Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism

Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism

Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism

Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism

Synopsis

Masters explores the history of Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire and how their identities evolved over four hundred years. While early communities lived within the hierarchy of Muslim law, the nineteenth century witnessed radical change. In response to Western influences, conflict erupted between Muslims and Christians across the empire. This marked the beginning of tensions that informed the rhetoric of religious fundamentalism in the empire's successor states throughout the twentieth century. Thus Masters negotiates the present through the past, contributing to our understanding of the contemporary Muslim world.

Excerpt

Change occurred incrementally, and almost imperceptibly, in the first three centuries of Ottoman rule in the Arab lands. This was no longer true in the nineteenth century when the reform of existing institutions and the creation of new ones, mandated from Istanbul, shook the foundations of the social compact between the sultan and his subjects. the unease with which many Muslims viewed an increasing European economic, political, and ideological presence in the empire strengthened their perception that their world was no longer governed by rules they had once believed to be immutable. That sense of loss when coupled with fear of what might come next provided the spark to a series of violent outbursts directed by Muslims against their Christian neighbors. the most tragic, in terms of loss of life, occurred in 1860 with the civil war in Lebanon and the subsequent Damascus riot. But violence aimed at Christians, either foreign or domestic, occurred in Aleppo in 1850, Mosul in 1854, Nablus in 1856, Jeddah in 1858, and Egypt in 1882. Muslim anger could also be directed at Jews, as occurred in the Mosul riot or in Baghdad in 1889. But across the region, the descent into sectarian violence served to segregate Muslims from Christians, rather than pit Muslims against all non-Muslims indiscriminately as the Christians had become associated with the most obvious manifestations of change. Each of these incidents, the hawadith (“events”) of Arab folk memory, arose from local conditions and was played out in a widely divergent scenario. Nevertheless, an alarm shared by many Muslims throughout the Ottoman Arab world that the old order was under threat of collapse provided the emotional spark to the violence everywhere.

The tragic consequences of that era of increased sectarian tension have colored the ways in which subsequent generations in the region have remembered intercommunal relations in the Ottoman centuries. the question of why the outbursts happened, however, was and remains debated. European observers and commentators in the nineteenth century posited that the violence was simply an expression of bigotry inherent in Islam. This oversimplified causal explanation helped to inflame European public opinion, already conditioned by sensationalist reportage of the Greek War . . .

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