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New Texts Out Now: Erik Freas, Muslim-Christian Relations in Late-Ottoman Palestine: Where Nationalism and Religion Intersect

Erik Freas, Muslim-Christian Relations in Late-Ottoman Palestine: Where Nationalism and Religion Intersect. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Erik Freas (EF): The greater part of my research on Muslim-Christian relations in Palestine has, until now, focused primarily on the British mandatory period. Nonetheless, while the creation of the mandatory regimes following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire marks an obvious starting point for relating the history that ensued, one should not underestimate the degree of continuity and relevancy of certain developments (see below) that were already well underway during the late-Ottoman period (i.e., over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). In a sense then, my decision to write this book was motivated by a desire to explore exactly these developments such as (I would contend) laid the groundwork for how Muslim-Christian relations proceeded during the mandatory period, particularly vis-à-vis the Palestinian nationalist cause. An additional motivating factor is my strong interest in nationalism in a more purely phenomenological sense, in particular, regarding the relationship between proto-nationalist and nationalist identities and the role of religion with respect to both. In this particular case, I examine, the relationship between Arab nationalist identity and Islam: especially pertinent in this regard is the fact that the former evolved in an Ottoman context wherein religion had, for centuries, been a primary marker of one’s broader communal identity; and the fact that the various nationalist movements that emerged in the Ottoman Empire’s European territories during the nineteenth century frequently found a strong correspondence with Christian communal identities.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

EF: Briefly summarized, the book examines the relationship between Palestine’s indigenous Muslim and Christian Arabs, from roughly the early nineteenth century until the beginning of the First World War (1914), in connection with socio-economic changes then taking place as well as with emerging Arab and Palestinian nationalist identities. More specifically, it proposes that the dynamic presently underlying Muslim-Christian Arab relations was greatly shaped by three developments that transpired during the late-Ottoman period, of which—given its then substantial Christian population—Palestine provides a microcosm: 1) That many non-Arabic speaking Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire began to define their identity in nationalistic terms on the basis of their respective faiths. 2) That with their transformation into politically equal Ottoman citizens, many Christians seemed more intent on taking advantage of their new rights—often while fostering closer ties with Europeans—than fulfilling civil obligations such as military service. 3) That for most Muslim Arabs, the transition from being primarily a “Muslim” to being primarily an “Arab” in terms of one’s broader communal affiliation often entailed little change regarding how one experienced one’s communal identity in a day-to-day sense.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

EF: As mentioned above, the main focus of my research until recently has been on Muslim-Christian relations in Palestine during the British mandatory period, largely within the context of the Palestinian nationalist struggle. First and foremost then, this book departs from that chronologically, inasmuch as it examines the relationship between the two communities during the late-Ottoman period. Additionally, in this particular work, I am more concerned with the relationship, not so much within the context of the nationalist political struggle, but rather in terms of how it evolved over the period in question. More specifically, I examine how it was impacted by the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms, growing European regional influence (politically and economically), and the growing pervasiveness of nationalist ideological thought. Especially relevant is how these three factors informed the formulation of a distinctly Palestinian Arab national identity. Notably absent from discussion here—and again a significant departure from my previous work—is the impact of Zionism in this regard.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

EF: The book is aimed primarily at academics and scholars in the field of modern Middle East history, particularly those who specialize on Palestine, whether during the late-Ottoman or British mandatory period. Given the subject matter, I believe the book will also be of interest to scholars whose focus is on nationalism in a more phenomenological sense, particularly as pertains to the role of religion vis-à-vis proto-nationalist identities; likewise those concerned with inter-faith relations in a broader sense, whether speaking geographically or chronologically.

J: What other projects are you working on now?EF: I have actually just finished another book, entitled The Exclusivity of Holiness: The Role of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in the Formation of National Identities, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan. That book examines the manner in which Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount has been appropriated by both Zionism (that is, Jewish/Israeli nationalism) and Palestinian Arab nationalism as a nationalist symbol, as a means of legitimizing the respective movements’ claims to Eretz Israel/Palestine. Prior to the advent of these two nationalist movements, the site’s significance was largely understood in religious terms. Beginning with the nineteenth century, however, the site’s significance became reconfigured within the context of modern, nationalist discourses—a Zionist one and a Palestinian one. One cannot really say, however, that in either case, the site became secularized, even if Palestinian nationalism and especially Zionism could be understood in their original incarnations as predominantly secular movements. Indeed, influence has run largely in the other direction. Essentially I argue in the book that the site’s religious significance with respect to Judaism and Islam has gradually altered the character of both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism respectively, in a manner that has served to blur the line between the two and their respective majority faiths.

I have also just begun working on an anthology on Palestine’s Christian communities, to which I will likely contribute the first chapter, which would provide an overview of Palestine’s different Christian communities as of the end of the nineteenth century. 


Excerpt from Chapter 3, “Knowing One’s Place.”

A final factor influencing Muslim attitudes towards Christians—one unique to the nineteenth century, and which would serve to greatly exacerbate whatever antipathy Muslims might already have harbored towards Christians—was the growing nationalist unrest in the European parts of the Empire. Case in point was the Greek nationalist uprising of 1821, which saw a strong backlash against Christians residing in the predominantly Muslim parts of the Empire; however much such uprisings were rooted in secular nationalism, for many Muslims they seemed primarily a case of Christians rebelling against Ottoman (and by extension, Islamic) authority, unfortunately, in a manner that tended to conflate all Christians—whether foreign or domestic, Greek speaking or Arabic speaking—into one monolithic adversary. Hence the response of Sultan Mahmud, who decreed that Muslims throughout the Empire be provided with arms, while those of Christians should be confiscated. Muslims were further warned not to trust anything the Christians might say, especially those of the Greek Orthodox sect. In Jerusalem, the level of Muslim animosity directed at Christians was sufficient to generate among the latter intense feelings of despair, particularly when it became apparent that they could not count on local authority figures to protect them. Many in fact were quite prepared to exploit the situation: for instance, the governor or mutesellim of Jerusalem, Sulayman Effendi—an individual of apparently dubious charact—threatened to incite the city’s Muslims to attack the Greek Orthodox patriarchate as a means of eliciting bribes from local Christians. Ultimately they paid the bribes and thus managed to avoid any serious harm, an outcome further assured by the intervention of the local qadi—an apparently more responsible individual—who was able to greatly mollify the city’s Muslims.

In actual fact, whatever sympathy Christians in Syria and Palestine may have had for the Greek uprising, few if any were prepared to actively support it. Nevertheless, many Muslims viewed their Christian neighbors with suspicion, and rumors were soon circulating that the Empire’s Christians were planning a major attack on Muslims with European assistance! In Jerusalem, violence was only averted when the governor in Damascus, Darwish Pasha, had a letter read from the Haram Al-Sharif making it clear that the rumors were unfounded, and that no Christian was to be killed except with his permission. Shortly thereafter, the Sultan himself issued a proclamation calling upon the local authorities in Jerusalem to pacify the Muslim population, indicating in no uncertain terms that if any harm should come to the city’s non-Muslim inhabitants, the military would swiftly intervene; one of the 'ulamā responsible for communicating the Sultan’s injunction added: “Do you not disturb the [non-Muslims], for they are faithful; evil done to them is a sin and an injustice against our God and our Prophet.” Sulayman Effendi, as well as some of the less scrupulous among the Muslim notable class, would nonetheless continue to take advantage of the Christians’ vulnerable position, extorting huge sums of money from them and threatening to arouse the local Muslim population by fabricating false accusations against them. The harassment of Palestine’s Christians at the time of the Greek uprising was not restricted to Jerusalem. Several decades later, the British consul in Jerusalem, James Finn, related a story told him by an elderly Christian native of Haifa, concerning how 'Abdullah Pasha, at the time the governor of Acre (under whose jurisdiction Haifa was), had required as an act of pseudo-retaliation that non-Muslim women wear veils of an ugly color so that they might be differentiated from Muslim women, likewise, that non-Muslim men walk on the left side of the road or in the gutter.

It seems a fair number of Greeks nationalists were equally certain as most Muslims that their Christian compatriots in Syria and Palestine were prepared to rise up against the Ottoman Empire if properly motivated. In 1826, the Greeks launched a naval attack on Beirut in the hopes of inciting Christians and Druzes to join their cause. In the end, neither was so inclined. Nonetheless, many Muslims in Palestine and elsewhere assumed the worse upon hearing news of the Greek naval assault, and were quite prepared to exact revenge on whichever Christians were close at hand. Further exacerbating the situation was that the Ottoman Sultan had by this point become so incensed that he had the Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul, Grigorios V—whom he held personally responsible for the uprising—publicly executed, and issued imperial decrees “that dissenting Orthodox leaders were to be killed and the Christians throughout the Ottoman Empire were to be humbled.” Disaster was only averted by the dissemination of the news that the Greek ships had, in fact, failed in their attempted assault, and had shortly thereafter departed.Following a declaration to that effect, the Ottoman governor in Damascus, 'Abdullah Pasha, in concert with the local notables, proclaimed that

[t]here are no dissenters among our Christians. They are all dhimmis who conduct themselves accordingly, and it is not permitted to harass them. Rather, we are all on an equal footing. Our Prophet made a pact with them in which he says, ‘On the Day of Resurrection I will oppose any who has presumed upon a dhimmi.’ We cannot bear the weight of answering for ourselves [in light of this].

The governor did require that Christians return to wearing dark-colored clothing, inclusive of black shoes, based on a local interpretation of the Pact of 'Umar, though following the offering of a gift of 50,000 piasters, the obligation was greatly modified. Not all Christians under 'Abdullah Pasha’s authority got off so easily. He suspected those in Beirut of at minimum being sympathetic to the Greeks and subjected them to harsh reprisals: a contingent of 500 Albanian irregular forces was dispatched to the city, where they quickly wreaked havoc on the local Christian population; additionally, he had the Orthodox clergy there imprisoned, along with any among the laity who were fluent in Greek. In nearby Sidon, 'Abdullah Pasha ordered that wealthy Christians pay a special “poll-tax,” to be collected in a manner designed to publicly humiliate them—each Christian was to be “slapped on the back of the neck, [according to 'Abdullah’s] interpretation of the Koranic text concerning Christians, that ‘they pay tribute by right of subjection, and they be reduced low.’”

In some parts of the Empire, Christians fared considerably worse. Massacres occurred in Smyrna and Thessaloniki, and even in Istanbul. The news of the slaughter of Christians in the capital, not to mention the execution of the Patriarch, had such an unsettling effect on the situation of Christians throughout the Empire that many were compelled to convert to Islam or leave the Empire altogether. Making matters worse was that their existed in the minds of many Muslims a strong correlation between the Greek naval attack on Beirut and Greek piracy, by then a longstanding and much more pervasive problem. The correlation was not entirely unfounded, as the Greek War of Independence did in fact exacerbate the problem of piracy in Ottoman waters. Additionally, Greek corsairs occasionally served as auxiliaries to the Russian navy, meaning that the naval attack also ended up enjoying an unfortunate association with the Ottoman Empire’s arch-nemesis, Tsarist Russia. Simply put, for many Muslims, Greek nationalists were little better than criminals. Unfortunately, to no small extent, local Greek Orthodox (and Christians in general) ended up being tarred with the same brush. 

Actions taken at the national level as pertained to non-Muslims were often motivated more by purely political considerations than any sense of religious indignation. Case in point is the execution of the Orthodox Patriarch, which in many respects was a response to the simple fact of the Sultan’s authority having been challenged. Notably, the Sultan had the Şeyhülislam executed as well, for having denounced the punishment of the Patriarch as running contrary to Islam! The role played by political considerations at the national level was equally evident following the disastrous Battle of Navarino in 1828, which saw the Ottoman fleet sunk by the French and British, who had allied themselves with the Greek nationalists. The Sultan was especially distressed by what he perceived to be French duplicity, and expressed his outrage by having Armenian Catholics—who he perceived as being sympathetic to them—deported. Such retaliation constituted more than a fit of religiously tinged pique, but rather reflected a concern that they constituted a potential fifth column, likewise the need to create space in the capital for Muslim refugees newly arrived from Greece. The Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate was quite happy to cooperate; long concerned about the desertion of members of its flock to the Catholic sect, it sought to demonstrate its loyalty to the Ottoman Sultan, likewise its ability to effectively manage its community’s affairs, by assisting in carrying out the deportations, with the caveat, however, that those who reverted back to the original “Apostolic” Orthodoxy should be spared!

[Excerpted from Muslim-Christian Relations in Late-Ottoman Palestine: Where Nationalism and Religion Intersect, by permission of the author. (c) 2016.]

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