Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (Berkely: University of California Press, 2019).
Ussama Makdisi’s Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Middle East seeks to reorient understandings of intercommunal difference in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of the Middle East Mashriq. Makdisi contests the Orientalist view that sectarian conflict originates endemically within Arab communities as periodic manifestations of unchanging, ancient hatreds. He also problematizes romanticizing Middle Eastern history as inherently coexistent before the onset of high imperialism. Instead, the book contends that communal coexistence consisted of tolerance and mutual interaction based on fundamental inequalities between subjects. This balance changed with European intervention in the late-Ottoman period, challenging the Empire’s sovereignty. As European imperialism increasingly penetrated the Ottoman world, the Sublime Porte simultaneously grappled with peasant protests and intercommunal conflicts that rocked the late Ottoman Empire. Its attempts to appease both European imperialists and its own subjects in this period had ongoing ramifications on coexistence. Under these conditions, the Ottomans adopted a policy of social and legal equality among its subjects alongside political subordination to the absolute Sultan—the early iteration of the “ecumenical frame” via the Tanzimat. This legal and social coexistence imbricated Ottoman, European, and Arab “materials” to govern the terms of equality (7). It also had governmental, elite, and popular dimensions. These legal and political forms took form from above, imposed through the Tanzimat and later in the mandate-era nation-states. In its popular forms, Mashriqi intellectuals disseminated it to their respective communities. As a body of thought, a system of governance, and a new political and legal order, the ecumenical frame persisted until the 1948 Nakba finally and totally ruptured its viability. In repudiating the idea that sectarianism is the defining feature of Middle Eastern history, Makdisi’s intervention is historically and politically urgent. The work opens the door for further exploration of how everyday people consumed, challenged, and constituted the ecumenical frame.
In Part I, Makdisi argues that the unique blend of crises instigated in the nineteenth century gave rise to the ecumenical frame. The crisis of Ottoman sovereignty in the mid-nineteenth century and pockets of sectarian violence, especially in 1860 Syria-Lebanon, gave rise to urgent new considerations of coexistence in the Mashriq. These developments provoked the building of an ecumenical frame that was variegated throughout the Empire. The Ottoman conception of “coexistence” encompassed conservative understandings of religious, social, and ethnic boundaries and hierarchies as well as radical conceptions (10) that transgressed sociopolitical cleavages. Radical incarnations of the ecumenical frame “encouraged forms of equality and solidarity that denied the political significance of religiosity” (8). Conservative forms tolerated social difference but affirmed existing hierarchies (8). Two items stand out in this section: the role of memory and the importance of the Nahda in the ecumenical frame. Makdisi emphasizes that the frame’s success depended on selective readings of the past to maintain communal bonds, recover from episodes of intercommunal violence, and rebuild trust. Existing contemporaneously and itself ecumenical, the Nahda expressed anti-imperial solidarity within the Arab world and was a core to the frame’s propagation. Literary and artistic production during the Nahda encouraged the selective memory crucial to the frame and “worked not only to uncover the past, but also, at crucial junctures, to bury it more deeply and to create powerful and enduring taboos about the alleged sectarian” (90). For example, Maronite Archbishop Yusuf Dibs of Beirut wrote in his multi-volume book Tarikh Suriyya (1903-1905) about the intellectual milieu of Nahda-era Syria as an “intimate” one of “men of different faiths.” (90) Yet, the Archbishop simultaneously “balked at delving into the massacres of 1860” in Tarikh Suriyya’s final volume, believing that mentioning it might “‘awaken buried hatreds and recall events that neither side wishes to recall…’” (90). Thus the builders of the ecumenical frame seemingly conceived it as fragile, liable to crack under communal memories of conflict. Furthermore, the Nahda’s political program to create an educated elite of teachers, local politicians, and artists committed to Arab identity emphasized the virtue of being anti-sectarian, a stance meant to be imparted to their students or constituencies (90-91). In this manner, Makdisi suggests that the ecumenical frame was a pedagogical exercise requiring elite tutelage.
Part II demonstrates the ecumenical frame’s centrality to modernizing projects of twentieth-century nationalisms in Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt. Among other influential figures he presents, Makdisi focuses on Butrus al-Bustani of Lebanon and Sati al-Hursi of Iraq as two of the frame’s prime builders. Makdisi interlaces discrete historical events to delineate the twentieth-century degradation of the ecumenical frame. He contends that the Nakba, the Balkan War (1912-13), the Armenian Genocide (1915), and the Greek expulsion from Turkey (195) all had a hand in breaking the frame. The Balkan War destroyed it in the Ottoman north; the Armenian Genocide and Muslim-Christian population transfer with Greece broke it in Turkey; and the Nakba was the final rupture in the Mashriq. These instances revealed how interactions originating both from internal Mashriqi schisms and from external imperial and colonial forces fractured coexistence. They also all arose from nationalist programs that sought to homogenize the populations encapsulated within the nation-state. In highlighting Ottoman governmentality differences between its subject regions, Makdisi argues that the Sublime Porte’s abrupt abandonment of the ecumenical framework in the Balkans contributed to “ethno-religious nationalist mobilizations in the Balkans, Istanbul, and Anatolia” (76). However, to prevent widespread communal breakdown in the Mashriq, the Empire continued to impose the Tanzimat’s ecumenical nondiscrimination there. This status quo lasted until the violent creation of Israel in 1948.
Part II focuses on the mandates and the nation-state system that arose after the Ottoman Empire, particularly on how key builders worked to foment ecumenism in these new states. Makdisi introduces two historiographical turns. First, he weaves together otherwise ostensibly geographically disparate communal struggles as parts of the whole Ottoman Empire’s political and social developments as well as the Empire’s overarching ecumenical governmentality. Second, he demonstrates that the ecumenical frame was not temporally or geographically static. Its objectives for coexistence changed over time and space. However, although the frame was not static, Makdisi challenges historiography that reifies Mashriqi nation-states as diverging on exceptional paths of development. Rather than exemplifying opposing visions of state-building, both Iraq and Lebanon drew on the “conservative and gendered underpinnings of the modern ecumenical frame” (130). Sati al-Hursi led mandatory Iraq’s education program down an Arabist and secular political program. Mandatory Lebanon charted a path to governmental sectarian consociationalism. Yet, both drew on lingering Ottoman conceptions of ecumenism. In particular, both secular Iraq and consociationalist Lebanon “upheld… segregated religious personal-status spheres” (130) even as they would repudiate sectarianism. Across the Mashriq, ecumenical builders sought to mobilize discourses of national unity to build new sovereign states. In opposite, Europe and the League of Nations cloaked their interests in the language of ecumenism to pursue their own interests. Religious freedom, a frequent refrain from European mandate leaders, “became a metaphor for colonial domination” (116). This frayed the meaning, intent, and trustworthiness of the ecumenical frame for Mashriqis. However, despite the limits and circumscriptions of the frame, it was not until Israel’s foundational ethnic cleansing and expulsion of Palestinians that the frame completely ruptured. The frame ultimately broke because the Zionist state was not a continuation of Mashriqi ecumenism. Rather, it was an intervention of European sensibilities that understood diversity as an obstacle and saw little value in heterogeneous coexistence (166).
The book’s longue durée of history will interest a lay audience critical of the media’s arguments advocating for the ahistorical nature of violence in the Middle East. It instead invites scholars to situate the trends of sectarianism and coexistence through the broad sweeps of history. This is pedagogically crucial, as conventional and popular depictions posit sectarianism as the primary lens to understand the Middle East, which appears as exceptionally prone to wars and intercommunal violence. Yet coexistence, Makdisi teaches us, has a history that is at least as influential as sectarianism in the region. Both were rooted in social, legal, and political developments that took definitive shape during the Tanzimat and were thereafter impacted by the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, local episodes of resistance and rebellion, the instatement of the mandate system, the European Jewish settler movement in Palestine, and other formative local events that occurred in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries.
The Age of Coexistence is an accomplished work of history. It innovatively and convincingly rereads historical trends to build evidence for the ecumenical frame’s existence. The book also projects a capacious view of the historical Middle East, managing at once to craft an integrated story of the region, while also providing granular details of the frame’s operations. It rebuffs the common bad faith question that asks why so much sectarianism has been apparent in the Middle East. He transforms this question into a properly historicized one that seeks to answer, rather, how a long history of coexistence broke into modern episodes of sectarianism.
Makdisi has laid new ground for further historical exploration of toleration, conflict, and community in the Middle East. This offers an important avenue through which future scholarship can be written. Such research could work to expand on how the proposed ecumenical frame operated on the ground. This might help further explain how deeply the ecumenical frame perforated Mashriqi societies and how the frame was, in turn, shaped by the emerging ecumenical citizen. Additionally, while Makdisi reflects at length on ethnic considerations, future work could expand on the class and gendered aspects of the frame. This research could focus more specifically on both female ecumenical builders and the role of the non-elite. Altogether, these suggestions for future research would also fit within recent historiographical trends that have moved toward explaining Ottoman history and the mandatory period through the eyes of regular people and the quotidian, rather than through the eyes of the Sublime Porte and elites.
The Age of Coexistence reads against the grain of dominant historiography. The book repudiates Orientalist attempts to “caricature [the Mashriq] as being consumed by age-old sectarian passions.” However, neither does it endorse histories that conclude Mashriqi coexistence only broke because of European intervention, even if the frame’s final lysis came from European settler colonialism in Palestine. Given the violent imaginaries built into the caricature, this goal is not merely confined to a forum of scholastic history—it is important political work. The Age of Coexistence encourages readers to collectively believe there is hope for a future of coexistence by providing operable examples of it working in the past—examples that are simultaneously gritty, difficult to achieve, fraught with complications, but nonetheless real and embodied by communities which have already existed.
Thank you to Ziad Abu-Rish and especially Sherene Seikaly for reading, editing, and improving previous drafts of this review.
 See: E. Atti̇la Ayteki̇n, “Peasant Protest in the Late Ottoman Empire: Moral Economy, Revolt, and the Tanzimat Reforms,” International Review of Social History Vol. 57, No. 2.
 Especially via challenges by European missionaries and other imperial agents (p.38-39), who were confused by Ottoman diversity and sought to rationalize it by conceiving of the region along sectarian terms. (41) As Makdisi notes, Europeans were not as willing to establish tolerance among diversity as much as abolish it completely. (42)
 Matthew Frank describes in “Fantasies of Ethnic Unmixing: Population Transfer and the Collapse of Empire in Europe” that Europeans in the aftermath of WWI were driven by “fantasies of ethnic unmixing,” which provoked partitioning policies they implemented especially keenly in the colonies.
 Ussama Makdisi, “Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (New Texts Out Now),” Jadaliyya (20 December 2019).