London, Bloomsbury Academic , 2013, ISBN: 9781472515360; 240pp.; Price: £58.50
University of Glasgow
Date accessed: 28 November, 2023
The last century and a half of Ottoman history was marked by forced displacement into the empire on a huge scale. Between the Russian conquest of the Crimea in 1783 and the second Balkan war in 1913, five to seven million Muslims entered the Ottoman domains. Some were already subjects of the Sultan, leaving – or expelled from – areas that had broken away from the empire under Christian rule. Others were fleeing the consolidation of Russian rule in the Crimea and the Caucasus. This mass migration is a historical phenomenon of the first importance, and not just for the empire itself and its successor states.
Managing the flow of migrants became one of the chief tasks of the imperial state after about 1850, for practical reasons as well as ideological ones: assisting refugees buttressed the state’s faltering claim to offer protection to Muslims. The ‘migrants commission’ (in modern Turkish, Muhacirin Komisyonu) was set up in 1860, in the midst of a refugee crisis that followed Russia’s official adoption of a policy of forcible expulsion of Crimean Tatars. It developed into one of the key bureaucratic agencies of the modernizing Ottoman state, arranging long-distance resettlement and channelling aid to refugees in the form of land grants, agricultural subsidies (in kind – seeds and tools – more often than in cash), and tax exemptions. Later it developed a more sinister role. Assisting refugees allowed the empire to expand its tax base by advancing the agricultural frontier, especially in the Arab provinces, where the refugees also provided security against nomadic incursions: they were disproportionately recruited into the state’s coercive forces.
The influx also affected Ottoman politics, partly because it altered Ottoman demographics. The proportion of Christians in the empire declined sharply with the establishment of each breakaway state in the Balkans; the proportion of Muslims in the remainder increased with the arrival of refugees. This made the Muslim element within the population overwhelmingly preponderant for the first time, leading the state to stress its Islamic identity in new ways – for example, by asserting the Ottoman sultan’s religious authority as ‘caliph’. It did so to offset the danger of nationalisms emerging in its very diverse Muslim populations as they had done among its Christians, but also to win the loyalty of refugees, the larger part of whom had not been Ottoman subjects before their immigration. Refugees had an even keener sense than most Ottoman Muslims of the empire’s position as the last independent Muslim power, and had bitter experience of the fate of Muslims in breakaway Christian nation-states or expanding Christian empires. They would, correspondingly, be disproportionately represented among the ideologues of Ottoman self-strengthening (and later among the leading proponents of Turkish nationalism). Of course, the increasingly Islamic tenor of Ottoman ‘imperial nationalism’ only sharpened the unease of its remaining Christian populations. And where refugees who had been expelled by Christian powers went, tensions with local Christians rose.
It is hardly possible, then, to understand late Ottoman (and modern Turkish) history without taking account of the impact of mass immigration of Crimean, Balkan, and Caucasian Muslims. But the effects of this population displacement were not only felt within the shrinking borders of the empire. The process of ethnic homogenization of nation-states in post-dynastic Europe, which culminated in the extermination of Jews under Nazi occupation and the expulsion of ethnic Germans in 1945–9, was already well under way by 1914: the expulsion of Muslims, often from states whose Jews and/or Germans would later be eliminated (Greece, for example, or Romania) was an earlier stage. This is one of many reasons why these forced migrations of Muslims deserve close attention not just as an issue in regional history, but as an issue in global history.
They were also a key part of the Ottoman-Russian imperial contestation whose vastly destructive culmination was the First World War in the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia: in these regions, August 1914 does not represent the sudden rupture or explosion that was experienced in Western Europe, where a general war had been avoided since 1815. There are many reasons for seeing the displacements generated by this longer-term contest not as the outcome of state-building and nationalism but rather as one of their main causes (a point well made by Peter Gatrell and others for the Russian empire and its western borderlands), setting the terms for 20th-century history. These displacements, forced and voluntary, also continued long after the end of the Ottoman empire: examples include the departure of perhaps 50,000 Romanian Muslims for Turkey in the 1930s, the deportation of Tatars from the Crimea by Stalin, and the expulsion of Bulgarian Muslims in the dying days of the Cold War. Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimea stoked well-justified fears among Tatars still living there today.
Within the field of refugee history, the late Ottoman state’s responses to mass refugee crises prefigure many aspects of the management of the ‘refugee problem’ after the First World War, by nation-states, colonial empires, and international organizations. Agricultural resettlement of refugees; offering a haven to refugees as a core part of a state’s ‘mission’; taking advantage of refugees’ vulnerability to make them a privileged object of state-building, whether through soft power (as a channel for state-led economic development) or hard (by incorporating them into the coercive forces): many such responses to the late Ottoman refugee crises would be seen again and again across Europe and the rest of the world after 1914. The vast numbers of people involved certainly belie the widely-held notion that the European population displacements during and after the First World War were unprecedented in scale.
Conceptually, the late Ottoman population displacements destabilize the distinction between migrant and refugee. From at least the 1870s, we can clearly see at work the two-way relationship between state-formation and population displacement that would characterize the refugee crises generated by the First World War. But not all of these migrants were forced from their homes amid massacre and expropriation. Some of those affected chose to migrate – under whatever degree of duress – in order to live under a Muslim state authority, a phenomenon witnessed elsewhere in the 19th century as Muslims came under the power of Christian empires (in Algeria, for example). This form of religiously-sanctioned migration – hijra in Arabic, turkicised to hicret – has a much longer history in Islam, and the title of the Ottoman state agency charged with assisting those concerned reflects this: it was the Migrants Commission, not the Refugees (mülteciler) Commission, though even unforced migrants often travelled in difficult and dangerous conditions. In dealing with the incomers, the empire drew on its long experience of managing long-range migration, nomadism and displacement, beautifully studied by Reşat Kasaba in his A Moveable Empire.(1) Seen from this angle, the late Ottoman migrations make for a profoundly important case study, which offers rich possibilities for conceptualizing the history of migration without eurocentrism (or America-centrism, a specific problem in migration studies) and without taking the nation-state as part of the landscape – as transnational histories of migration implicitly do.
But there is still a great deal that we do not know about these migrations. To my (imperfect) knowledge there is, for instance, little existing literature on their environmental history, though the role of Circassian migrants in transforming the agricultural frontier in the Arab provinces is only one case suggesting such an approach might be productive. Nor do I know of any work in gender history, though population displacements and responses to them are almost always highly gendered. Even social history approaches are in their infancy. And if some of the broad outlines of their political history can be drawn, locally specific histories are rare, at least in English. Such histories might also illuminate the great cultural diversity of the Muslim migrants, and account for the place among them of many Catholics and Jews, who often were no more welcome than Muslims in new Orthodox Christian nation-states.
There are many reasons for the comparative neglect of this subject, even in the recent blossoming of historical works on refugees, population displacements, and statelessness. One is simply that historians in Anglophone countries, and much of Western Europe, are not aware of it: they lack the knowledge of the regions concerned and the languages required to study them. That excuse only goes so far, however: there is also a lack of interest, or a willingness to identify Muslims as perpetrators of violence while ignoring them as its victims, which has its roots in this same 19th-century history of displacement and Christian Europeans’ profound approval of it. That history is hardly valorized in the nation-states that succeeded the Ottoman Empire, meanwhile. Those that ejected Muslims were keen to pretend that they had never been there. The Turkish Republic, which ended up as the home to a large proportion of the migrants and their descendants, is indisputably the creation of a largely refugee ‘haven nationalism’, but it has tried to submerge the multi-ethnic origins of the populations that formed it, refugee and local, within a Turkish national identity.
Another reason for an unwillingness to study these migrations in depth is sheer discomfort. I referred earlier to the dark side of the Muhacirin Komisyonu’s history: this lay in its involvement in organizing the expropriation of land from Ottoman Christians deported and in many cases murdered during the First World War. Responding to the influx of muhacirin led the Ottoman state to develop policies, and indeed to create state agencies, that contributed directly and indirectly to the genocidal violence in eastern Anatolia during the First World War. Among the perpetrators of that violence were many former (and recent) refugees. This adds a dimension of moral complexity to the story which is hard to reconcile with a desire to maintain ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ as separate categories. The best general survey of population displacements in the region, Dawn Chatty’s Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (2), is almost tangibly uneasy with this, and it doesn’t help that the main body of historiographical literature on the subject that does exist, in Turkish, actively contributes to genocide denial. But the late Ottoman refugee crises were certainly part of what made eastern Anatolia a ‘zone of genocide’ (in Mark Levene’s term), and the fear that contextualizing genocide is tantamount to justifying it is misplaced.
All of this is to say that there is a great need for a general overview of this sprawling subject that might not only promote the further specialized studies it requires, but also make it accessible to scholars in the many fields that would benefit from recognizing its importance. Isa Blumi’s book, sadly, does not provide it.
The book covers the period when the Ottoman refugee crises reached their peak, between the Russo-Ottoman war of 1878 and the First World War, and their afterlives through the 1920s and 1930s – or at least, so the title implies: in fact, the periodization is much fuzzier, covering plenty of things that happened before 1878 (and not many after 1923) without a very clear sense of what, if anything, differentiated one period from another.
Equally and unacceptably vague is the definition of the book’s central subject: ‘refugee’. Blumi uses the term indiscriminately, to describe forced migrants across state boundaries, rural labourers driven off the land by changing property regimes, economic migrants (many of whom actually later returned home), political exiles, Sufi merchant-missionaries, and ultimately, with the disappearance of the Ottoman empire, everyone who had once lived in it.(3) With a startling lack of analytical clarity, the diverse and particular histories of these very different groups are lumped together without clear explanation or justification. At times Blumi expresses an aspiration to problematize existing analytical categories such as ‘migrant’, ‘diaspora’, and ‘refugee’, but he offers no coherent conceptualization of his own catch-all use of the term. Instead, all that unites these people is his assertion that they were victims of an aggression perpetrated by ‘Euro-American finance capitalism’. This is the sole agent in Blumi’s account, not just of Ottoman ‘refugees’ but of modern world history; it is the subject of chapter one and mentioned again repeatedly in every chapter that follows.(4) Everyone is its victim, including European subalterns: ‘for crown and country the landless Welsh and Scottish troops purportedly screamed’ when dispatched on imperial missions. (No reference to explain who ‘purports’ this, nor recognition that subalterns can be fully committed to the ideologies used to exploit them, as one or two Marxist scholars have observed.) All European empires from the Spanish to the Russian, and to the neo-Europes of the Americas, are presented as its undifferentiated manifestations; all European merchants or officials are presented as its ‘operatives’, and many Ottoman emigrants to other areas as its hapless tools.(5) But despite the centrality of ‘Euro-American finance capitalism’ to Blumi’s analysis, the book contains almost no specific information about its actual actors or functioning: for example, the means – or individuals – by which governments were turned into tools serving the desires of ‘finance capital’. Nor is there a single primary or secondary reference to support any of his assertions about it. So the rage is undirected, and the book offers no insights into what it most fulsomely deplores.
It is ironic that a book which repeatedly proclaims its hostility to Eurocentric histories presents an historical narrative in which all causality is attributed to ‘Euro-American finance capital’. This irony also touches the occasional references to the world before it was ruined by ‘Euro-America’ (the early modern Ottoman empire, and various Indian Ocean or pre-colonial American societies), depicted in racist kum-ba-ya stereotype as ‘heterogeneous societies that thrived for centuries’ (p. 39), rather like the Aztecs in Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer – ‘his people gathered round him like the leaves around a tree’. But it is profoundly Eurocentric to reduce the actual complex histories of past societies to a cheerful caricature to serve the rhetorical ends of a post-industrial Euro-American academic. Finally, there is another irony in telling other people not to consider ‘Islam’ as a historical actor or a monolith, while basing one’s whole account of modern history around a ‘Euro-America’ that is treated as a single undifferentiated historical actor, and further reduced to ‘finance capital’, throughout.(6)
Some of the above comments might imply that the book lacks a scholarly apparatus. Quite the opposite: the text runs to barely 150 pages but the endnotes run to 80, more than half the length of the main text. They display phenomenally wide reading, in many languages, many archives, and many countries. But they display an equally phenomenal disregard for communicating any of that wealth of material to the reader. There is, so far as I can tell, not one quotation from a primary or secondary source in the main text of the book: no risk of letting refugees, let alone anyone else, speak for themselves. (It’s hard to be sure, though, because the text is disfigured by the most virulent outbreak of ‘scare quotes’ I’ve ever witnessed, so any actual quotes are well camouflaged.(7)) The main text repeatedly makes grand, generalized historical claims, some of which are even extremely pertinent, and potentially very useful in identifying future lines of inquiry. But in many instances it does so without giving any specific details of names or dates, let alone whole cases, that might help both to support those larger claims and to provide a coherent account for the reader to follow. Plenty of this material is there, buried in the notes, where many important points of argument that should have been brought into the main text are also to be found.(8) At other times, the book does suddenly start giving detailed information, from local case studies ranging from the Ottoman Balkans to East Africa, but it is often divided between main text and endnotes, and rarely contextualized in a way that would make it accessible to anyone unfamiliar with this vast range.(9)
Little effort, in other words, has been expended on shaping this prodigious reading into a historical narrative that might make sense to a reader, whether already familiar with the subject or not: for example, the very useful material on the destabilizing effect of ‘refugee constituencies’ on local politics in the Ottoman (and post-Ottoman) Balkans on pp. 49–54: exactly the sort of fine-grained, empirically-informed, comparatively-minded analysis the subject needs, but hard to take in without more context. Too often, information of this sort is relegated to the endnotes. The notes are also colonized by bijou rants, against other scholars or various historical injustices (10), while the chapter divisions are no more coherent or analytically helpful than the periodization or the division between main text and endnote.
Meanwhile, as I said, no references are provided to support the repeated assertions about ‘Euro-American finance capital’. Nor are they present – not a single one – to support the many swipes at ‘the scholarship’ in the main text, which appear several times in each chapter: a baseball-bat approach to colleagues and predecessors that goes badly wrong.(11) This is partly because, in the absence of any specific information about whose scholarship is at fault, and how, the bat swings wildly but doesn’t connect. It is partly because by adopting a sneeringly dismissive tone towards the work of other scholars in general throughout the main text (though sometimes quite generous in crediting other people’s work in the footnotes), Blumi invites a close critical scrutiny of his own work which it is far from being able to withstand. Its sloppy conceptual framework, crassly monocausal analysis, and lazily underdeveloped literary construction – not to mention the undergraduate sententiousness, careless editing, and scare quotes – add up to a glass house that is very vulnerable to an author this keen on stone-throwing.
Usually, when reviewing a book about which there is little good to be said, I quietly ask the journal editor to let me off the task. That might have been the better option here, but it seemed important to highlight this seriously understudied subject. Most frustrating is the fact that this author was better qualified than almost anyone else to write a good book about it.
- Reşat Kasaba, A Moveable Empire: Ottoman Nomads, Migrants, and Refugees (Seattle, WA, 2009).Back to (1)
- Dawn Chatty’s Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge, 2010)Back to (2)
- Here are some examples (of many) of the undifferentiated use of the term. Rural migrants: p. 56 for southern Iraq (followed, incidentally, by a reference to an endnote (n. 64) on an unrelated topic—one of several such), or p. 75 in Romania. Economic migrants to the Americas: pp. 5–6. Political exiles: pp. 67–8. Sufis: throughout pp. 118–40. Everyone: p. 146. The problem of lumping together such disparate groups is dimly recognized at times, but fudged, as in the reference on p. 95 to shared characteristics ‘such as their likely involuntary need to leave their homelands’, or p. 144, ‘these many Ottoman migrant, often refugee lives’. The words ‘likely’ and ‘often’ hardly convince.Back to (3)
- Outside chapter one, some representative examples from the introduction, chapters two to five, and the conclusion can be found on, respectively, pp. 5, 60, 87, 95–7, 121, and 147.Back to (4)
- For European states (and Europe’s American offshoots) as manifestations of ‘Euro-American finance capitalism’, see all references to western European states (including Britain, Spain, France, and Belgium), the United States, Latin American states, and Russia, regardless of period. For individual Europeans, or European enterprises, as agents or operatives of ‘Euro-American finance capitalism’, see all references to European individuals or enterprises anywhere in the world outside Western Europe, for example p. 9, p. 58, or the sinister reference on p. 140. On Ottoman ‘migrants/refugees’ as tools of empire see especially chapter 4.Back to (5)
- See pp. 115–7 for representative – and, of course, legitimate – warnings against essentializing ‘Islam’.Back to (6)
- Scare quotes appear on almost every page, to the point where it becomes impossible to tell what function they are meant to serve. On pp. 146–7 alone, for example, they are used around the terms ‘kibbutz’, ‘humane ways’, ‘outside’, ‘ethnic’, ‘sectarian’, ‘tribes’, ‘collateral’, ‘Arab’, ‘bedouin’, ‘international community’, ‘progress’, ‘interwar’, ‘population exchanges’, ‘divide and rule’, ‘nation’, ‘development’, ‘untapped’.Back to (7)
- For an example, read the last two paragraphs on p. 45 (on the Ottoman state’s response to the successive refugee influxes of 1878–1913) and the endnotes (n. 6–9), which go with them.Back to (8)
- Examples are the sections of chapter three on pp. 71–5 and 80–7.Back to (9)
- One such mini-rant against other scholars, chapter five, n. 5, suggests that ‘Perhaps Ottoman historians … can take time from their deciphering documents and read what anthropologists have been arguing about for decades now’. Against historical injustices, see for example the introduction, n. 22, which gathers together ‘America’s rape of the Philippines, the mining industry’s pillage of Southern Africa, France’s scorched policies [sic] in North Africa, Britain’s starving India into submission’ into an undifferentiated list that must have been satisfying to compile but provides no insight into any of these things. The most bijou of all is the first note to chapter four, where the epigram, Emma Lazarus’s famous lines ‘Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, has an endnote reading simply ‘… For I need them to colonize Alaska, the Philippines, Cuba, and Hawai’i’.Back to (10)
- Again, examples are all too numerous, but see for instance p. 36 for ‘sectarian or ethno-national criteria that scholars often assume existed’, p. 50 for matters that are ‘ignored’ or even ‘abused in the scholarship’, p. 138 for the way ‘much of the scholarship’ is framed, where ‘even the latest revisionist approaches … prove disappointing’ (citing an article critiquing ‘the scholarship’, but not the sinners themselves), and, in the conclusion, p. 143 on the ‘many pathologies infesting the scholarship’.Back to (11)
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.