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Response to Review of Ottoman refugees, 1878-1939: migration in a post-imperial world

By the looks of it, Dr. White has developed a profound interest in what he calls a refugee story. Indeed, half of this eight-page trashing of my recent book is reserved entirely to what could be construed as a framework to his forthcoming work. While I certainly look forward to any and all such contributions to the study of ‘the refugee’, I am disappointed that Dr. White did not recognize that my book was actually not aiming to offer one of its own. In fact, a closer reading of each chapter will illuminate a point I stress over and over: that my aim with this book was to warn against such a study. In this regard, Dr. White can at best complain that the book’s title is not entirely representative of the objectives of the book; indeed, I concede that the title may be misleading. While the editors insisted on Ottoman Refugees, rather than what I originally envisioned being ‘itinerate Ottomans’, the book still offers scholars interested in the Ottoman Empire and its multitude of migration stories a rationale for writing on the variety of experiences in ways that avoid generalization. For all intents and purposes, Ottoman Refugees is actually a series of preliminary explorations of themes and related questions that may contribute to future research that would (and should) NOT resort to identifying refugees as objects of analysis. In other words, the book suggests transition and mobility, and their consequences on human beings I term as itinerate Ottomans can only be explored if we abandon the lens of the refugee, so to speak, not, as Dr. White was hoping, consolidating a narrative about impossibly diverse experiences scattered across spaces and contexts immune from codification.

The disparate peoples one finds living in flux as the Ottoman, British, Russian, Habsburg empires transform and then apparently collapse in their different ways over decades need differentiation. The experiences of those otherwise categorized as refugees can hardly be ever fully captured as they are at once distinct (as momentary refugees/displaced peoples) and, more crucially, often fleeting. The five chapters I wrote each offered ways in which scholars, students, and even policy makers could complicate the story of mobile Ottomans at times of transition, disruption and chaos in order to potentially offer questions or possibilities of reflection that could thus undermine the narrative uniformity one often finds in studies on ‘refugees’ to date. I was hoping to suggest, therefore, that the very impossibility of setting these dispersed peoples (in the book I explore their contributions to Southeast Asian, Eastern African, Southern Arabian, Balkan, and North/South American modern history) into any one category could remind the historian that these itinerate Ottomans ultimately contributed to the processes of Ottoman disaggregation and the subsequent post-Ottoman state/community building normally reserved to ‘modernity,’ or ‘the West,’ (a point made in pages 10–11, 40–2, and especially 153–4).

Considering what I believe are my clearly laid out agendas (which three anonymous readers and another book reviewer, Robert Zens for Choice, both understood and applauded my efforts in exploring), for Dr. White to complain that I have failed to tell an accurate or comprehensible refugee story, or that I have reduced everything to finance capital as the historical force par excellence, misrepresents what I wrote and misses the point entirely. My methodological concerns with reifying ‘the refugee’ as a permanently marginalized, subordinate ‘victim’ of history, far from being elusive, pervade the repeated explanation of my agenda, which is highlighted in each chapter on numerous occasions in various ways. Of course I do reflect on the ways in which the Ottoman state adjusted to the influx of uprooted subjects found behind recently shifted boundaries, especially in chapters two and three. But to treat the experiences of these peoples and the ways in which the state adapts to contingencies created during and after (as much as prior to) the ‘resettlement’ of peoples identified by the Muhacir Komisyonu as the story completely misses the point. In sum, my Ottoman Refugees is in fact NOT attempting to confine the trajectories of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of very different peoples experiencing and informing the events from the mid-19th century to the beginning of the Second World War. Rather, I am seeking to undermine the value of such scholarly efforts, ones that Dr. White seems to expect from any work referring to refugees/migrants.

Inspired, nay, enraged by the persistent labeling of those peoples uprooted and dispersed throughout the Middle East today by war or socio-economic transformations, I refuse to reduce their deep, complex and multivariate experiences to any one set of bureaucratic or analytical categories (for example, muhacir or göçmen, within those late Ottoman/early Turkish Republican contexts Dr. White somewhat inaccurately itemizes in the first four pages of his review). As I systematically stress in four-plus chapters (the first being reserved to insist that historians must consider the role played by the ascendency of Euro-American finance capitalism in the changes in the Ottoman Empire, a theme picked up by most historians of the period NOT studying the Middle East, but still neglected by Ottomanists in particular), the peoples afflicted by so many contradictory and changing forces cannot be reduced to any one term. Therefore, rather than reducing those millions of people forced to move (and resettle, be it temporarily or permanently), I offer this reflection of how scholars may wish to avoid otherwise rigid normative stories of the late Ottoman Empire and its peoples by considering five different possible contributions uprooted peoples make to history. NOWHERE do I surrender to a narrative that, as Dr. White implies, centres all causality on bankers. That would contradict my underlying point about ‘decentering’ the ‘West’ by way of various Ottoman-based actors (and by implication, those in East and Central Africa, in Southeast Asia, and in the Americas in chapters four and five) engaged with an assortment of international and indigenous actors well beyond the Mediterranean world.

After reading Dr. White’s comments/attacks, it is not entirely clear how he missed this agenda. Below, if the reader indulges me, I will address some of these critiques instead of retelling in greater detail my arguments, which have been drawn from years of research in a wide range of archives and libraries across the world. After Dr. White’s summary of the refugee-as-topic-of-research evoking terms and scholarship addressed in my book (see especially chapter two), he iterates what I see as two critical concerns. The first is his odd insistence that my references to Euro-American hegemony-as-project via finance capitalism are unsubstantiated. Unfortunately for Dr. White, most historians with a broader training have long acknowledged the historic shift toward the Atlantic world occurred largely due to finance capitalism. The debate is in how we nuance these observations, from Tilly, Mignolo, Wallerstein and Hobsbawm, to Negri and Cooper, rather than if this is in fact under debate. For Dr. White to claim that I do not substantiate this association with the ascendency of finance capital and the new kinds of troubles confronting the Ottoman Empire and their different elite constituencies, he out of necessity must ignore the detailed summary of my claims throughout chapters one, three, four and five.

It is Dr. White’s second, larger assertion, that I do not substantiate any of my ‘attacks’ on my colleagues that seems almost desperate. Casting stones at others while presumably living within my transparent (and fragile) glass walls would likely warrant complaints. To address this charge, aware it has been made in the past, I spent considerable effort highlighting the valuable contributions of colleagues writing in a large range of very different sub-disciplines/areas rather than underscoring the negative. Again, from the Americas to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea worlds, rarely paired with the late Ottoman Empire, my range of focus is broad and I have sought the aid of those writing elsewhere to make the point that ‘migratory’ experiences are more than the generic analytical terms scholars and/or journalists use to reference them.

Along with the many other processes I highlight to help make the claim that all such ‘refugee’ stories are incomprehensible if treated as normative, I use this wide range, and, if I may say so, unique conjoining of scholarship to remind colleagues of the dynamic conditions under which temporary migration events are experienced. I purposefully resisted naming directly those works I found especially problematic and reductive (although I could not resist highlighting the Turkish-language literature as being the most reductive, see notes nine and 32 of my intro) in order to applaud the work that was methodologically innovative and helpful. I made most of these nuanced observations of the literature, unfortunately, by way of endnotes.

In this regard, I agree with Dr. White that endnotes (over a thousand of them, which I use as I substantiate claims/observations) make it difficult for the reader. Ideally, I could have made these references with footnotes, at least saving the reader from constantly moving back and forth between sections of the book. After all, as Dr. White notes himself, there are 100s of references to both the secondary literature (which includes a thorough survey of the available material on how Euro-American finance capital transformed the Ottoman Empire politically as its largest players targeted the once rich empire; Dr. White needed to only consult the first 89 notes in chapter one) and primary sources. While I concede consulting my references is a particularly annoying process when hundreds of citations are involved, nevertheless, Dr. White can appreciate that no matter how tedious (and thorough, I would claim) my constant referencing to others’ works or archives may be, it is his responsibility as a reviewer to actually read through them if he is to cast stones at my purportedly fragile/vulnerable glass palace.

Dr. White’s counter to what I am asserting is a necessary expansion of our inquiry beyond the confines of ‘Ottoman or Middle Eastern’ studies is neither unique nor original. At the height of his denunciation, Dr. White asserts I have adopted ‘racist’ simplifications of a ‘pre-Western’ past in which peoples of the Ottoman Empire lived in harmony, empty of all the violence that certainly has befallen the Eastern Mediterranean world (and much of the so-called Third World) since the 19th century. His recycling of the accusation that a false nostalgia reifies an idealized past requires proof, I am afraid. Nowhere do I see Dr. White accurately highlighting such a reductive claim. He does throw out at the reader individual words or partial quotes he picks out of the larger text (distorting the larger context of my argument as a result) to suggest I am actually a simplistic thinker that is incapable of differentiating between ideology and a structured argument. But I insist that my book does nothing to suggest the communities in the first half of the nineteenth century were either isolated from the rest of the world or apolitical. One only needs to read closely to note that I am offering readers cases in which Ottoman subjects are directly engaged in the process of communal disintegration/transformation. What I insist is that these exchanges must be read NOT as a natural result of ‘different’ people living in close proximity, but that they are in part due to the new kinds of opportunities presented by the ascendency of certain forms of finance capitalism, largely coming from private banks based in Europe, and the various state responses to the influx of ‘refugees’ as well as the opportunities available to those having to host them. Again, this should not come to any surprise for historians of Africa, Southeast Asia or the Americas, all literature I integrate into my arguments. My point is for scholars studying the Ottoman Empire to better familiarize themselves with these other interpretations of transformation in the world since the late 18th century, in order to not fixate on the empire and its peoples as being destined to a ‘fate’ of refugee status.

I make the point frequently: local relations are constantly influenced by the world around them. The arrival of private finance capitalist ambitions, among other ideological currents, are in fact geographically centered in the now ascendant Atlantic world. I do rephrase the ‘Atlantic’ world as being more specifically Euro-American because of the concentration of financial power in this rather narrowly defined geographic/cultural/political arena. If this is still an alien notion to Dr. White, consulting the work of Richard White, Michael Tomz, or the forthcoming book by Jay Sexton maybe helpful. Of course, Christopher Clay, Sevket Pamuk, and recently Murat Birdal have all offered useful insights into sovereign debt politics in the Ottoman case, all amply referenced throughout my book, that reinforce the observation that financial warfare is an element of the late Ottoman political economy that can no longer be ignored by scholars interested in themes related to migration, etc. How I return the focus to the indigenous actors, who are all specifically referred to as the agents of these complex histories of migration, as opposed to assuming ‘Europe’ is the engine of change, is by way of the ethnic entrepreneur. This phrase I borrow from ethnographic studies (referenced in pages 5, 7, 35, 48, 52, 56–79) in itself requires that we concede a local agent adopts disruptive attitudes towards neighbors and thus wreak havoc on societies in ways that many a scholar working in World, Africa, South Asian and Latin American history would find conventional wisdom. Again, the ‘rise’ of ‘Western’ capital in the terms used by Marx onwards surely is not an entirely alien concept to Dr. White. If, however, he insists I need to substantiate that such a concept corresponds with the ascendency of the ‘Atlantic’ or ‘Euro-Atlantic world’, then I must direct him to the references I make to the secondary literature, or indeed, to consult consult a modern world history textbook most likely used to teach introductory classes at his university.

As for it being ‘racist’ to assert that a different set of criteria in the 19th century onward shaped the relationships between peoples of different faiths, races (for many an entirely modern and ‘invented’ category) and sexual orientations, here again, I am assuming the jury has already passed judgment that something qualitatively different emerges in respect to inter-human relations after the corresponding rise of European-based capital. One need only consult any of the scholarship on the many (exploitative) labor regimes that emerge with the ascendency of European finance capital to find support for my approach. That I comment extensively on alternative ways of reading the use of coolie/prison labour as new forms of ‘unfree’ labour, eagerly harnessed by investors in the tropics and increasingly in the territories Ottomans (former Ottomans) inhabit, cannot be dismissed as unsubstantiated ‘racist’ nostalgia. There are plenty of references in my notes to the scholarship which suggests I am not alone in this conclusion. The point I was making was that my colleagues interested in the Ottoman Empire/Middle East need to think in the terms adopted in other scholarly disciplines/traditions in order to avoid reifying the refugee-as-passive victim of history and, despite what Dr. White claims, I mobilize dozens of examples of exemplary scholarship from other traditions to substantiate my point.

My book, to repeat, does not ‘cover’ a refugee story, but suggests to readers ways in which they can more productively study events that otherwise end up being reduced to a refugee experience. This book’s agenda was not to tell comprehensive stories that lead to a conclusive claim about refugees, but to reflect on how events not normally read through the filters I present as alternatives to simple ‘refugee’ stories create a more complicated story of how the itinerate Ottoman actor interacts with the larger world. In other words, scholars should appreciate how dynamic and important the arrival of large numbers of itinerate Ottomans/soon-to-be-integrated/soon-to-be-expelled peoples was/could be. The nuance may not have been entirely evident for the casual reader who skims over the detailed endnotes.

These peoples did not function as ‘refugees’ (considering the limited sense of agency the term implies today) but as active constituencies that often resort to practices that ultimately transformed the societies around them. The reasoning behind undermining the utility of much of our vocabulary by way of the (I know, annoying) ‘scare quotes’ is very much linked to this larger point. The perspective I want future researchers to take is not one in which the itinerate Ottoman is somehow victim to fate alone. Instead, the uprooted and constantly readjusting peoples should be read as constantly engaged in processes that are diverse and take multiple trajectories for those directly or indirectly involved. Indeed, as hinted in the book, one could take very different perspectives of these crucial points of exchange (often temporarily producing ‘refugees’) that, when considered from the standpoint of uprooted peoples (or the administrations evolving to engage them), completely undermine the prevailing historical narrative of, say, the Serbian state after independence in 1878 from the Ottomans; the reasons for social unrest in neighboring Kosova during the same period (covered in chapters two, three and four); or what levels of complicity Ottoman migrants (once refugees, often becoming colonialists for Euro-American investors) have in the transformation of Ottoman/post-Ottoman governing institutions and practices. This then addresses how and why I use the time-frame of 1878–1939, but why I resist compiling a narrative about these disparate experiences in order to write a ‘history’ of some thing or some groups which never fall into a neat structure from which historians can draw to tell an intelligible ‘history’ of their experiences of the transition into the post-imperial world.