Arab Jews, and complicating our binaries
Vayeshev: letting our light shine

Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Ottoman rule

Sharkey-croppedWhat sparks the writing of a book? Probably no two authors have the same answer to that question, but here's the answer I heard from Dr. Heather J. Sharkey earlier this week. Her latest book arose, she tells us, in part because she was teaching within a combined Arabic and Hebrew track. (Wow, do I wish I could have done that kind of learning as an undergrad!)

Unsurprisingly, many of her students in that dual-language track came from Jewish or Muslim backgrounds. She set out to teach a class, geared in part toward those students, on the history of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East -- which led to her latest book, which was assigned reading for my cohort of LEAP fellows.

Dr. Sharkey cited The Emergence of Modern Turkey -- Bernard Lewis, 1961 -- as one of her formative scholarly influences. She came away from her first reading of it (at nineteen) with the sense that equality between Christians, Jews, and Muslims was truly achieved in the Ottoman empire during the Tanzimat period in the 1800s. Rereading it more recently, she came to recognize that she had misread it. "He didn't say that equality happened; he said that there were proclamations of equality."

What did those proclamations of equality actually do? On what terms could and did non-Muslims actually live in an Islamic state? Her book attempts to answer those questions in a way that will work for all of her students -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Arab-Americans, etc. "We have to be able to sit in a room and disagree even when we're coming from different positions," she noted. "I didn't want anyone, reading the book, to feel an us-versus-them or to feel that insults were being hurled."

We spent some time with The Pact of Umar -- exploring what it says, exploring how it was or wasn't enacted. On the upside, the pact indicates that Christians and Jews could continue practicing their religions; on the downside, the pact stipulates restrictions of various kinds. Part of what I found interesting is that the pact is both more liberating, and more restrictive, than I expected.  (And that may be the primary takeaway from LEAP this week: everything is more complicated than binaries allow.)

It's interesting to consider the extent to which ideas emanating from the French Revolution about citizenship and egalitarianism impacted how citizens of the Ottoman Empire thought about themselves and each other. Dr. Sharkey also noted the increase of  Christian missionary work in the Ottoman Empire during that period, which caused a deterioration of Christian-Muslim relations. And she noted that rich Jews and poor Jews experienced very different things under Ottoman rule. 

To me the most interesting part of her talk was when she reprised her remarks from the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, asking, "if Balfour had not happened and Israel had not arisen, how well could Jews have expected to live in Islamic states, judging from what came before?" She made the argument that it wasn't inevitable, in that moment, that Jews would necessarily need a state of our own. She reminded us that a hundred years prior, in 1817, there had been real hope of equality and reform.

In 1817 there was legitimate hope that the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic state could have revised its structure to truly accommodate Jews and other non-Muslims. But it never achieved the ideals of social parity that it tried to implement in the 1850s, and then the Empire came to its end. Today we have a map of Middle Eastern states that continue to identify as Islamist, and there doesn't seem to be room in those states at this time for rethinking how Muslims and non-Muslims coexist.

The best place where there is an opportunity to rethink Muslim / non-Muslim relations, she argued, is outside of that region -- e.g. someplace like the United States, where there is no official state religion, where we (aspire to) live alongside each other as equal citizens and to form friendships and partnerships as equals. Unsurprisingly, I find that vision incredibly compelling.  I don't think the United States entirely lives up to that ideal yet, but I'm hopeful that together we can aim in that direction.


This week was the first gathering of this year's LEAP Fellows at the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania; I offer this with gratitude to the Katz Foundation for making me a Katz Family Fellow.. This is the second in a pair of posts processing some of our learning. Thoughts / comments welcome.