Article February 2, 2022

Roundtable Panel—Ussama Makdisi's Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World


The Toynbee Prize Foundation Presents
A Roundtable Panel Discussion on:
Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (University of California Press, 2019)


The image of the Middle East as a place plagued with endless sectarian strife and communal violence is an enduring one. These representations were, of course, an integral part of the oriental repertoire of European colonial powers. But in our own times, the proliferation of these images and their attendant discourse has been no less ubiquitous. Especially since the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003, sectarianism has been discussed, within and without the academy, as the defining problem of the region. But what does a persistent concern with the question of conflicted division occlude? For Ussama Makdisi, the answer is a parallel history of co-existence. His recent book, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern World, offers a corrective to contemporary accounts of communal difference and divide—which he considers a myth “conflating contemporary political identifications with far older religious solidarities”. Makdisi insists that we place this complex history in a larger global context. The question of political (re)-ordering of a diverse polis was not unique in the rapidly modernizing world of the nineteenth century and was not unique to the Ottoman Empire—it was one confronted by all states and societies. The attempts by the late Ottoman state and its constituents to navigate ethnic and racial difference while developing new forms of political associations, is what he terms as the “ecumenical frame”. The book tells the stories of these political imaginations through a narrative that takes us geographically, from Anatolia to the Balkans and from Palestine to Lebanon, and temporally from the Ottoman Age to the end of the twentieth century. Its breadth and intellectual ambition welcome extensive engagement. Last Fall, we invited three imminent scholars to share their reflections on this work. These follow below and end with a response by Professor Makdisi. We are so grateful to our panelists for taking out the time to participate in this panel and trust that readers will find the the discussion invigorating.

Zaib un Nisa Aziz, Yale University


Participant Bios

Ussama Makdisi is Professor of History and the inaugural Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University. His many works include Faith Misplaced: the Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001 (Public Affairs, 2010) and Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2008), which won the 2008 Albert Hourani Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association, the 2009 John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association, and was a co-winner of the 2009 British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize given by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies.

Amy Kallander is a historian of the early modern and modern Middle East. Her most recent book Tunisia’s Modern Woman: Nation-Building and State Feminism in the Global 1960s (Cambridge University Press, 2021) explores the relationship between postcolonial state and society with women. Her previous works include Women, Gender, and the Palace Households in Ottoman Tunisia (University of Texas Press, 2013) and several articles in leading historical journals.

Ceyda Karamursel is Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS, University of London. Her research explores the practice of slavery and elusive meanings of freedom in the late Ottoman Empire. Professor Karamursel’s work has been supported by Social Science Research Council and the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation, and has appeared in New Perspectives on Turkey, Journal of Women's History, Comparative Studies in Society and History and most recently in the International Journal of Middle East Studies. She is currently working on a new book entitled The Sack and the Bowstring: A Global History of Ottoman Slavery and Freedom.

Henry Clements is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate at Yale University specializing in the history of the modern Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. His scholarship interrogates the rise of historicism as part of the advent of secular modernity in the Ottoman Empire. His dissertation, “History and the Struggle for Distinction: The Syriac Christians of the Ottoman Empire,” offers a new account of how a religious community on the margins of a modernizing empire came to understand itself as historically distinct. His research has been supported by numerous grants and in 2019 he was awarded the Mellon Fellowship for Dissertation Research in Original Sources program. His research articles include  “Documenting Community in the Late Ottoman Empire.” International Journal of Middle East Studies (2019) and  Modern Translations: Reflections on Postcolonialism, New Ontology, and the Secular.” History of the Present 12 (2). [Co-authored with Philip Balboni] (forthcoming).


Reviewers’ Comments


Amy Kallander, Associate Professor, History, Syracuse University

Ussama Makdisi’s latest book continues his intellectual project of examining sectarianism as a modern political phenomenon by tracing through a discussion of antisectarian projects in different late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century contexts. The first part of the book focuses on the Ottoman Empire and the transition away from its systems of Muslim privilege and “deep formal inequality” (32) that led to the intellectual and political articulations of what Makdisi calls the ecumenical frame. Calls for coexistence among the empire’s monotheistic communities ran through the Arabic nahda and Ottoman reform. The escalation of intercommunal tensions into massacres in Aleppo, Damascus, and Mount Lebanon, and the politicization of religion contributed to this condemnation of sectarianism. That the Ottomans sought to contain this violence, while later perpetuating a genocide against Armenians, marked a shift towards ethno-religious nationalism in Anatolia. However, in the Ottoman Arab provinces Makdisi sees the dismantling of religious hierarchies, and broad acceptance of a vision of equality between Muslim and non-Muslim.

Makdisi provides grand narratives appealing for survey courses as well as useful comparisons that frame the Middle East in global contexts. His consideration of concepts such as diversity and tolerance are relevant to students and amenable to contemporary conversations (though coexistence, as opposed to co-resistance, has been problematized as accepting structural inequalities as opposed to challenging them). Importantly, the introduction demystifies sectarianism as inherent to Middle East by pointing towards its similarities to racism in the United States; both were “expression[s] of a global tension between sovereignty, diversity, and equal citizenship” (5) that “emerged at roughly the same time as those of nationalism and racial anti-Semitism in modern Europe, and those of emancipation and segregation in the postbellum United States” (10-11) that could be fruitfully developed further. Even if the role of race is the foremost factor shaping white settler identity in the US, religion is not to be discounted; Christianity was deployed to justify the dispossession and extermination of Native communities as well as the enslavement of African peoples. Christianity occupied an important position in understandings and embodiments of whiteness for early settlers and their descendants. Similarly, in the Ottoman case, while religion may be paramount, how do race, racism, and racialization inform sectarianism and coexistence?

The second part of the book focuses on antisectarian political, intellectual, and educational projects under the French and British Mandates in the Levant as they engaged with imperial efforts to establish ethno-religiously homogenous nations. In Lebanon (chapter five) local elites accepted the tenets of the French civilizing mission, especially Maronite Christians, and adopted a political structure that concretized religious identities even if justified as a rational mode of respecting religious difference and path towards overcoming sectarianism. In contrast, secular national unity in Iraq was both a political and pedagogical process where the Arabic language served as a vector to inculcate national unity and cultural independence (though paternalist and dominated by Sunni Muslims). Both were ideological and flawed; neither properly addressed the distinction between “legitimate religious difference and illegitimate sectarianism” or was capable of preventing violence against minorities (160).

In considering colonial policy, I wondered how the arguments would shift had the lens broadened westward. While Britain “drew on its vast colonial experience in Egypt and India,” it would be worth considering how the French Mandates were shaped by precedents from Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco (117). Makdisi notes how antisectarian tendencies did not prevent the continued reliance on Islamic law informing matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance; the domain of personal status itself was a legal construct that, according to Ken Cuno, was translated into Egypt from French experiences in Algeria. France’s “Berber” policies viewed the Amazight as closer to white, Christian Europeans in civilizing discourses, yet share structural similarities with the treatment of Assyrians or Kurds minus the language of protecting cultural diversity and minority rights in the Mandates. Independence was achieved at least in part through negotiation in the Protectorates as well as the Mandates. The paradigmatic experiences in the Levant resemble the contours of the era across the Maghrib from reform projects to colonial occupation and its divide and rule policies that distinguished and/or privileged religious and ethnic minorities (in education, health care, or civil service) and centered Islam as an aspect of national identity and culture.

The “first generation” of ­nahda thinkers, in Albert Hourani’s terms, included the Tunis-based minister Khayr al-Din, with scholars since pointing towards the continued intellectual exchange and collaboration across Arabic-speaking nations under the banner of secular pan-Arabism (Houda El-Shakry, Olivia Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, David Stenner, Shoko Watanabe). Was this part of an ecumenical frame? Yet in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, the largest non-Muslim communities were Jewish, and instead of missionaries there was the Alliance Israelite. Only in Algeria were (most) Jews offered citizenship; in Morocco and Tunisia, the French maintained rabbinical courts to administer Jewish law, again in ways structurally similar to the position of Christians in the Mandates. M’hamed Oualdi points towards the disruptive nature of European imperialism in altering hierarchies between Muslims and Jews in Tunisia, differences that were exacerbated by the European anti-Semitism that proliferated within settler communities in all three colonies. Tunisian nationalists sought to facilitate positive relations between Muslims and Jews, and an antisectarian ethos was retrospectively articulated by socialists and leftists such as Elie Cohen-Hadria (in Tunisa) and Daniel Timsit (in Algeria), and Moroccan Jews were critical of Zionism. This is not to criticize Makdisi’s selection of cases as any project requires limits but a testament to the significance of his ideas and curiosity about the applicability elsewhere.

For much of the Ottoman era, Makdisi notes that sectarian matters were not a question of Muslims versus Christians or Jews, but of Muslim versus non-Muslim. It is only when the Zionist community in the Yishuv received the support of the British empire in their state-building project—a process detailed in chapter six—that this dynamic shifts (and not to demarcate Jewishness, religion, or liturgy per se, but Zionism as a form of exclusively Jewish state-building). Zionism thus posed an existential challenge to the ideal of religious plurality (articulated in Palestinian proposals for a bi-national state that were largely ignored), as Palestinian Muslims and Christians prioritized resistance to Zionism over continuing the ecumenical frame. Makdisi draws on the work of Orit Bashkin and Michelle Campos on Jewish participation in Ottomanism in Iraq and Palestine and includes a brief discussion of Esther Moyal. Yet to what extent were the major proponents of the ecumenical frame Christian (and Muslim), or were there differences in Jewish articulations?


Ceyda Karamursel, Lecturer, History, SOAS

In 1919, as the wave of state-sanctioned violence and dispossession known as Red Summer was sweeping across America, an Armenian cleric stood before an eager crowd that filled the Frederick Douglass Community Center in Brooklyn. Originally from Kessab (in today’s Syria), a town that was hit hard both during the Adana Massacres of 1909 and the Armenian Genocide of 1915, Reverend Bedros Apelian shared with his audience the “thrilling story of the wrongs perpetrated [...] by the Turks,” to which his own family fell victim. For Apelian, who had found the courage, hope, and the inspiration he sorely needed in none other than Booker T. Washington’s writings, Armenians in Turkey and the Black folk in America endured similar mistreatment and injury. They, therefore, had a lot to learn from and offer to each other. Reverend Apelian was not alone—nor was he the first—in grasping the link between these catastrophic episodes unfolding with near-simultaneity in different parts of the world. Those who witnessed the East St. Louis Massacres two years earlier, or those who ran anti-lynching campaigns, all made explicit references to the Armenian Genocide. They intuitively grasped that their respective predicaments resulted from an incomplete, if not outright sabotaged, process of emancipation that had promised a lot but yielded no more than a set of differential rights and entitlements.

What the contemporaries well understood and the global connections that they effortlessly built are largely lost or, at best, foreign to us now. I read Ussama Makdisi’s eloquently written book Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World first and foremost as an effort, a very welcome one, to unearth and explore these connections. The author starts out by a forceful reformulation of a question that he has been tackling in the past two decades. If the irreconcilable dilemma of political inclusion has plagued, and continues to plague, every society in the modern era, he asks, why is it that the Middle East is singled out as a “pathological place consumed by the disease of sectarianism”? Even if we accept the persistence and prevalence of sectarian violence in the region, why is it that its history is always told as though it is written by the Biblical narrator as a timeless phenomenon unfolding in a place that is entirely detached from the world that surrounds it? For Makdisi, such portrayals, both in scholarship and media, are not only plainly inaccurate but more importantly, they also conceal the development of novel and genuinely innovative ways of building political solidarities in an exceptionally diverse society. True, intercommunal violence did exist in the Middle East but so did intercommunal solidarities. A better understanding of the latter helps us to depict a more accurate historical picture of how Ottoman men and women of different faiths collectively dealt with the challenge of political inclusion and equality. It also equips us, at least potentially, with a lens through which to explore the Middle Eastern experience “in context and in dialogue” with the rest of the world.

Makdisi follows in the book a group of well-known, well-educated, fairly elite male figures such as Butrus al-Bustani, Michel Chiha, and Sati‘ al-Husri, not necessarily because they set the intellectual agenda in their respective capacities but rather because they asked the right kind of questions. For al-Bustani, who saw in the bloodshed of 1860 “not the final and irrevocable negation of coexistence but an opportunity for its reconstitution on a firmer basis,” these questions revolved around the meaning and practice of “conscious and ethical citizenship.” (68–69). What did this novel brand of citizenship and coexistence entail?  How was the relationship between religious difference and national belonging to be understood? “And above all,” as Makdisi puts it, what was “the relationship between the abjuration of sectarian “fanaticism” and the promotion of “brotherhood” in a nation made up of communities and people of different faiths?” (69)                          

These genuine efforts to tackle such exceedingly and universally difficult questions, the unwavering conviction and determination of al-Bustani and others after him to move beyond Ottoman and European states’ definitions and remain “outside of political power,” and, overall, a novel “shared sense of the universal, transcendent ideal of a modern political community” together make up what Makdisi calls the “ecumenical frame.” (7) As he points out, while both the Ottoman and European states registered religious and other forms of difference and used those in categorizing, defining, and regulating citizenship, they were utterly uninterested in the type of questions that the builders of this ecumenical frame asked. Concerned primarily with national sovereignty (or lack of it, for that matter), they viewed citizens belonging to different religious groups merely as bargaining chips, if not outright diplomatic weapons. It is in this context that we should view and assess the generative, transformative potential of the ecumenical frame, which necessarily exceeded beyond the political and legal boundaries set by states. Perhaps it is also in this context we must view and understand the puzzling omission of the term “liberalism” by the author throughout the book.

Makdisi makes note of this deliberate omission right at the start. For him, liberalism is deeply inadequate in capturing the complexity of the Middle Eastern experience shaped by “the sectarian and nationalist violence of the late Ottoman era, the dawn of post–World War I European colonialism across the Arab Mashriq, and the variety of anti- as well as philo-colonial, secular as well as Islamist, mobilizations that have defined Arab politics in the twentieth century.” (8) Let me add that liberalism also meant a myriad of things at different times, in different places, and to different people, which renders it exceptionally elusive as a category and makes its use in meaningful ways very challenging. What is puzzling and somewhat frustrating, then, is not that Makdisi finds the term inadequate, nor his omission, but rather his absolute lack of engagement with the term’s now fairly well-established complexity.

One of the few times that the word “liberal” appears in the book is in reference to Albert Hourani’s very particular use of the term that explicitly referred to “democratic institutions or individual rights,” a use he manifestly regretted later in life. Yet, recent studies on the intellectual histor(ies) of the Middle East, which Makdisi is already citing, have gone far beyond this regrettable characterization of liberalism as an “ideal type,” and recast it as “contested ideological formation” that universally embodies a wide variety of “irreconcilable irritations” and contradictions. Outside the Middle East, historians working on “vernacular” forms of liberalism, pertaining especially to colonial contexts, showed how crucial it is to understand these forms if we are to have a better grasp of liberalism’s internal mechanisms that promises freedom, equality before the law, and the miracle of universal justice at one moment and unleashes, with great ease, “annihilationist violence” at another.

True, the concept of ecumenical frame captures the complexity and diversity that determines the Middle Eastern experience, particularly in terms of its intimate, fragile link with religion and religious difference, but it also inadvertently detaches it from everyone else’s experience by creating yet another exceptionalism. Restoring the true meaning of liberalism that is at once messy, vile, and magical, would make it possible and even easier to place American, Indian, Ottoman, and many other cases side by side, as parts of the same analogous plane. If the objective is to take issue and push back against the “contemporary obsession ... with the so-called sectarian Middle East,” what better way to settle scores with an interlocutor that not only insisted to know one, pathologically violent, Middle East but also never doubted its own exceptionalism and never hesitated to use it to justify anything it has done and continues doing?


Henry Clements, PhD Candidate, History, Yale University

Ussama Makdisi has coined a new term, “the ecumenical frame,” intended to draw our attention to a “modern political culture” (3) of antisectarianism and coexistence that developed in the Arabic-speaking Mashriq over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Part of a “global nineteenth-century political revolution” which introduced the “principle of political equality between citizens” (5), the ecumenical frame, as Makdisi describes it, appears to bear much in common with what scholars generally recognize as the broader political traditions of “liberalism” or “secularism.” Yet Makdisi shifts away from these more general categories in his treatment of this modern political culture and “will to coexistence” (24) which spread across the Arab Mashriq, developing instead a scholarly neologism. It seems worth considering the stakes of such an historiographical invention, and of its delimitation to what Makdisi calls the “modern Arab world.” What does the concept of “the ecumenical frame” do, and why construct it? Does it hold up under historical scrutiny?

Makdisi’s choice to elaborate a new concept derives in part from his conviction that the tradition of antisectarianism and coexistence which is the object of his study was a local one—that “the idea of ecumenical equality was the product of its Ottoman moment” (46). Emblematic of this localness for Makdisi was the Protestant convert Butrus al-Bustani’s well-known 1860 plea for coexistence published in a series of pamphlets that Makdisi describes as a “locally rooted” and “creative act of conscious, critical affiliation” (47). Makdisi takes Bustani’s appeal as marking the beginnings of the ecumenical frame and simultaneously as attesting to its indigeneity.

Makdisi understands his recovery of the local rootedness of the ecumenical frame as a response to the recent scholarly critique of secularism associated with anthropologists such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, whom Makdisi chides as narrowly concerned with a western genealogy of the secular. Makdisi wishes to attune us to forms of Arab agency and alternative histories of secularity which he takes these studies to have obscured (one is reminded of the debate over “multiple modernities”). Rather than join the scholarly critique of the secular, Makdisi insists on its plural genealogies. He works to excavate a locally generated tradition of secular coexistence in order to demonstrate that secularity in the modern Arab world cannot be attributed to Arabs’ “mimic[ry]” (15) or “ventriloquizing” (47) of Western secularism. It must instead, Makdisi asserts, be understood as the product of their autonomous powers of human creation. While the new culture of coexistence was not an exclusively Arab achievement—it was constructed from “eclectic Ottoman, European, and Arab materials” (7) and drawn from “different elements of Ottoman and European civilizations” (73)—neither was it “merely a copy of some European original” (13). Hence the need for an independent historiographical paradigm: the ecumenical frame.

Although he roots the emergence of the ecumenical frame firmly in its broader late-Ottoman context, Makdisi draws what he argues is a sharp distinction between the ecumenism that came to permeate the Arab world and the “exclusionary, ethno-religious nationalisms” that would engulf Turkey and the Balkan states such as Greece and Bulgaria (20). This distinction constitutes one of the book’s central theses: it is Makdisi’s attempt to account for what appears to him as the specificity of the Arab ecumenical frame. What requires explanation, for Makdisi, is why Turkey and the Balkans were consumed with “questions of nationalism and ethnic cleansing”—the Armenian genocide being the most glaring example—while no such chauvinistic nationalism or ethnic cleansing developed in the Arab world, which was able to preserve “a wealth of religious diversity” (20). Makdisi’s answer is the ecumenical frame. He offers certain historical explanations for the divergence between the Arab Mashriq and Turkey/the Balkans—differences with respect to sovereignty, colonialism, and proximity to state power play an important role in the narrative—but the upshot is that the “Arab states” that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire were “far more faithful to their ecumenical Ottoman heritage than was Mustafa Kemal’s Turkey” (130).

Makdisi labors to secure such a grand historiographical distinction, as when he attempts to differentiate between the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians and the Iraqi state’s 1933 massacre of the Assyrians at Simele. “The wartime Ottoman state,” Makdisi writes, “and even more so the Turkish republic that emerged from its ruins, conflated ‘Turk’ with ‘Muslim’ and conflated the state with the nation of Turkish-speaking Muslims fighting a war of survival in which religion played a key role in mass nationalist mobilizations that destroyed, once and for all, the idea of an ecumenical Ottomanism” (84). By contrast, he later argues, the Assyrians massacred at Simele “were attacked not because they were Christian, but because they were perceived to be sectarian and separatist” (160). Unlike the Armenian Genocide, Makdisi maintains, the violence at Simele, despite its undeniable “cruelty,” occurred “within the post-Ottoman ecumenical frame” of the modern Arab world (160; my emphasis). Yet it is not clear why Makdisi insists on a distinction between the Assyrians’ identity as “Christian” versus their status as “separatist” or “sectarian” in the case of the Iraqi state’s massacre at Simele but does not do the same with regard to the Armenians in late-Ottoman Anatolia or the Muslims of the wartime Balkans. By framing the ethnic cleansing carried out by Turkish and Balkan nationalists as religious (as a repudiation of religious diversity) and the Iraqi massacre of the Assyrians as political (as a question of ecumenical Arab unity versus minoritarian separatism), Makdisi is able to maintain his delimitation of the ecumenical frame to the Arab world.

The respective scales of these two episodes of violence, needless to say, were categorically distinct. And in any case, one would not wish to dispute Makdisi’s point that there were major differences between interreligious/interethnic relations in the Arab world and those in the Balkans/Turkey. Yet the divergent classificatory approaches that Makdisi brings to bear on the two regions raise a larger question: why is it that Makdisi identifies the coexistence and antisectarianism of the modern Arab world as a continuation of the legacy of Ottoman ecumenism, but the violent ethnonationalisms of Turkey and the Balkans as a departure from it? What reason is there to view the nationalist violence that ravaged Anatolia and the Balkans as a corruption of the attempt to consolidate an “ecumenical” political sovereignty within clearly defined borders rather than as, say, one of its logical conclusions?

That is to say, the important differences between these two regions notwithstanding, there is little doubt that “ecumenical Arabism” (108) and the Balkan/Turkish nationalisms all represented attempts to reconcile the same tension inherent in the increasingly hegemonic political rationality of the nineteenth century: the tension between the validation of novel universalistic (or “ecumenical”) ideals such as equality, and the simultaneous establishment of political borders limited to nations defined by ethnicity, language, religion, etc. In light of the violence of Turkish nationalism against the Armenians and others, one might conclude, as Makdisi does, that Turkish nationalism “destroyed” the nineteenth-century tradition of Ottoman ecumenism—that it constituted a repudiation of that ecumenism—while the Arab states carried on its legacy. Yet one might also conclude instead that the spectacular violence of Turkish nationalism represented a possibility immanent within any modern national or cultural configuration, Arabism included—that the effort to build any political community, “ecumenical” as it may be, necessarily relies on exclusions that threaten violence (think of the plight of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, as well as of course in Turkey).

This is, in a sense, to support one of the central tenets of Makdisi’s book: that one must understand sectarianism in the Middle East in a global, comparative frame; that in order to “demystify the modern problem of sectarianism,” we must see it as “an expression of a global tension between sovereignty, diversity, and equal citizenship” (5). Indeed, Makdisi draws a forceful comparison between the problem of sectarianism in the Middle East and that of racism in the United States as well as communalism in South Asia. Yet Age of Coexistence is not an account of how the world was subjected to a common political vocabulary and a shared understanding of the problem of governance. It is instead a story of coexistence, an argument that sectarianism in the modern Middle East has always been balanced by the existence of an indigenous “will to coexistence on the basis of secular equality” (24). Makdisi thus takes secularity less as a modern political project whose history can be followed and more as a universal creative capacity, the plural histories of which can be recovered toward an illustration of shared humanity. “Insofar as there is a story to be told about sectarianism and coexistence in the modern Middle East,” he writes, “it ought to humanize rather than add to the degradation of a tragic part of the world” (24).

Thus the “ecumenical frame” emerges, in the final analysis, as: a claim concerning the historical reality of a tradition of coexistence in the modern Arab world; as an assertion of that tradition’s local provenance; as an insistence on the role of Arab agency in its formulation; and as an injunction to interpret the existence and nature of that tradition in a particular way, namely, as evincing a universal, but nevertheless specifically Arab, commitment to humanity. This position stands in sharp contrast to the critique of the secular, which seeks not only to track how the spread of modern secular rule across the globe was inseparable from the extension of Euro-American imperial hegemony, but also to consider how claims concerning agency and locality relate to a particular conception of the “human” which is itself wrapped up in precisely that secularist worldview. It is a credit to Makdisi that he has placed a stake in the ground in the debate over secular modernity in the Middle East with a useful and richly substantiated historical narrative. It falls to historians of the modern Middle East to evaluate the historicity of the ecumenical frame—and to work out the political and intellectual implications of this act of historical recovery.


Author Response by Ussama Makdisi, Arab-American Education Foundation Professor in Arabic Studies, Rice University


I thank Zaib un Nisa Aziz for organizing this roundtable and the reviewers Amy Kallander, Ceyda Karamursel, and Henry Clements for their engagement with my book Age of Coexistence. I appreciate their observations, criticisms, and suggestions to clarify some of my main claims about the emergence of a modern culture of coexistence across the Mashriq after 1860. As the reviewers noted, my book disputes two pervasive myths: the first of the perpetually sectarian Orient; and the second of romanticized or instrumentalized coexistence. But more than this, my larger aim is to insist on a now unknown or neglected history of antisectarian solidarity that has defined the modern Mashriq. Although there has been a boom of work on sectarianism in the Middle East following the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, I want to redirect attention to a different history of antisectarian and ecumenical solidarity. This antisectarianism has not been appreciated enough by scholars of the region, yet it has been the basis of consistent expressions of both conservative and emancipatory ideas of secular belonging and citizenship for well over a century in the Arab East.

To elaborate my argument about the emergence of the ecumenical frame in the modern Arab world, I adopted two approaches. The first was a narrative one that locates the beginnings of this history of ecumenical solidarity during the Ottoman Tanzimat; in other words, I insisted on returning Arab history to its larger Ottoman context, and within that, I contrasted the trajectory of an enduring, if contested, ecumenical solidarity in the Levant with its collapse amidst intense nationalist ethno-religious politics in the Balkans and Anatolia. Hence the paradox of “coexistence in an age of genocide” of the late Ottoman era and the contrasting fates of Armenians and Christian Arabs who played an important part in elaborating the ecumenical frame. In the post-Ottoman and newly colonized Arab East, there was intense competition between various elements of Arab thought to nationalize the ecumenical frame. My contrast of the Iraqi and Lebanese cases suggests two antithetical ways to elaborate the post-Ottoman ecumenical frame within mandates dominated by European powers. Sati Husri was the pedagogue of secular nationalism in Hashemite Iraq and Michel Chiha was the ideologue of modern sectarianism in French-dominated Lebanon. They represented locally-rooted but divergent and contradictory expressions of how to rebuild the ecumenical frame. Not so was European colonial Zionism’s drive to build an exclusive ethno- religious Jewish state in what had always been a multireligious land—a topic to which I turn my attention in the final chapter. Ideologically and geopolitically, colonial Zionism obviously shattered the ecumenical frame in Palestine.

My second approach was a conceptual one that insists on seeing the related and modern problems of sectarianism, antisectarianism, and citizenship in the Arab world with parallel problems that emerged in other parts of the world: racist segregation in the United States; antisemitism in Europe; communalism in South Asia and tribalism in Africa. My point here is to push back against a corrosive disillusionment among contemporary Arab scholars who remain haunted by “failure” as an allegedly Arab problem after 1967. I also want to use these juxtapositions of different but coeval historical experiences to relocate the discussion of the modern Middle East into its proper global and comparative perspective. I want to encourage students of the history of the modern Arab world, the late Ottoman empire, and the wider Middle East to appreciate how the broken promises of equal liberal citizenship, the pitfalls of nationalism, the violent geopolitics—and the resistance to these sordid realities—have had echoes and parallels in many other parts of the world. In that sense, as I noted in the book, I see this text as an introduction to an ongoing research project where others examine the applicability of the idea of the ecumenical frame in other contexts with different historical, political, economic, and social conditions, such as North Africa or the Gulf region.

Amy Kallander reads my work through the lens of the colonized Maghrib, where the extremely violent colonial policies pursued by France in Algeria and elsewhere that did so much to shatter the possibility of secular solidarity between colonized subjects and communities of different faiths. Kallander is right to draw attention to the “Berber” policies of the French, for example, and to ask about the “Jewish articulations” of the ecumenical frame as opposed to the mostly Christian and Muslim Arab ones that I focused on in my work. These are important questions that require more research—and I am absolutely convinced that these are bound to be productive avenues for future discussion. But as Kallander recognizes, my focus on the Arab East leads inevitably to the question of Zionism. What and how “Jewish articulations” of the ecumenical frame unfolded were inevitably shaped by the massive effect of colonial Zionism that claimed stridently to represent Jews from all cultures and regions. Colonial Zionism devastated the foundation of the ecumenical frame in Palestine by insisting on an exclusionary and violent ethnoreligious state in an historically multireligious land. Other scholars and I have explored in terms of how Jewish Arabs or Arab Jews reacted to and engaged with Zionism in Palestine, and how Christian and Muslim Arabs reacted to and resisted a political project that so clearly fused sectarianism and nationalism with destructive consequences for the Arab East.

Ceyda Karamursel appreciates my broad comparative framing of the question of sectarianism and coexistence but questions my neglect of the idea of—and the term—“liberalism” in the book. My answer is that a theoretical engagement with liberalism was not my principal concern. I was far less interested in arguing for or against liberalism than in charting the development of an antisectarian culture and set of solidarities that took on different conservative, liberal, and revolutionary or radical forms. My point, of course, was that the terms that have mattered conceptually and politically in the modern Arab world have been sectarianism, nationalism, citizenship, sovereignty, and colonialism—and not liberalism—despite the huge Western literature on the question, and despite, as Karamursel reminds us, the term’s complex history. Through questions of sectarianism and antisectarianism (a new conceptual approach of the book) I set out to juxtapose the particularities of the Middle Eastern engagement with universal questions of sovereignty, citizenship, inequality, and exclusion with other experiences that have their own particularities. I have to disagree with her suggestion that the ecumenical frame creates “yet another exceptionalism” because the point of the book is to highlight, from the very first page, the parallel but distinctive evolution of modern political problems of sectarianism in the Middle East with racism in the United States, tribalism in Africa, communalism in South Asia, each of which has refracted and undermined the quest for secular equality in different parts of the world.

Henry Clements in his careful engagement with the book’s specific argument suggests that my reading posits that coexistence in the Arab East was a legacy of Ottoman ecumenism whereas the ethnoreligious violence in Turkey and the Balkans broke with this ecumenism. I note in the book, however, that the Ottoman Tanzimat had two facets—the impetus to nondiscrimination and the ideological remaking of an empire of citizens and also state centralization and violence in the quest for secure sovereignty. The latter trumped the former in the Balkans and Anatolia, while the former became more apparent in the Arab provinces, and I return to my point of coexistence in an age of genocide to try to make sense of this paradox. But Clements suggests a different reading. He notes that the “spectacular violence of Turkish nationalism represented a possibility immanent within any modern national or cultural configuration, Arabism included.” The tension here, I believe, is between historicization and abstraction. Of course, every state, premodern as well as modern, has the capacity for violence. I also agree that every national project “necessarily relies on exclusions” and that is precisely why I insist on historicizing the term coexistence and examining how, and in what contexts, the ecumenical frame was from the outset based on a series of exclusions, caveats, and taboos, most obviously in the realm of gender inequality but in many other realms as well. But Clements’s broad statement (with which I don’t disagree) does not actually help us understand how a particular history unfolded, or why the Ottoman empire’s diversity unraveled so violently in one part but not in another. Nor does it explain how Kemalism is fundamentally different from Arabism at so many levels, not least when it comes to the question of ecumenism and religious difference. It is significant, and here is the troubling aspect: that “secularist” Kemalist Turkey proved far more successful in asserting its sovereignty and defeating colonial partition, if through mass violence and ethnic cleansing. The Arab states that I covered, were colonized after WWI by Britain and France. While far more committed to religious diversity, the mandate states had far less sovereignty than independent Turkey. These differences matter hugely when it comes to analyzing the difference between the Armenian Genocide and the suppression of Kurds in post-Ottoman Turkey, on the one hand, and the massacre of the Assyrians in Iraq in 1932 that I discuss in the book.

Ultimately, my objective was to insist on juxtaposition and historicization to explain the birth of a modern tradition of coexistence in the Arab East that today is far more imperiled than ever before. Today, unlike the case of the late Ottoman era, the Arab East is subjected to unprecedented US wars and imperialism, the tyranny of oil-rich absolutist Gulf monarchies dependent on the United States, “postcolonial” republican despotisms in Syria and Egypt that oppress their citizens and cynically instrumentalize the ecumenical frame, Islamic fundamentalism in its myriad forms, and Zionist ethnoreligious nationalism that explicitly privileges Jews over non-Jews and continues to devastate Muslim and Christian Palestinian lives and society. These factors have profoundly threatened but have not yet totally destroyed the ecumenical frame in the Arab world.

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