When the Ottoman Empire Scrambled for Africa: An Interview With Mostafa Minawi

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Left: An 1892 Ottoman map of the empire’s sphere of influence in East Africa; Right: Minawi at Palmyra, Syria

It can be a challenge to keep up with Mostafa Minawi. The peripatetic Cornell historian never lets the relative isolation of Ithaca define him, continually popping up for engagements or research stints in places across the globe. That’s not unlike Minawi’s work itself, which spans traditionally separate subdisciplines. Taking his chief specialty, the Ottoman Empire, out of the Middle East area studies prison to which it’s so often confined, he has traced, in detail, many of the long-missed connections between the Sublime Porte – the center of Ottoman governance – and sub-Saharan Africa. More specifically, his research has demonstrated how those links played into the Ottoman Empire’s participation in the late nineteenth century “scramble” for territory by European empires on the African continent – an episode in which, Minawi argues, the empire played a much more active role than has previously been assumed.

Minawi’s first book, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz (Stanford University Press, 2016) documents some clear examples of this engagement. Its foil is, explicitly, historians who have seen a weak Ottoman empire take a backseat to European expansion during the fin-de-siècle. But his argument might be best understood through a series of images Minawi displayed during a talk given to Cornell’s Institute for Comparative Modernities this past December. In 1856, when the empire was formally welcomed into the European “family of nations,” its officials stood, individually recognizable, front and center in artwork representing the conclusion of the peace after the Crimean War. By the period of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, famous for its role in the Scramble, the sole Ottoman official visible in depictions of the event is an almost anonymous background figure with his head buried in his hand. In the minds of European observers, the empire, its territory dramatically reduced in military contests with Russia, its treasury encumbered by burdensome debts, was clearly the proverbial “sick man,” destined to play little role in the races for territory that defined the late-nineteenth-century New Imperialism.

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A representation of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference. The Ottoman representative, head in hand, is at rear in the center-left of the image.

Yet the picture, Minawi contends, looked much different from Istanbul – and perhaps even more so from the African territories in which it sought to preserve and extend its influence. Trade routes from Ottoman Libya stretched across the Sahara to Central Africa’s Lake Chad basin, where the empire claimed influence over a number of kingdoms. In order to protect and solidify these bonds in the course of the Scramble, the empire solidified its alliance with the Sufi Sanusi order, which established lodges throughout what the Ottomans claimed as part of their African sphere of influence. The empire was not only a more central participant in the Berlin Conference than European art let on, but proved an expert wielder of the international legal terminology that developed in the course of the Scramble for the establishment of sovereignty over territory – building terms with legally specific connotations, such as the German Hinterland (territory in the interior empires which coastal territories were allowed to claim for themselves) directly into Ottoman Turkish, and appealing to the doctrine of “effective occupation” (essentially establishing a presence on the ground in claimed territories) by extending telegraph lines from the Libyan coast deep into the Ottoman Sahara.

However skillfully demonstrated de jure, however, Ottoman claims in Africa were less respected in fact. European powers concluded secret agreements allotting Ottoman territories to their own dominions regardless of the artfulness of the legal arguments emanating from the Porte, the empire’s efforts to fulfill the requirements for colonial occupation, or Istanbul’s acumen at determining whether Europeans were acting in bad faith. For Minawi, all this is important and yet somewhat beside the point. Redefining the Ottoman Empire as an active participant in the Scramble demonstrates that its potency persisted even as late as the period just before the empire’s dismemberment after the First World War. It also forces us to rethink teleological assumptions about the inevitability of Ottoman downfall that seem to follow so easily from European accounts that missed the empire’s efforts in Africa or failed to take them seriously.

In November, I managed to catch Minawi when he was between trips to New Mexico and Sudan. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity below, ranges from his recent talks to politics in contemporary Turkey to his unusual progression from engineer to consultant to historian to why the Ottoman Empire can only be studied outside a paradigm that seeks to box it into traditional area studies categories, the relationship between history and current events, and his next project, which follows up on his first book to look at how the Ottoman Empire engaged in the process of making claims in another part of the continent: the Horn of Africa.

Christopher Szabla

A Muslim Cosmopolis, Or, the Individual and the Nation in Global History: An Interview with Seema Alavi

Dr. Seema Alavi

People tend to assume the origins of contemporary events, alliances and disagreements belong to the recent if not the immediate past. Recent news articles highlight with surprise the Arabicization of Islamic practice in South Asia – most prominently with respect to the murder of several bloggers in Bangladesh. But India has a long history of intellectual contact with the Arab world. The Madrasa Saulatia in Mecca was set up by an Indian Muslim Rahmatullah Kairanwi – a key protagonist in Seema Alavi’s book Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire (2015) – as a “centre for embracive reformist Islam with a strong Indic tradition.” It remains a major scholarly hub, retaining intellectual contact with Sunni Muslim seminaries all over the world. It’s own orientation now can be described as a purist intellectual tradition of Islam. For example, it receives patronage “from the Abd-al Wahab impacted Saudi ruling house,” even as – Alavi is quick to remind us of this – its scholarly tradition stands in stark contrast to the violence that is often perpetrated in the name of Wahabi Islam. In this respect, Alavi’s book Muslim Cosmopolitanism is a fundamentally revisionist text that works through the category of the individual and of the nation. She draws out the history of how a modern vision of Islamic universal selfhood was articulated in the mid-nineteenth century: the processes that connected Indic reformist strands in Islam with Hamidian notions of modernity centred on jurisprudence. In her account, cities such as Cairo thus appear as more than just a site that elucidated anti-British nationalism. Importantly, the book foregrounds how modern histories of South Asia limit key protagonists in this larger global story to the territorial bounds of modern India, even as the records of imperial Britain show how they negotiated trans-imperial identities across South Asia and the Ottoman empire.…

CFP: Research Workshop “Multiplicity of Divisions: Boundaries and Borders of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian Empires in the 19th-early 20th Century” (Kharkiv, Ukraine, September 28-29, 2017)

On the theme of imperial borders and boundaries in Eurasia, see this recent call for papers for a workshop to be held at Hryhoriy Skovoroda Kharkiv National Pedagogical University in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The workshop will focus on the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian Empires in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: The workshop will serve as a platform…

Call for Applications: PhD and MA Scholarships in Comparative History (Central European University, Budapest)

For readers of the Global History Blog or Forum interested in Eurasian history—here understood in terms of the space of interactions between the Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman Empires and their successor states—here is a terrific call for Masters’ and doctoral scholarships at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary: The Department of History at Central European University (CEU)…

Anti-Westernism in Question: An Interview with Cemil Aydin on Pan-Asianism, Pan-Islamism, and the Idea of the “Muslim World” in History

The centrality of anti-Westernism as a subject of global debate is underlined with every new terrorist attack on the West today. Both the attack on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, as well as attacks in France and Germany over the summer engendered many civilization-oriented questions in the minds of people, as also happened in the…

Globalizing Time, Globalizing Capital: A Conversation with Vanessa Ogle

It’s a familiar routine for scholars of global history. Having squeezed in a visit to an archive during a spring break or stretch of summer vacation, you get off the airplane in a foreign land, stretch your legs, and feel, in spite of the local caffeine injection, tired. You set your watch, several hours ahead if coming from the United States and several hours back if coming to Europe and try to make the best of the first day on foreign soil.

Soon, however, jet lag sets in. You either fall asleep in your dinner or wake up hours before the local bakers do. Exhausted, you read tips on how to beat the exhaustion, where you learn that the body needs an equivalent number of days to time zones crossed to beat off the exhaustion. The scholar coming from California to Moscow, for example, has eleven days of misery to endure before he or she is fully up to date with local time. You remain grateful for the chance to pursue your research, but, counting the time zones, groan at the routine.

It’s a familiar routine for many, indeed, but not as old as one might think. Until the late 19th century, as University of Pennsylvania professor and global historian Vanessa Ogle shows in her work, efforts towards a global standardization of time ranged from negligible to chaotic. The standardization of time that we have today, and the divisions that we use–Central European Time from Madrid to Montenegro, Greenwich Mean Time, and scientifically controlled Coordinated Universal Time to keep time zones themselves punctual–are all relatively recent inventions.

Unpacking this story, and seeing how contentious the seemingly most universal thing in the world–time–could be are great themes for global history. That’s why the Global History Forum was excited to sit down to interview Ogle, who is close to publishing her findings on the history of time standardization and well underway on a second project on the global history of “archipelago capitalism.” Speaking over coffee, we discussed her journey to global history, her first project, and her current work.