other leading officials of the Ottoman state were, very often, of Greek, Albanian, or Serbian stock. (Recruits to the system were known as ghulams, meaning “boy” or “youth.” Pelham unfortunately translates the term as “sodomite,” which for a causal reader might perpetuate old and lascivious Orientalist fantasies about rampant homoeroticism in Ottoman society.)
Much more important to the story Pelham tells was another Ottoman institution, the millet. Religion rather than ethnicity was the principal lens through which the Ottoman state identified and related to its subjects. Each religious community constituted a millet (from an Arabic word meaning “religion” or “religious community”), and it was through these millets that the Ottoman government ruled over its diverse subjects. Each millet, led by the head of the religious community (such as the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church), “was semi-autonomous, administering its own co-religionists, raising its own taxes, and applying and enforcing its own religious laws.” The millet was thus the institutional channel for Ottoman tolerance of religious difference.
The history of the millet was more complex than Pelham’s account suggests, as we shall see, but his general point is nonetheless valid, indeed critical. The Ottoman Empire was, certainly by the standards of the day and also by comparison with much of what has replaced it, a tolerant polity. Its respect for non-Muslim communities was firmly grounded in Islamic law. Non-Muslims who professed monotheism and possessed a revealed scripture were recognized as dhimmis, “protected peoples,” and were granted autonomy by the Muslim state. Polytheists and those outside the Abrahamic traditions were more problematic—hence the Islamic State’s special contempt for Yazidis—although in practice many of them, too, were brought under the covenant of protection. This is not to suggest that premodern Muslim societies were interfaith utopias. Protection and autonomy were one side of the coin; political disenfranchisement and second-class citizenship were the other. “Pluralism,” Pelham rightly notes, “was not egalitarian.” But the tolerance was nonetheless real and appreciated. When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, most of them took refuge not elsewhere in Europe but in the Ottoman Empire.
So what happened to change all this? Nationalism, a political ideology that (at least in its Middle Eastern forms if not also most others) exalts one ethnic group over another, bears much of the blame. By the early 20th century the Ottoman Empire had been infected by the nationalist disease, in part because its territorial losses had deprived it of much of its non-Muslim, non-Turkish population. The Committee of Union and Progress, the political party popularly known as the “Young Turks,” which dominated Ottoman politics in the empire’s final decades, grew increasingly chauvinistic despite its own liberal and multi-ethnic origins. Pelham begins his story with a moving account of the carefully planned massacre of 600 Armenians in Iraq in 1915, by Kurdish tribesmen but at the instigation of the CUP government—an especially gruesome episode in what the German parliament has recently recognized as the Armenian genocide.
The incident is particularly tragic, as the Armenians had for long been identified by the Ottomans themselves as the millet-i sadiqa, “the loyal millet.” After the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman state in 1918–19, Mustafa Kemal, tellingly known as “Atatürk” (“father of the Turks”), established a new Turkish republic in Anatolia. The creation of modern Turkey involved the expulsion of millions of Greek Christians from Anatolia (and was paralleled by the expulsion of Turks from Greece), and eventually the attempted forced assimilation of Kurds.
Turkish nationalism is an easy target, perhaps because Turkish nationalists have found themselves in conflict with so many other ethnic groups: Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, and Arabs. “The problem,” Pelham quotes an obscure great-great grandson of the last Ottoman sultan as remarking, “began with the word Turk.” That’s a little unfair, as the Turks embraced nationalism only after Greeks, Serbs, Armenians, and others in the Empire had done so. But the rise of Turkish nationalism did act as a catalyst for the splintering of the region along ethnic lines. Arab nationalism, for example, was in part a response to the Turkish chauvinism that infected late Ottoman rule in Syria and Iraq. And ultimately, there was plenty of nationalist chauvinism to go around.
Inevitably, Pelham dwells at some length on the mutual antagonism between Israelis and Arabs generated by the creation of Israel. The tale he tells is no less depressing for being so familiar. Of the Arabs who until 1948 had lived in Israel, 80 percent became refugees almost overnight. About 700,000 Jews who had lived in the Arab world, many for centuries (as late as 1940, up to a third the population of Baghdad was Jewish) fled persecution and the new nationalist-inspired hostility of their Muslim neighbors. There is no shortage of Middle Eastern examples of nationalist intolerance for competing ethnic and cultural identities.
But the problem has grown much worse with the collapse of secular nationalism as a viable organizing principle of politics in the Middle East. What has replaced it is a patchwork of states whose national identities are closely tied to religion—“bickering one-confessional millet states,” Pelham aptly calls them. There is both irony and tragedy in this tale. The millet had been the instrument of Ottoman tolerance for religious minorities, but in the Ottoman system confessional identity was non-territorial; it adhered to people, not to places. Now confessional identity is frequently tied to the exclusive claims of territorial states. The result has often been the persecution of minorities, coerced exchanges of population, and, increasingly, bloody war—what Pelham calls “milleticide.”
This is the compelling core of Pelham’s book: a litany of anecdotes illustrating the fracturing of Middle Eastern society into “a patchwork of little irredentist states,” eliminating in the process “the last multi-confessional vestiges of the Ottoman Empire.” At the moment, of course, Syria is Exhibit A of this historical development. The protests against the Assad regime that began in the spring of 2011 have morphed into a gruesome civil war, in which sectarian identities are increasingly the principal bases of political alignment.
But the sectarian chaos in Iraq came first and is arguably of greater consequence. The fallout from the American invasion in March 2003 raised tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘a, as the Sunni establishment, which had been dominant under Ba‘athi rule, felt its power slipping away. By 2005, Iraq had descended into a vicious civil war. This story is well known, but Pelham provides a valuable coda by detailing the further breakdown of national consensus under the Shi‘a-dominated governments of Prime Ministers Nouri al-Maliki and, now, Haider al-Abbadi.
The U.S. government eventually worked hard to reconcile Sunni Iraqis to the post-Saddam political order, but Maliki, who had originally been selected as Prime Minister with U.S. approval, undermined the U.S. efforts by stripping Sunni tribes of financial support and by failing to restrain the various Shi‘a militias. The situation has only grown worse in recent years as the Shi‘a establishment, including the grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has often served as a voice of restraint and accommodation, rallied to hold off the terrifying advance of the Islamic State. The result has been the further empowerment of Shi‘a militias and politicians tied to Iran. Baghdad has seen the sectarian “cleansing” of previously diverse neighborhoods, while Sunnis living in southern cities such as Basra, in the Shi‘a heartland, have been driven out or fled. Pelham paints a portrait of a rather hapless Haider al-Abbadi, well meaning but unable to deliver on his promises to bridge the gap between Sunni and Shi‘a. He hints that the only solution now may be what Joe Biden and others have long called for: the partitioning of Iraq into Shi‘a, Sunni, and Kurdish statelets.
Syria and Iraq are the most dramatic examples of sectarian intolerance, but they are hardly alone. In depressing detail, Pelham outlines the transformation of the quintessentially nationalist Israeli-Palestinian struggle into a religious conflict. He points to the central role of Palestine in the genesis of jihadism. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Palestinian movement was dominated by secular nationalists, chiefly from Fatah, the core group of the PLO. But the first effective mobilizer of Palestinian resistance to Zionism was Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a fiery preacher in Haifa who embraced an ideology of Islamic revival and jihad against colonialism that would now be pigeonholed as a form of Islamism. Al-Qassam was killed by the British in late 1935, but his example helped to inspire the Arab Revolt that challenged British rule in Palestine on the eve of World War II. Palestinians have figured prominently in modern international jihadism, too—Abdallah Azzam, for example, mentor to Osama bin Laden and one of the early leaders of what became al-Qaeda. HAMAS, of course, has emerged as a viable rival to the secular PLO for the political allegiance of the Palestinians.
One of the great virtues of Pelham’s book is that he is an equal opportunity critic of religiously inspired political intolerance. If in his account Palestine plays an outsize role in the rise of jihadism, he also devotes several chapters to the growing chauvinism of religious Zionists in Israel. Here as throughout he makes his case through arresting detail: For example, the 47 percent of Israeli Jews who, according to one recent poll, favor expelling Arab citizens of Israel to the West Bank or Gaza. The mayor of Upper Nazareth, a predominantly Jewish town who is fighting to keep it that way, justifies his efforts to prevent Arabs settling in the town by quoting Numbers 33:55: “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain shall be pricks in your eyes and thorns in your side, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.” Israel, Pelham concludes, has become “part of the club of sectarian Middle Eastern states in which one millet suppressed and bullied another in order to reign supreme.”
Not everyone will agree with Pelham’s conclusion on that point, or on several others. But the gripping stories he recounts with the skill of an accomplished journalist point to a sweeping historical judgment: Nationalism and religious revivalism have combined to undermine the Middle East’s long tradition of accommodating cultural difference. We like to think of the modern world as promoting tolerance. In the Middle East, at least, nothing could be further from the truth: The wages of modernity are precisely what are driving out the studied and hard-won tolerance of a much earlier time.
Is there a way out, or back? Pelham’s book is a plea to return to some form of Ottomanism, a world of “holy communities” rather than “holy lands,” a revival of lost traditions of pluralism. In a series of chapters speculating on “the way back,” he describes efforts among Jews, Shi‘a, Armenians, and Sunnis to reach out to their enemies and promote reconciliation.
Historical sentimentalism is tempting. There is no doubt that the Ottoman Empire was, comparatively speaking, a tolerant polity. But tolerance had its limits. As always, those on the margins were most vulnerable. Yazidis were the targets of Ottoman campaigns of suppression long before the rise of the Islamic State. More broadly, the Ottoman Empire was an explicitly, at times militantly, Sunni Islamic state. Ottoman pluralism rested on an understanding that Sunni Muslims held a preeminent social and political place. In other words, the Ottoman model of pluralism, while remarkable in its day, is incompatible with a world in which egalitarianism is a guiding principle.
Cultural accommodation was at times less a deliberate choice than the happy consequence of ambiguity. Pelham opens his final chapter by drawing attention to an engraving on the (Ottoman-period) Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem: “I acknowledge that there is no god but God and Abraham is the friend of God.” The epigram tweaks the standard Muslim statement of faith: “I acknowledge that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger.” The implication seems to be that religion could be a source of harmony if Jews, Christians, and Muslims would only acknowledge the common roots of their faiths—the noble (if naive) vision of, say, Jimmy Carter. But a Muslim stonemason carving such a statement would likely understand it with reference to the Qur’anic account of “the friend of God.” As the Qur’an says (3.67), “Abraham was not a Jew, nor a Christian, but an upright man who had surrendered to God”—in Arabic, a “muslim.” Of course, if a Jew in Jerusalem understood it a bit differently, what was the harm? Sometimes a little ambiguity is a healthy thing.
History is a messy place. So, for example, the millet was not always the instrument of Ottoman pluralism. Pelham says that there were 17 millets, reflecting the enormous religious diversity of the empire—Sunnis and Shi‘a, Orthodox and Catholic Christians (and later Protestants), Uniate Catholics, rabbinical Jews but also Karaites, and others. But for most of Ottoman history, there were only three officially recognized non-Muslim communities (for which the more common term was ta’ifa, “group”): the Orthodox, Jews, and Armenians. What the Sunni Ottomans regarded as heterodox Muslim sects—Shi‘a, Alawis, and others—had no separate and recognized legal status. The millet as a distinctive and normative institution took shape relatively late, as a by-product of efforts to reform and modernize the central Ottoman government (although, to give the millet system the authority of age, 19th-century Ottoman accounts projected it back into earlier centuries). By this point, the millets themselves were undergoing a process of transformation, as Greeks and Armenians, for example, increasingly identified less as members of a religious community than as ethnic or national groups. In modern Turkish and Persian, millet means not “religion,” but “nation,” so that the changing meaning of the term reflected accurately the changing reality it described.
As the latter point suggests, another complication, one of which Pelham is very much aware, is the deep intertwining of religion and ethnicity. For Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and some others, religious identity and ethnic identity are inextricably tied together. The same is true in a slightly different way for the Arabs. It is true that Arab nationalism, especially in the middle decades of the 20th century, was frequently championed by Arab Christians, who saw it as a path to political enfranchisement in a world demographically dominated by Muslims. But it is also true that the intellectual genesis of Arab nationalism was closely connected to early 20th-century efforts to reform and revitalize Islam. Michel Aflaq, founder of the Ba‘ath party, was born a Christian, but the Arabism he championed rested on a messianic understanding of the historical role of Islam. The Turkish nationalism propounded by Atatürk was militantly secularist, and many expressions of organized Islam were suppressed in the new Turkish state. Nonetheless, Turkish nationalism as constructed by Atatürk and his successors presumed a close connection between Turkish ethnicity and Sunni Islam, and so the republic for years ignored or suppressed the Alevi sectarian identities of a large proportion of Anatolian peasants.
Looming behind the story Pelham tells are other broad historical developments that complicate matters. One is the titanic clash emerging between Sunni and Shi‘i Islam, which has been the subject of a number of recent books, including one by Pelham himself. Here one must tread carefully. Western observers of the Muslim world assume far too easily that Sunni and Shi‘i Islam are locked in a permanent fight to the death. In fact, there have been many times and places, some in the modern period, in which Sunnis and Shi‘a have gotten along perfectly well. But there is no doubt that the Islamic revolution in Iran, combined with the empowering of the Iraqi Shi‘a majority as a result of the American invasion of Iraq, has energized the Shi‘a to challenge their long political eclipse at the hand of the Sunni majority.
The Shi‘i revival in turn has sparked what Pelham calls “Sunni revanchism,” an anti-Shi‘i campaign that is further undermining local traditions of pluralism. Saudi Arabia, inspired by Wahhabi ideology that has no time or patience for Shi‘i ways, is a leader in these efforts. Saudi intervention on behalf of a teetering Sunni monarchy in Bahrain led to the brutal suppression of the Shi‘a majority’s demands for a political voice and shattered what was one of the most tolerant societies in the region. More recently, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen’s civil war transformed a primarily local dispute into a proxy war with Iran, whose hand the Saudis see behind the Houthi movement, even though the Zaydi Shi‘ism of the Houthis is quite distinct from the Twelver Shi‘ism of Iran’s ayatollahs.
Behind Sunni revanchism lies a more basic development with implications for pluralism: the intellectual struggle within Sunni Islam itself. Islam has always been diverse and provided space for a variety of opinions. But that space has been narrowing in recent years, again largely thanks to Saudi Arabia. Until about forty years ago, Wahhabi Islam was a minor force in the Muslim world, but the Saudis have used their vast financial resources to champion Salafi movements and conservative interpretations of Islam around the world. Their efforts have had the effect of restricting the range of thought and practice recognized as legitimately Muslim in countries as far afield as Pakistan, where both Shi‘a and Sufis have been the targets of militant attacks, and Indonesia, where Salafi groups have undermined tolerant local Muslim traditions.
The story should perhaps end where it started: with Turks, Islam, and the Middle East’s long history of pluralism. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is moving Turkey away from the republic’s secular traditions with accelerating speed and is doing so at a moment of inflection for Sunni Islam, when its own traditions of tolerance are under threat. Erdoğan’s ambiguous policies, gyrating between Turkey’s membership in NATO and flirtation with Sunni revanchists, have complicated efforts to challenge and contain the Islamic State. Erdoğan himself is sometimes accused of harboring vague ambitions to resurrect an Ottoman-like Turkish hegemony over the Middle East. If he were to succeed, it would not bode well for pluralism in the region.
Can religion serve once again in the modern Middle East as the foundation for a meaningful pluralism as it did in the premodern Middle East? That is the question raised by this important book. Any answer will have to acknowledge that religion, as a category of human self-identification and experience, is an unstable category. Religions change and manifest themselves simultaneously in different ways. The Islamic State is self-consciously Islamic, but it is no more representative of Islam than is the Ku Klux Klan of Christianity. It is less a throwback to medieval Islam than it is a mutant product of the modern world. The real issue is whether modernity itself can create space for the comfortable accommodation of cultural differences. Modernity was supposed to be a virtual synonym for progress, but somehow that’s not how things have turned out in the Middle East.