Ozan Ozavci, Dangerous Gifts: Imperialism, Security, and Civil Wars in the Levant, 1798-1864 (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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

Ozan Ozavci (OO): The book comes from a European Research Council funded project, “Securing Europe, Fighting Its Enemies,” led by my brilliant Utrecht colleague Beatrice de Graaf. The project looked into the emergence of a European security culture after the 1815 Congress of Vienna. In that multipolar world order, the self-defined Great Powers of the time (Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia) came up with new norms and practices such as non-intervention in each other’s affairs, conference diplomacy, and avoiding territorial changes without consulting each other. Mine was one of the sub-projects that was supposed to write a history of the collective European intervention in the civil war in Ottoman Syria in 1860—how, in the nineteenth century, Syria became a playground for their strategic, economic, and financial ambitions. But as I proceeded with the research, I was struck by the question of by what right the intervening Powers claimed the responsibility to supply security in another imperial territory, that of the Ottoman Empire, especially given that the sovereign authority was opposed to their intervention. On what legal grounds? As I read into the pre-1860 history of foreign armed interventionism, the fascinating literature left me with more questions than answers about the genealogy of interventions, their connections with one another, and the historical, political, legal, and economic continuities. In the end, I massively restructured the book, and turned it into an analysis of nearly a century of western armed interventions in what we call today the Middle East. The book focuses on the Levant, the Eastern Mediterranean coasts from Alexandria to Morea. It shows that since the late eighteenth century, a trans-imperial security culture or a culture of interventionism unfolded and wove together Western and Middle Eastern histories of security to an unprecedented degree.

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

OO: Dangerous Gifts traces the origins of western armed interventionism to what is now known as the “age-old,” even outworn, “Eastern Question.” It tells a new history of this old question, what it meant and how it was addressed, and why it is still somewhat relevant today. The Eastern Question is considered to have begun after Russia established an indirect control over Crimea in the 1770s. As is the case today, Russia first created in Crimea an autonomous region before annexing it a decade later. The fact that, if she wished, Empress Catherine II could capture Istanbul and end the Ottoman Empire before the news reached to the nearest European capital led to a widely shared conclusion: that the sultan’s empire was direly behind its northern and western rivals in terms of its military, technological, and economic power. How to deal with this perceived weakness constituted the core of the Eastern Question.

In the literature, the Eastern Question is usually considered a western question, as an opportunity but at once a threat. An opportunity because the European Powers could annex and control the strategically prized morsels (regions) of the Ottoman Empire, penetrate into her economy, or altogether dismantle her. But the perceived weakness was also conceived as a threat because if one of the major European empires, particularly Russia, established control over the dominions of the Ottoman Empire by means of partial annexation, total dismemberment, or dominant influence, the power balance among the European actors would be unsettled. It could lead to a total war in Europe and drag the world to misery. What Dangerous Gifts does is to re-narrate the history of the Eastern Question by involving the largely neglected Ottoman agency (both of imperial elites and subjects) into the equilibrium. It traces the continuities between its different episodes, from 1798 to the Congress of Vienna, from 1815 to the Greek War of Independence, the rise of Egypt, and the civil wars in Syria with a focus on the biographical experiences of key Levantine figures and families. Its inclusive and contrapuntal analysis of the Eastern Question allows the book to come up with important new findings and to reinterpret the origins of foreign armed interventionism in the Middle East.

J: Could you tell us about these findings?

OO: For one, the Eastern Question was first and foremost an Ottoman question. It left in Istanbul a deep-seated ontological insecurity. The Ottoman imperial elites had to secure the territorial integrity and independence of their empire from the European Great Powers. But they had to do this with the support of the very same Powers. For example, in 1801, they could drive the invading French armies out of Egypt with the support of the British. Sultan Selim III was reluctant to allow the British land in Egypt. But he had no choice. And then, after the war, the British did not comply with the treaty agreement and continued to keep its army in Egypt. The sultan then had to resort to the support of the French to make the British evacuate Alexandria in 1803. Ever since the late eighteenth century, this lingering Ottoman insecurity prompted what we might call a syndrome, which in fact far precedes the so-called “Sèvres syndrome” of Turkey. The book also demonstrates how the Ottomans decided not to be part of the new Vienna system in the 1810s, how their position reversed a decade later, and how in relation to this they adopted the idea of “civilization.”

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

OO: In my earlier work, I wrote about the history of liberalism and liberty in the Middle East and the Caucasus. My focus was mainly on the formation of ideas, how liberty was conceived by local Muslim intellectuals, through which books, inspirers, and schools of thought. I worked on this at a time when Turkey was arguably in a liberalizing momentum in the mid-2000s. That was another time, before the authoritarian turn took place there. My interest in the history of security is connected to this because I consider security to be one of main factors that upset the liberalization processes in Turkey more often than not. It was not only the actual threats, wars, and aggressions posed by the Powers, but also the manipulation of these threats, people’s fears, and the self-interested use of security as a means to political ends of diverse local actors that have tended to result in the curtailment of liberties and authoritarian regimes in the wider Middle East.

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

OO: Anyone interested in why the wider Middle East and North Africa suffer from civil wars, authoritarian regimes, violence, and political and economic instabilities today, and the role the so-called Western powers played in it. I believe there are three main take aways from the book.

First, since Edward Said’s major intervention, the Orientalist way of reading of the Middle East has been wonderfully unraveled by the post-Orientalist or revisionist literature. But I believe it is time to go beyond this too because the literature has tended to attribute too much agency to Western powers and sometimes too little to that of the locals for the interlinked set of problems the region confronts today. I believe a post-revisionist literature that documents through an intelligible language the enormous degree of complexity the historical actors, both local and foreign, confronted is needed to explain the dynamics of the entangled history of the Middle East and the wider world. Dangerous Gifts is an attempt to do this.

Second, the book argues that the local Levantine actors, both imperial and peripheral, were the prime movers of nineteenth-century violence, civil wars, and sometimes even foreign interventions in the Middle East. It disagrees with the widely accepted argument that the so-called culture of sectarian violence unfolded in Lebanon after the Gulhane Edict of 1839 and the European intervention 1840, and points to local agency tracing its origins of the 1800s. But this is not to whitewash the role of Western interventions.

Third, in each episode the book looks into, the intervening European powers made the situation on the ground worse, by attempting to transform extremely complex realities which they could hardly understand. What is worse is that they went to such lengths to draw the maps of the post-Ottoman lands in the early twentieth century, disregarding local expectations, and in doing that, they usually turned to the guidance of a troubled past, especially the period between 1798 and 1864.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

OO: I am about the finalize a new monograph on the invention of the Eastern Question in the 1810s, which is when the term came into existence. I am also co-convenor of the Lausanne Project, which takes its name from the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that arguably ended the Eastern Question. My colleague Jonathan Conlin and I will publish a co-edited volume with Gingko in 2023 for the centenary of the treaty. We also have other programs such exhibitions on Lausanne, and a website, which is a forum for informed discussion on the relations of the Middle East and the world in the early twentieth century as well as their legacy. Finally, we are preparing a graphic novel that tells the story of two heroes of the Near Eastern shadow-puppet theatre, Karagöz and Hacivat. The two run away from their puppeteer and go to Lausanne in November 1922 to try to change the course of history there. The novel tells how they manage to liberate themselves in a fun and historically informative manner.


Excerpt from the book (from the “Epilogue,” pp. 363-365)

The early history of Great Power interventions in the Levant provides us with important lessons. To borrow from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), these lessons constitute ‘the classical set of examples for the interpretation of our entire culture and its development. [They are] the means for understanding ourselves, a means for regulating our age—and thereby a means for overcoming it.’ Taking into account the temporal and sectoral continuum that historical actors saw in the affairs of the Levant in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enables us to discern and apprehend that the degree of complexity of regional affairs at the time was even greater than has been previously recognized. This complexity repeatedly left the historical actors uncertain as to how to act, react, secure their interests, and ward off perceived threats.

We must recall the British consul Colonel Rose’s bemusement in 1844, and his questions as to when the moral obligations that induced the Great Powers to interfere in the governance of another state began and ended; whether the Great Powers could creditably further interfere if the locals, albeit only some of them, were opposed to their political schemes; and whether it was fitting that the Powers should be occupied in endeavouring to conciliate the jarring interests and the animosities of locals in a foreign country. These questions constitute the core of the discussions over foreign interventions today that tend to overlook ‘what imperialism has done and what orientalism continues to do’.

The experience amassed in the period between the late eighteenth century and the early 1860s served as a model or inspiration for generations. For example, as early as 1866–9, when another Great Power intervention took place in Ottoman Crete, the ‘Lebanese solution’, as a contemporary put it, was implemented and a consociational administrative system inspired by the Règlement organique of Lebanon was introduced in Crete with the mediation of the Powers.

In the early twentieth century, the 1860 intervention was considered a potential prototype when, in 1912–14, the five Great Powers intervened again in the Armenian–Kurdish civil war in eastern Anatolia. But the February 1914 settlement was never set in motion, as the First World War broke out. The following year, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished as Ottoman authorities ‘dared to annihilate the existence of [the] entire [Armenian] nation’ of the empire, to cite the Ottoman minister of finance, Mehmed Cavid Bey, British diplomats explicitly turned to the 1860 model, and discussed a plan to stop the ‘Armenian massacres’ in the same fashion as the intervention in Syria, i.e. by persuading the Ottoman authorities to end the massacres. But they quickly withdrew the idea of ‘taking inspiration from 1860’ from the agenda, and decided to ‘provide the parallel to that by defeating the Turks, not by writing to them’.

Historical actors repeatedly turned to early instances of foreign interventions to make sense of and grapple with the bewildering realities of the Levant. Yet, despite their insufficient grasp of these realities, limiting the Eastern Question to a strategic dilemma and ignoring the intricacies of local politics ‘as questions of detail’ to be addressed eventually, they foolhardily carried on staging interventions that went to such lengths as carving out new, inorganic mandates or (semi-)independent states out of the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s.

As the Eastern Question was arguably terminated with the fall of Osman’s dynasty after the Lausanne Conference in 1922–3, what we may term as its successor in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Middle Eastern Question, has likewise proved to be a very long list of much more fragmented yet still interconnected issues and questions, cutting across time and sectors: demographic engineering, population exchanges, insecurity in the mandate states, violent independence struggles and their brutal suppression, oil (and other energy) competition, the Arab–Israeli controversy, sectarianism, (militarist) authoritarianism, etc. A new superpower rivalry during the Cold War in the global north provoked new interventions, further political instability and violence, and further quests for power and influence among the global powers like the United States, Russia, and (to a lesser extent) the European Union and China, as well as among the historically, strategically, economically, and/or religiously motivated aspirant regional powers such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

The actors on the stage have changed and increased in number since the nineteenth century. Empires have collapsed. Time and space have been compressed to an unprecedented degree thanks to technological advances. But, with its institutionalized hierarchies and repertoires of power that have persisted through the changing pecking order of international security institutions, cross-border interventions (now usually through remote warfare, with missiles and drones), proxy wars, the manipulation of civil wars, (neo-)liberal advances, and an international law with neo-imperialist and unequal undertones, the pattern has remained. In this specific sense, we today share with actors of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a common, counterproductive culture of security. We are their contemporaries.

Available on Open Access here.