25 October 2008

The True Nature of History

Why do historians study what they do? To answer burning intellectual questions? To find the most applicable lessons for contemporary crises? To tell the stories of those marginalized in earlier accounts? Maybe, but I think more mundane considerations play a major role. For example: I switched from Syria to the Ottomans a couple years ago, and I'm glad I'll get to spend my research year in Istanbul instead of Damascus. On the other hand, I regret giving up a language its grammar is reasonably similar to English (Arabic), for a every-sentence-it-in-reversed-being's-because-of-word-by-word-reading-impossible is language (Turkish).

My advisor used to say, "Why didn't I study Mexico instead of Iraq and Syria?"

24 October 2008

Islam, States, and the Crimea

In 1774, Russia effectively took over the Crimea from the Ottomans. This was the first thoroughly Muslim land the Ottomans had let slip out of the dar al-Islam (Hungary, conquered by the Habsburgs 75 years earlier, had only been Muslim for 173 years; the Crimea had been for 400 or so).

This challenged both empires: for the Ottomans, the sultan's domain was no longer (theoretically) coterminous with the (non-heretical parts of the) Muslim world. The answer was to assert the sultan's role as caliph, leader of all believers--including those outside his political boundaries. This allowed him to meddle in the Crimea (as European powers, acting as protectors of Catholic and Orthodox Christians interfered in the Ottoman Empire), but didnt' it also represent the implicit acceptance of a divide between political and spiritual authority? If the sultan had to wear two different hats, then maybe two different people could wear the hats?

On the Russian side, Catherine the Great drew upon Enlightenment deism and syncretism (as well as Peter the Great's legacy of state control over the Church--the only Orthodox church not under Ottoman rule) to argue that she was a pro-Islamic ruler, and that the Crimean Tatars, if they were good Muslims, would obey her. (I don't know how the Russians had behaved toward their earlier Muslim conquests like Astrakhan, but I really don't think Ivan the Terrible was much of a fan of Voltaire.) This type of policy persisted, and expanded, as the Russians conquered more and more Muslim lands in the 18th and 19th centuries--even as the official state line under Nicholas I became "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality," his government still told Tatars, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Chechens, and so on, that all good Muslims obeyed the Tsar. So from 1774 on, the Tsar also wore two hats--one as ruler of an Orthodox Russia, and one as the ruler of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire whose subjects were religiously obligated to obey him.

I'm intrigued by the parallels here. What does it mean that the 1768-1774 War saw both Russia and the Ottomans turning religion into an explicitly political tool of state, separating boundaries of religious authorities from state frontiers (the importance of which was being emphasized as international law evolved)--even as in Western Europe, nation-states began to emphasize the congruity of political authority and cultural/religious boundaries?

(I am well aware no one reads these posts about my research...but I'm posting just to help me think things through. :-)

17 October 2008

Stamps in the UL

On my first real visit to the Cambridge University Library today, I was shocked to find that they still use rubber stamps to record due dates! But I can see this must have been a difficult choice for the bureaucrats in charge, pitting their two most cherished values against each other: obsessive safety regulations, and micro-measures to help the environment. The desk clerks might get carpal tunnel syndome from rubber-stamping all day long, but surely not everyone would recycle their paper receipts...what's an EU bureaucrat to do? So I suppose inertia won.

16 October 2008

Rowing and the British Empire

I signed up to row, just because it's something you can't go to Cambridge and not do. I realized that it's a perfect analogy for the British Empire, and European success in general. The Duke of Wellington (apocryphally) commented that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and later they said Bismarck beat Napoleon III because of Prussian schoolmasters. But couldn't you also say the British Empire was won on the Cam and whatever river it is they row on in The Other Place?

The point of University rowing is that they take eight people who have no experience, and build them into a team, directed by a coxwain. Because the rowers face backward, only the cox knows where you're going--but in order to get anywhere, all eight rowers have to do exactly what the cox says.

This is how European armies beat their rivals--disciplined lines of musketeers, keeping order in the face of enemy fire until ordered to shoot by their commander. Total obedience, total trust in the commander's judgment. Often they faced armies (like the, Janissaries, the Zulu, or the Sioux) who were stronger and more skillful individually--and sometimes even better armed--but who didn't have the same coordination and obedience--and that made all the difference. So Europeans conquered the world, often despite tremendous numerical inferiority (eg Zenta, Plassey; Rorke's Drift).

Of course, this obedience was based on brutal discipline, but by World War I the British were able to switch from external punishment to internal motivation--patriotism--as a way to keep their armies in line. Other armies did the same, to varying extents--probably least for the Russians and Austro-Hungarians, who couldn't play on nationalism. I think this internalization--however much Foucault might not like it--made possible by the greater social capital present in a more democratic system with greater economic opportunities--has something to do with the fact that the British--unlike the other Powers (examples in France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary--didn't suffer a political-military collapse in World War I, when disciplined European warfare was taken to its logical exsanguinary extreme. And of the other countries, which one managed to contain the collapse and survive? France, second only to Britain in democratization, capitalism, and internalized discipline. It's also interesting to note that every country in the world, save England and some of its colonial offspring, suffered a violent change of government in the 20th century.

So it's all about social capital and internalized discipline. And that's the point of rowing: you don't know what you're doing, but you trust the cox does. The boat moves, and maybe you win.

14 October 2008

I'm in Cambridge

For the first time since I was 4 years old, not counting brief (or not so brief!) school breaks, I have no daily schedule imposed on me by anyone else. It's pretty awesome. But unlike when I was 4, I have to write a book chapter in 9 months, and a whole book in 35 months. How I get there and what I write is largely up to me--but how it's received will determine the course my academic career.

One result of this freedom (and my flexible funding) is that I can probably take off to Turkey and maybe Russia for research for most of next academic year. Another result is that after I present at a conference in DC at the end of November, I can stay in the US for Thanksgiving and Christmas...as long as I work. Same goes for next summer, I can be anywhere. But that 35-month clock doesn't stop counting down just because it's between terms!

Queens' College is pretty cool, it's a very social and international place. The Gates Scholars group is also terrific, full of people far better-qualified than I am. And, I might get to meet Bill Gates himself next year.

10 July 2008


Currently Cunda on am I. Ever-by-me-seen the craziest language studying am I and its grammar with write I. Yoda like sounding my, suppose I.

I feel a bit out of my depth, since almost everyone else here is already fluent in either Arabic, Persian, or Turkish. Ottoman is such a polyglot language that it's really useful to have such a linguistic mix; in my study group two of us know Turkish very well but not Arabic or Persian, two others know Arabic quite well (and one of them, Persian) but not much Turkish, and I'm somewhere in between. This is also a very international program; we have four Turks (unsurprisingly), two Israelis, two Canadians, one Austrian, and one Romanian, in addition to 9 Americans.

I had been worried that I wouldn't be able to handle Ottoman, but I'm slowly getting the hang of it--though it's still slow and difficult. Every night, it takes about five hours for my five-person study group to go through a page and a half of the novel we're reading. The dictionary for Ottoman is 2,222 pages long, written by an expatriate Englishman in 1890. I'm sure James Redhouse never expected that in 120 years, the language would be dead but his dictionary would still be in use.

05 May 2008

Leaving Utah

A while ago I made a list of things to do before leaving Utah, and I'm getting through it...which is good, since I leave on the 8th. Most of these are things that I figure people will ask if I've done, or that I'll never get a chance to do again.

-Visit BYU--done 5/5
-Climb the mountain behind my apartment building--done 5/17
-Go to an LDS church service--done 4/27
-Go skiing--done 3/8
-Visit the Grand Canyon--not going to happen
-Visit Los Angleles--done 5/15
-Go to Montana (one of four continental states I've never visited)--done 5/18-5/19
-Try all of Utah's microbrews--I think I've done it. At least the major ones.
-Visit a Mormon temple (while under construction, while they're still open to Gentiles)--probably won't happen
-Visit Park City--done 5/3

Civic Religion in Austria

In the 1788-1791 Austro-Ottoman War,
Vienna was an enlightened city...in [irreligious] circles there could be no infidels. [E]xhortations to defend the faith [against the Ottomans] were out of place. What then could replace religion as the motivation for the people to support war?...cooly explaining reasons of state...was obviously insufficient. Religious toleration robbed the Habsburgs of their primary war cry...In the nineteenth century, two rallying cries emerged to challenge one another among the people: loyalty to the emperor and loyalty to the nation. Unfortunately for the monarchy, loyalty to the nation would be the victor.
--Karl Roider