Cosmopolitan citizenship in the Middle East

As ethnic and sectarian solidarities and conflicts sharpen in this part of the world, it may be worth reminding ourselves of another way of being - ‘new Ottoman’ cosmopolitanism, with its complex relationship to colonialism
Sami Zubaida
20 July 2010

Sectarian violence, ethnic conflict, religious politics, are all prominent features of the current situation in many Middle Eastern countries. Thriving Jewish communities came to an end in every country after the inauguration of the state of Israel and the subsequent wars. Christian communities, integral to the population and society of many countries, and prominent participants in the politics of Arab and regional nationalism, are now increasingly under pressure, and diminishing in numbers and importance in most countries, due to differential migration and fertility, and, in the case of Iraq, suffering violence and dislocation. Ethnic and sectarian solidarities and conflicts are ever sharper, and the perennial Arab-Israeli quagmire takes on increasingly an ethno-religious garb.

A common theme in public discourse, in both the region and the West, is that these patterns of conflict have deep historical roots in the ‘mosaic society’ of the region, conflicts being only suppressed by imperial impositions, whether of the Ottomans or the British, and subsequently by violent dictatorships such as that of the Ba`th regimes. When these are removed, as in the case of Iraq, then the deep-seated schisms are given a free reign and manifested in conflict and violence. The opposite reaction comes from more liberal quarters of Middle Eastern as well as some Western commentators, who point to past periods of co-existence and harmony, as well as the lowering or even the erasure of communal barriers under the impact of modernity. Many Iraqis, for instance, appear bewildered at the sharpening of Sunni-Shi`i conflict, and protest that in their days nobody knew or cared who was Sunni or Shi`i in their circles, and point to the many inter-marriages. The current conflicts, then are explained in terms of imperialist manipulation, dictatorial rule and/or recent military interventions.

Where do we stand?

The rise and fall of cosmopolitanism: a history

Let us start in late Ottoman times. The great plurality of ethnicities, religions and social castes in the Empire, co-existed for the most part harmoniously (not always), and in a hierarchy of status, but at a distance from each other and with strong communal barriers, exemplified by the so-called ‘Millet system’ of internal organisation and communal authorities. Non-Muslim religious communities were recognised as corporate units with a degree of internal autonomy, regulating personal status and ritual issues and finances according to their religious law and custom, with state support for their communal authorities, often consisting of religious dignitaries. Craft guilds, urban quarters, villages and tribal groups commonly constituted similar corporate units. These communal barriers, however, were porous in many local instances and religion was more important than ethnicity. The Tanzimat reforms of the mid-19th century, declaring, among other provisions, the equality before the law of all the subjects of the Sultan regardless of religion, led to a disturbance of the old equilibrium in different directions. This disturbance was in addition to the longer term processes of the incorporation of the various regions into a world market and the effects of capitalist intrusions, which, on balance, favoured the non-Muslims, with their greater affinity with the increasingly dominant European interests. Considerable resentment by Muslims in many parts led to conflict and violence in some instances, such as that of mid-Century Syria and Lebanon.

In the popular mind, international relations were conceived in communalist terms: European powers are Christian and in league with local Christians against Islam and Muslims. This communalist model, with umma nationalism at its core has been revived in different forms in recent religious politics. Nationalist and anti-imperialist ideology and advocacy commonly construe political and military confrontations, such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, as an attack on Muslims as such, by Christians (‘Crusaders’), Jews and Hindus. The complex geo-political issues involved are obscured or subordinated in favour of a spurious religious conception of the conflicts. President Obama’s conciliatory address to the ‘Muslim world’ seems to acquiesce in this formulation.

The project of the reform elites         

The impacts of modernity and the Ottoman reforms had a different effect with regard to metropolitan elites. The project of the reform elites, from the Young Ottomans in the 1860s to the Young Turks of the 1908 constitutional revolution, was to modernise the Empire into a quasi-nation state with common citizenship and constitutional government. Given the plurality of ethnicities, languages and religions within this realm, this is what I am calling ‘cosmopolitan citizenship’. This project was enthusiastically embraced by the growing numbers of the modern metropolitan middle class, expanding with the bureaucracies, professions, modern business, the arts and the media. Those were the inhabitants of the new public sphere and its venues of government departments, associations, schools and universities, the press, cafe society, and last but not least the new, respectable meyhanes and the symbolically important drinking culture, symbolising civilization, medeniyat. An essential part of this outlook was a great interest and thirst for modern knowledge and idea, of science, rationality and positivism, and a critical stance in relation to religion, and for many a discreet rejection.

Some modern elites of the millets, the non-Muslim groups, participated in these ideas and associations. Christian modern elites, in both Turkey and the Arab world, did not share the traditional, conservative outlook of their communal authorities and men of religion. Those latter retained a millet orientation of maintaining communal boundaries while at the same time trying to be on the right side of the authorities and obtaining privileges and concessions. Some Christian intellectuals converted from Catholic and Orthodox churches to Protestantism, and American missionaries were particularly effective in the Lebanon, participating in the Arab cultural ‘renaissance’, including the foundation of the predecessor of the American University of Beirut.

Greeks, a vital constituent of the Ottoman mix from its foundation, were torn between different loyalties and outlooks. The traditional millet and its Ottoman anchoring were centred on the Church and Patriarchate in Istanbul, more or less faithful to its Ottoman affiliations. These were challenged by the more recent Greek nationalism and the Athens state, with an ideology of Hellenism and nationality, even with its own national, Athens, Church. Yet others participated in the new Ottomanism and the idea of common citizenship. At the level of the provincial communities, many of the Pontic Greeks of the Black Sea region spoke Turkish, and wrote it in Greek script. They were surprised to be told, by teachers and missionaries from Greece, that they were part of a Hellenic nation with Athens as its capital.


The height of consciousness of this Ottomanist citizenship came with the Young Turks revolution of 1908. The revolution was against the religious authoritarianism of Sultan Abdul-Hamid II (r. 1876-1909), which censored and suppressed reformist political ideas and associations, as well as secularist and positivist thought. The modern intelligentsia, in their still flourishing print culture and clubs re-oriented their themes to science, literature and news, which escaped the censorship. Hamidian religious revival, while not reversing reformist measures of equality in the Capital, led to many incidents of violence against Christians in the provinces, notably against Armenians in Anatolia, partly perpetrated by the Hamidiya brigades of Kurdish irregulars, preceding the greater massacres that were to follow in World War I. The 1908 Revolution, then, was seen as an end to these tyrannies and a renewal of common Ottoman brotherhood among the different communities. Demonstrations of Muslim-Christian friendship were held in many Ottoman cities, including Istanbul and Beirut. In Istanbul Muslim religious personalities proceeded to Armenian cemeteries to lay flowers on the graves of victims of earlier violence.

Masonic lodges    

An important venue for this Ottoman cosmopolitanism were the Masonic lodges. Ottoman Muslims were admitted into these lodges in the 1860s and many intellectuals and public figures embraced Masonry with enthusiasm. The lodges they favoured followed the French Grand Orient, which, unlike its British counterparts, jettisoned the references to a Supreme Being, and the Immortality of the Soul, the deistic principle of earlier Masonry. It also embraced the slogan of the French Revolution of Equality, Liberty and Fraternity (to which the later Young Turks added Justice). In effect, those lodges favoured secular positivism and rationality, which was part of its attraction to Ottoman liberals. Membership included Greeks, Armenians and Jews, as well as European residents. Turkish was introduced as one of the languages of proceeding in some lodges. Many Ottoman intellectuals combined Masonry and positivism with heterodox Muslim mysticism, notably Bektashism, a historic Turkish Sufi order, outlawed in the 1820s and organised in secret societies. Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), the main reference of Muslim mysticism, was embraced alongside Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte. What the two strands had in common was the rejection of religious authority and institutions. Masonry was equally prevalent in Egypt, where the Muslim reformer Jamal-ad-Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897) was the master of a lodge, which also embraced some of his followers, including Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905). It played an important part in the politics of the elites. The Iraqi poet, Ma`ruf al-Rusafi (d.1945) was recruited into a lodge when in Istanbul, but renounced that affiliation in statements in later life as an Iraqi and Arab nationalist.

The conspiracy which culminated in the Young Turk revolution of 1908 took place within the Italian Masonic lodge in Salonica. The legal immunities of the foreigners and their homes in that city offered protection for the military conspirators from Hamidian police and spies. In 1909 there was a counter-revolution in Istanbul, in support of the Sultan and the Islamic shari`a, led by religious figures. This was put down by army contingents from Salonica, and culminated in the deposition of the Sultan. The four member delegation which went to the Palace to inform Abdul-Hamid of his deposition were all from minority communities, including the Jew Emmanuel Karasso, a prominent Mason. Of course this fed into later conspiracy theories about Masons and Jews plotting to end the last Islamic caliphate. Karasso, in fact, was an Ottomanist, and explicitly rejected Zionist claims.

The heady days of the Constitution and Ottoman renaissance soon gave way to the many problems of the Empire, of bankruptcy and military vulnerability, as well as factional struggles between different factions and personalities of the Young Turks and their opponents. The wars that followed, in Tripoli against the Italians, then the Balkan wars, and ultimately WWI, all contributed to the sharpening of nationalist, religious and ethnic conflicts, militating against the brief flourishing of the ideas of cosmopolitan citizenship. Muslim refugees from the Balkans and Caucasus (all labelled Turks by their European persecutors) poured into Turkey and fuelled communal and religious antagonism. Then the Armenian massacres in Anatolia in 1915, then the defeat in WWI, the war of national liberation and against the Greeks, then the exchange of populations with Greece. The Turkish Republic emerged, secular, but with a population consisting mainly of Sunni Muslims, largely ‘cleansed’ of the non-Muslim communities of Armenians and Greeks. The conflicts that followed were mainly against the ethnic Kurds, and to a lesser extent the ‘heretical’ Alevis.

The demise of empire

The break-up of Empire and the participation of some Arab forces, ideologically and militarily, in its demise, sharpened various forms of Arab nationalism and country nationalisms. The colonial and Mandate regimes that followed in some countries reinforced these nationalist sentiments. However, the traces of cosmopolitan or, now, pluralist citizenship, continued under new conditions, at least with some of the intellectuals and notables. Only, the pluralism was displaced from the Ottoman to the diversity of religion and ethnicity in the new countries. Those successor states were designated by territory and ethnicity, such as Iraq and Arab, with rival nationalist ideologies playing on these distinctions. Within each state territory, however, there was a multiplicity of ethnicities and religions, some of which sat uneasily with the nationalist designations. Liberal and leftist orientations adopted civic and territorial inclusive conceptions of the nation, which accommodated and welcomed the diversity, as against the exclusive ethnic and religious definitions.

Let me illustrate with the example of the two most prominent poets of Iraq in its formative years, Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936) and Ma`ruf al-Rusafi. Both these were Ottoman in their formation and early career. They spent many years in Istanbul, became enthusiastic supporters of the Committee of Union and Progress (the Young Turks) and both were elected members of the Ottoman parliament for Iraqi constituencies. Zahawi continued to support the Ottomans during WWI, wrote poems to that effect, including one eulogising Enver Pasha, the strong man of the Unionist (Young Turk) government, and alleged perpetrator of the Armenian massacres. After the War, Zahawi changed his tune: he wrote in praise of the English and their superiority over the Turks, and served on educational and media organisations of the Mandate. He even inserted poems into his collection, backdated to the War years, attacking Jamal Pasha, wartime Wali of Damascus who hanged Arab patriots. All this can be seen as straightforward political opportunism. Yet, Zahawi’s distance from religion, his commitments to social reform, science and rationality, and above all to the liberation of women, for which he was frequently attacked and, on one occasion, lost his job, continued. His support for the English can be seen as part of that commitment to the project of reform, which he first sought from the Ottoman reformers, then from the European colonial power.

Rusafi, more impulsive and bohemian in his life-style, changed to an Iraqi nationalism, opposed to the British and the Monarchy. He too continued his commitment to reform, and while protesting his faith in Islam, was hostile and contemptuous to the official ulama and what he saw as their reaction.

Both were committed to a pluralist Iraq (both were of Kurdish parentage, though not affiliation). They championed Christian and Jewish equality, and had friends and colleagues from these groups. Rusafi wrote an eloquent poem at the death of Hesqel Sasson, the Jewish minister of finance in the early government, and himself a prominent Ottoman, member of the Unionist parliament and of various official committees and delegations.

‘Republic of letters’

Christian and Jewish intellectuals participated prominently in the emerging ‘republic of letters’, alongside Muslims. Father Anastas al-Karmali, a Catholic priest and linguistic scholar, editor of the cultural periodical Lisan al-Arab, had extensive correspondence with the Salafi Sunni `alim, Mahmud Shukri al-Alusi. Anwar Sha’ul, Jewish poet and journalist, Rafa’el Butti, Christian journalist and literary critic, and many others, were prominent participants in the early Iraqi public sphere. This mixing across religious lines was not confined to the intelligentsia and the notables, but occurred in many mixed neighbourhoods and even in some rural contexts. Jewish agrarian landowners in the south fulfilled their patronage obligations to their Shi`i peasants and employees by organising and funding the mourning processions and assemblies of Muharram and `Ashura, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and the holiest occasion of the Shi`ite calendar.

Arab nationalism, however, although formally secular, slipped increasingly into sectarian stances, especially in relation to Sunni-Shi`i divisions. Sati` al-Husri, ideologue of this nationalism, in his capacity as director of education in the 1920s, was ever mistrustful of Shi`i teachers and educationists, hinting at their Iranian affiliations and lack of commitment to Arabism. He himself started as an Ottoman official and spoke Arabic with an accent, his first language being Turkish. Later in the 1930s and 40s, the increasing salience of the Palestine conflicts turned Arab nationalists against the native Jews, and facilitated their enthusiasm for Nazism. In general, the German model of ethnic/linguistic nationalism and of the emphasis on blood, soil, solidarity and leadership had great appeal to many Arab nationalists. Part of that model was the intense hostility to cosmopolitanism and plurality.

It was the political Left and its cultural components that took over the banner of pluralism and openness to the various constituents of the nation. The Iraqi Communist Party continued to embrace all sectors of Iraqi society until the later 1950s, when it was increasingly pressured into bed with nationalism. This was also the case in Egypt.

The cosmopolitan milieu, and ideas of common citizenship, continued in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century. The famous cosmopolitanism of Alexandria or Cairo may have been, in part, a form of colonial settler society under British tutelage. At the same time, however, it comprised many intellectual, artistic, media and leftist political elements which interacted with similarly inclined native Egyptian elites. Taha Hussein wrote the Future of Culture in Egypt in the 1930s, in which he controversially asserted the Mediterranean and Hellenistic identity of the country in its history and culture. Held back by the Turks, it was now free to pursue that destiny. Lutfi al-Sayid, the prominent intellectual and teacher, preached a civic nationalism, liberal and unrelated to religious affiliations, as indeed was the creed of Sa`ad Zaghloul, the father of Egyptian nationalism. The Left was cosmopolitan, with leaders like Henri Curiel, a European Jew, which some have seen as contributing to its weakness and failure.

The Muslim Brotherhood was the main rival to the liberals and the left in Egyptian politics: populist, nationalist and insular. It had roots in Egyptian society, but was only one oppositional current among many. Ethnic and religious diversity was a feature of Egyptian society, and not just at the higher levels. Greek shopkeepers, Maltese and Italian rail and dock workers co-existed with their native equivalents. Newspaper funny cartoons played on ethnic stereotypes and language jokes. The thriving and popular film industry portrayed this diversity. The film Fatma, we Marika we Rachel, was a 1940s romantic comedy, in which the hero, a Muslim rich playboy, gets engaged to Rachel, a Jewish girl, claiming to be a Jew, then to Marika, a Greek, pretending to be Greek, and then falling for Fatma, a Muslim girl, with predictably comic complications. He acquiesces, unhappily, in an arranged marriage, bride unknown, but happily revealed to be none other than the beloved Fatma.

The end of diversity

The diversity and political pluralism (however flawed) was much reduced, if not ended, with the Nasir coup, followed by the Suez crisis, then the expulsion of most foreigners and Jews. That was the real end of British colonial tutelage, and also of much pluralism and diversity, political and cultural. Nasir and Nasirism directed Egypt to the leadership of the Arab world and prominence in the emerging non-aligned block, to become the ‘Third World’, opening to the Soviet block. Ihsan Abdul-Qadous, a prominent writer and journalist at the time, wrote that he and his colleagues were surprised when Nasir told them that they were ‘Arabs’. The intelligentsia which sprang from the cosmopolitan left and Marxism were engulfed in the enthusiasm for liberationist nationalism of the Third World, backed as it was by the Soviets. They were soon to be joined if not engulfed by a new generation of a mass produced, poorly educated, state employed intelligentsia which lacked the cultural vision and breadth of their predecessors, and became the main constituency for insular nationalism, culminating in Islamism. The Cold War, the traumas of conflicts with Israel, and the more recent military adventurism of the West have all played their parts.

What happened to the cosmopolitan intellectuals?

The cultural and psychological turns of anti-colonial Third Worldism, pioneered by such cosmopolitan intellectuals as Franz Fanon, and supported by Sartre, and later Foucault, as well as a host of Western leftists, found an echo among many intellectuals in the region. Equally cosmopolitan intellectuals, such as Ali Shari`ati in Iran, developed this anti-capitalist, anti-Western search for authenticity, found in an invented liberationist Shi`ism of the martyrs. Many Arab and Turkish intellectuals developed similar trends of thought and culture. Those who followed them did not share their wider universalist visions and proceeded in more insular and fundamentalist directions. These trends combined with the regimes that gained power through a series of military coups in the second half of the twentieth century, such as those of the Iraqi and Syrian Ba`th, bringing to power regime cliques from poor rural backgrounds, who resented and subordinated the old notable elites that were part of the diverse Middle East. The totalitarian regimes and their popular constituencies sharpened religious and ethnic solidarities and tensions, contributing to the heightening of communal insularity, and, in extreme cases, such as Iraq, to ethnic cleansing.

When your Middle Eastern friends now say to you, in sadness and wonder: Where has all this sectarianism and fanaticism come from? We never knew who was Sunni or Shi`i, did not care who was Copt or Muslim! -  the chances are that they are part of the educated middle class, subordinated and impoverished by the totalitarian clan regimes and their cultural apparatus, the lucky ones migrating to the green pastures of the West, where the old Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism thrives in London and Paris.

This article is a foretaste of the chapters elaborating on the themes of ‘Cosmopolitanism’ and ‘Nationalism’ from Sami Zaubaida’s forthcoming book, Beyond Islam, published by I.B.Tauris later this year

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