Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).

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

Ussama Makdisi (UM): I wanted to write a history of what I see as an antisectarian tradition in a part of the world that is often caricatured as being consumed by age-old sectarian passions. That is, I wanted to remind us of an important history of coexistence that neither romanticizes nor orientalizes the Arab world. As I explain in the book, much of this coexistence was and remains bound up within conservative understandings of religion, community, and nation, but some of it was also incredibly radical and daring. Either way, both aspects of coexistence constitute a part of the rich history of the region. In other words, there are different stories and types of coexistence that need to be explored and excavated, not one grand narrative of idealized coexistence.

I was also aware of the considerable pessimism of many Arab intellectuals—to say nothing of patronizing orientalists—who have more or less given into despair and declared the modern period to be a failure, perhaps because they are imprisoned by the overwhelming immediacy of current sectarian events in the Middle East. Several of these intellectuals deplore the fact that “we” are allegedly lagging behind the mythologized secular West, despite there being a huge literature on racism, violence, and inequality in Western states or empires.

As a result, a vital part of the history of the modern Mashriq has been obscured, if not denigrated or even effaced, namely how Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs developed a profound culture of coexistence in the late Ottoman and post-Ottoman eras—what I call the ecumenical frame. This new culture was ecumenical in the sense that it simultaneously underscored and transcended religious difference in the name of antisectarian national unity; it reformulated monotheistic religions as compatible building blocks of a shared nation; it legitimated both a new politics of communalism and new secular nationalisms;  and it committed itself both to the promise of equal citizenship irrespective of religious affiliation and to explicit codes of personal status that clearly separated Muslims, Christians, and Jews. I point out that the immense shift from inequality to nominal equality and citizenship has been contested not only in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman Middle East, but also in the United States, South Asia, and Europe. This should be obvious to anyone today. Just as importantly, as I indicated earlier, I wanted to get scholars and students of the modern Arab world to appreciate how there is a living anti-sectarian tradition that needs to be acknowledged and studied in relation to parallel anti-racist and anti-communalist traditions in the United States and South Asia.

I also wanted to look beyond the defensiveness and denial that still inhibits genuinely critical historiographical work on the modern Arab world. There were powerful positive and negative linkages between the Ottoman nineteenth century and the post-Ottoman Arab twentieth century that I think are often gestured to, but hardly studied properly. I do think we need to explore without equivocation the damage inflicted by Western colonialism and the emergence of different forms of anticolonialism in the non-Western world. But I also believe that there are facets of the Ottoman imperial and Islamic past that also have had a substantial bearing on questions of sectarianism, discrimination, and racism in the region. These aspects are almost never seriously studied. I wanted to see if there was a single interpretive frame that could help us think about the simultaneity, for example, of the Arab nahda and the Armenian genocide, and take seriously the emergence of Michel Chiha’s sectarian Lebanon at the same time as Sati` al-Husri’’s Arab nationalist Iraq, and also to explore how colonial Zionism impinged upon a dynamic ecumenical landscape in Palestine. Above all, I wanted to underscore how important, how resilient, and yet also how unequal, how gendered, and how conservative the ecumenical frame often was and still is.

My true hope is that the book helps define a new research agenda for the critical study of coexistence that involves far more than debunking other peoples’ myths and stereotypes about the Arab world or the Middle East more broadly. We have become quite articulate at criticizing the obvious hypocrisy and racism of Western liberalism and colonialism, yet we are conceptually far more tentative when it comes to writing a history of the modern world that is able to incorporate our own contradictions without succumbing to philocolonialism, orientalism, romanticism, or defeatism.

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

UM:  First and foremost, the book explores the quality of coexistence and interrogates the terms of political inclusion in the modern Middle East where secular citizenship and religiously informed laws of personal status emerged in tandem. I also wanted to track the different architectures of the ecumenical frame in the late Ottoman Empire, in post-Ottoman states of Lebanon and Iraq, and, finally, in mandatory Palestine that was subjected to colonial Zionism. Thus the book inevitably addresses the modern and associated problems of sectarianism, nationalism, and colonialism. I felt it was important to shift the debate not only away from what I feel has become a scholarly preoccupation with sectarianism following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but also away from what I also believe has become—to me at least—an increasingly sterile academic debate about the limits of secularism and liberalism in the modern Middle East. Instead, I wanted to narrate as empathetically as possible how it was that an idea of equality and modern solidarity between Muslim and non-Muslim went from being unimaginable at the beginning of the nineteenth century to unremarkable by the middle of the twentieth century.

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

UM: My first book historicized the modern problem of sectarianism in Ottoman Lebanon and emphasized how it operated at a discursive and physical level and how it was shaped by unequal local Lebanese, Ottoman, and Western agency. The new book is written on a much wider Ottoman and post-Ottoman Arab canvas and emphasizes the ties that allegedly bind rather than those that separate—but the connection between my early work and this new book is obvious to me at least: we deconstruct sectarianism in order to enhance the possibility of radical, if always seemingly ephemeral equality, and to enrich the quality of coexistence.

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

UM: First and foremost, scholars, students, and laypersons who are invested in genuinely understanding the Arab world and the Middle East. As far as impact is concerned, I hope to inspire students of modern Arab history to appreciate how rich is the history of this part of the world without feeling defensive or dogmatic about its problems and contradictions.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

UM: I am working on a new history of the King-Crane commission of 1919.

J: Do you have any final thoughts?

UM: I wonder to what extent we can appreciate and conceptualize the parallel histories of ecumenical antiracism, anticolonialism, antisectarianism, and anti-communalism? I wonder, as well, to what extent will be able to write histories of the modern Arab world that convey the diversity of the region empathetically? I have tried to provide the beginnings of my answer to these questions in Age of Coexistence.

Excerpt from the book

From the introduction

Every history of sectarianism is also a history of coexistence. This book reveals how a complex, and now obscured, modern culture of coexistence first developed in the modern Middle East, which today appears to be little more than a collection of war-torn countries and societies. In particular, I question two stories that have traditionally dominated the perception of the Middle East. The first stresses a continuous history of sectarian strife between allegedly antagonistic religious and ethnic communities; the second idealizes coexistence as communal harmony.

More fundamentally, I dispute an entire way of looking at the Middle East, and the Arab world in particular, as some kind of pathological place consumed by the disease of sectarianism. Sectarianism is a real problem, but it is no more real, and no less subject to change over time, than are analogous problems of racism in the West and caste politics and communalism in South Asia. There is a key difference between orientalizing the Middle East (thinking of it as strange, aberrant, and dangerously different) and historicizing it (putting it in context and in dialogue with analogous experiences in other parts of the world). Once we understand this, we can, I believe, study the history of coexistence in the Middle East without defensiveness and without the misplaced paternalism that so often dogs pronouncements about the region.

The conventional usage of the term “coexistence” is admittedly limited. Typically, it vaguely describes what has been one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the long sweep of Arab and Islamic history; it often nostalgically refers to the golden age of Muslim Spain. During the Cold War, the phrase “peaceful coexistence” denoted the toleration of otherwise incompatible communist and capitalist systems that threatened each other with annihilation; in Lebanon, coexistence indicates the allegedly harmonious relationship between separate and notionally age-old communities; in the United States, it suggests an anodyne dialogue between monotheistic faiths in a secular republic. The contemporary usage of “coexistence” hints at an equality between people of different faiths that is not warranted by historical scrutiny. Nevertheless, the term remains resonant and it evokes for me a specific age, and a new kind of political intimacy and meaningful solidarity that cut across Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious lines. These together define a hallmark of modern Arab history.

Rather than taking sectarianism or coexistence for granted, or assuming either of them to be age-old features of the Middle East, I am interested in historicizing both notions. At what point was “sectarianism” first identified as a political problem? How did parceling out public office along sectarian lines become an expression of equality? Why was this done in some parts of the Middle East but not in others? When was “coexistence” first celebrated as a national value? And how and why did religion go from being a key element of an inegalitarian Ottoman imperial politics discriminating between Muslim and non-Muslim, and privileging Sunni orthodoxy over other Islamic denominations, to a key component of post-Ottoman national politics affirming the equality of all citizens irrespective of their religious affiliation? These are just some of the questions this book will answer.

My interest lies principally in clarifying how different understandings of the relationship between religious diversity, equality and emancipation have legitimated and cohered radically divergent and highly experimental political orders across the area during the century from roughly 1860 until 1948, an era that first saw the Ottoman Empire reform itself, and then saw European powers destroy and divide the empire into various post-Ottoman states that enjoyed only a nominal sovereignty. This book is specifically focused on the Mashriq—that is, the region that today encompasses Lebanon, Syria, the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, all of which were once under a common Ottoman rule.

The Mashriq is a region in which Arabic-speaking Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities were tightly and densely interwoven during and following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It is also the region of the Middle East that has seen the most sustained attempts to forge political solidarities among men and women of different faiths. Thus, it is different from Turkey itself, where the non-Muslim presence was largely expunged during and after World War I. It is also different from North Africa or the Gulf, where the indigenous non-Muslim presence was less influential in the region’s cultural development. The Mashriq has witnessed constant internal resistance and reaction to the secular implications of national solidarities. Last but far from least, it has been the setting for relentless European, and more recently U.S., interference that both speaks for and exploits the historical diversity of the region. The work to imagine and build societies that transcend sectarian difference has been multifaceted and contradictory.  It has received its fair share of setbacks, in our own age perhaps more than in others. But, as I see it, this work has also continued for over a century.  I am especially interested in how the idea of modern coexistence as equality between Muslim and non-Muslim went from being unimaginable at the beginning of the nineteenth century to unremarkable by the middle of the twentieth century.  This history deserves an empathetic telling.

The ubiquitous representation of a sectarian Middle East consistently medievalizes the region. It conflates contemporary political identifications with far older religious solidarities. The historian Bruce Masters insists, for example, that “as long as religion lay at the heart of each individual’s world-view, the potential for society to fracture along sectarian lines remained.” Perhaps. But between the potentiality of sectarian violence and its actuality lies the history I tell: how a modern political culture emerged that valorized religion and coexistence, and demonized sectarianism. It was only in the twentieth century, after all, that the Arabic terms for “sectarianism” and “coexistence”—al-ta’ifiyya and ‘aysh mushtarak—were coined as an integral part of a new imagination that accepted Muslim and Christian and Jew as equal citizens within a sovereign political frame.

“Sectarianism,” indeed, is not simply a reflection of significant fractures in a religiously diverse society. It is also a language, an accusation, a judgment, an imagination, and an ideological fiction that has been deployed by both Middle Eastern and Western nations, communities, and individuals to create modern political and ideological frameworks within which supposedly innate sectarian problems can be contained, if not overcome. No organization or movement, after all, actually describes itself as “sectarian,” just as no modern government anywhere claims to be against “coexistence.” The perception of a sectarian problem can reflect an idealistic attempt to build a radical new political community that transcends religious difference. It can denote a way that members of long marginalized communities make political, cultural, and economic claims to resources and privileges in any given nation. It can also justify a cynical mode of colonial or reactionary nationalist governance that exploits religious or ethnic diversity in a given region.

Sunni, Shi‘i, Maronite, Jewish, Armenian, or Orthodox Christian identifications are not etched uniformly into the fabric of the past and present. They are historical designations whose meanings have changed and whose salience has ebbed and flowed. At any given moment, communal identities may appear to be entirely genuine and palpable.  They may be positive or negative; open-minded or insular. These identities, nevertheless, are not recovered from some container of the past that preserves an unadulterated sense of self and other. They are, instead, produced over and over again in different forms and for different reasons. They manifest only after having been riven by innumerable schisms and after having undergone repeated redefinitions throughout their long histories.

Anyone who has lived in the Middle East, of course, will know that stubborn sectarian problems exist in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Iraq, just as anyone who lives in the United States will likewise perceive an obvious racial problem there.  Imagine, for example, hypothetically, a situation in which a foreign power removed the U.S. federal government, abolished the U.S. Army, and encouraged the division of the United States along racial lines—similar to how the United States acted in Iraq in the aftermath of its invasion of that country in 2003. The race problem in America would inevitably be exacerbated and its implications changed. This is not because the racial identities in America are unchanging or “age-old,” but rather because their meaning and transformation, like sectarian ones, are so clearly dynamic products of specific historical, material, and geopolitical contexts.

To demystify the modern problem of sectarianism is to understand how it is far more an expression of a global tension between sovereignty, diversity, and equal citizenship than a restaging of a medieval religious schism.  It may indeed be helpful for readers to think about communal and sectarian outlooks, actions, and thoughts in the modern world as analogous to racial and racist outlooks, actions, and thoughts in the United States. The most interesting scholars of American history have grappled with the immense salience of race by historicizing it, not by taking it for granted.  They have examined how the notion of race has been produced and reproduced in the context of a U.S. republic that embraced democratic freedoms and justified perpetual bondage. Neither modern racism nor modern sectarianism, in other words, is intelligible outside of the richness of its respective context. Invariably, both are expressed with the full knowledge that there are powerful and meaningful antiracist and antisectarian currents that oppose them. This does not mean that sectarianism is the same as racism, nor that the historical experience of Sunnis, Shi‘is, Christians, and Jews in the Arab world is the same as that of Latinos, Anglos, and African Americans in the United States. What this juxtaposition involves, rather, is understanding how different communal, racial, and sectarian formations—and, just as importantly, different antiracist and antisectarian commitments—were, as I will explain more fully below, common legacies of a global nineteenth-century political revolution.