Mostafa Minawi is an assistant professor of history at Cornell University and the director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell and is the author of the Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz. The book explores Ottoman participation in the “Scramble for Africa” after the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, or the Congo conference, and how the Ottomans responded to this new world order of colonialism as based in international law by first strategizing expansionism and, later, consolidation of territories in its attempt to maintain its sovereignty. By doing so, the book overturns the usual narratives of the “Sick Man of Europe” and the Ottomans as passive agents of European colonialism. He agreed to meet with the Bosphorus Review of Books in an interview where we discuss his book, the field of Ottoman studies and its reception of his work and his current projects spurred on by the book.

Thomas: If you could just introduce yourself and the book for any of our readers who may not be aware of it just yet.


Minawi: So, the book is my first one and though it is based on the research I did for my dissertation, it is very different. The book is titled "The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and Hijaz." which are two regions that may seem far apart from one another, but I argue that they are intrinsically related at least from the perspective of Istanbul at the end of the nineteenth century. The book basically tackles what is says: it's Ottoman participation in the so-called scramble for Africa, which is often defined as starting around 1882-3, but really develops in earnest after the 1884-85 Conference of Berlin, or the Congo Conference, there's different terminology, in which all the European powers, plus the US, met in Berlin and discussed ways in which the powers could divide whatever was left of Africa without causing any great conflict, as well of course to discuss the Congo Basin and how everyone can have access to it for commercial reasons. But the bigger picture is about the rules that would govern the division of Africa. And since the Ottoman Empire was recognized as a member of the Concert of Europe they were invited and that's where the book starts. It follows the Ottoman Empire's participation in this new process for them in which they tried to define themselves on the international stage vis-a-vis other European powers and how they would relate to new territories they would claim in Africa.


Thomas: Right, in this new language of international relations.


Minawi: Exactly, international law. Colonialism based on law.


Thomas: Colonialism based on law. That's a good way to put it. So, perhaps for our readers, here we can understand pretty easily how Ottoman empire and diplomacy relate to Africa, but where does the Hijaz come in? I know that actually your interest first started with the Hijaz. Actually, if you could also tell us more about your dissertation.


Minawi: My dissertation focuses on the Hijaz part more than Africa, and mostly because that's how I actually got into this topic. What I was trying to do is figure out what the Ottomans were doing in the Hijaz and why at a specific point in time, particularly following the construction of the telegraph line, what is now the end period of the book. Because there were certain questions about the policies and decisions they were making that could not be answered based on the knowledge we have about why the Ottomans, for instance, instead of doing it themselves, why did they not go with a British company or a French company which at different times offer very very attractive terms for building this telegraph line and there was always reference to something that was happening across the Red Sea. So, basically I walked backwards to figure out how and why the telegraph line was constructed the way it was by knowing what's actually happening in Africa. They're intrinsically related. They're happening at the same time and the people who are making the same decisions about the Hijaz are the same people who are engaged in the diplomacy/fight in Africa.


Thomas: Ahh, interesting. Ok, that makes sense. One of the parts of the book I enjoyed the most was about the Sanusi order. It was a topic I had some prior information on, but actually the narrative you give is quite different than many other narratives that were given about it before. So, if you could talk to us a little about the Sanusi order and their importance in Ottoman claims.


Minawi: I did not know anything about the Sanusi order. I was not interested in Sufism in any way, shape or form. It was something I had to learn for my research. They started coming into the picture in how the Ottomans can claim effective occupation of a region they are not in, here we're talking about the region south of Trablusgarb, Benghazi. So, there's this region all the way south to Lake Chad which they have to figure out a way to claim through legal means that they already have effective occupation over, which is one of the terms out of the conference that is needed for any of the powers to say to the other powers "we are already here." And the way they did is by tapping into a relationship they've had in the past with the Sanusi order. The Sanusi order becomes important to me not as a Sufi order, but in the way that Sufi orders function in North Africa as a state within a state. That works around the lifestyle of the people that live outside of the cities and some were nomadic or semi-nomadic populations. And the Grand Sanusi actually targeted that population since his arrival. So, by the time the Ottomans start to approach in 85, there had already been this interaction between the Sanusi order and the Ottoman state, but usually through the province. What they wanted to do at that point was take out it of the orbit of the province interaction, because it has empire-wide implications beyond just tax-collection.


Thomas: So you mean turn it into a mutasarrafiya (a type of administrative division in Ottoman Empire directly controlled by Istanbul)?


Minawi: No, up until 1885, almost every time there is interaction between the representatives of the Ottoman state it is usually done through the provincial order in Benghazi and Tripilatonia. They are the ones who would go in, and it's usually about tax-collection and the only way Istanbul would get involved is when the leaders of the Sanusi order would have to remind the provincial powers representing the Ottoman Empire that they are tax-exempt. So, they would send a complaint to the Meclis-I Vükela or the Şura-yı Devlet, which would then send back a letter affirming they are tax-exempt. What has changed in 1885 is that things have changed because it stops being these transactional type of interactions, such as collecting money or a piece of land, but has strategic importance that spills over far beyond the province and its hinterland. The importance is that it becomes an area where the Sanusi has the control where the two major powers and the Ottoman Empire are now fighting over. So, the Ottoman Empire wants to take it out of the orbit of the provinces and into the hands of the Mabeyn-İ Hümayun, which is basically the palace.


Thomas: So more direct control?


Minawi: Well, I want it to be understood here that they knew that for this to be successful, control would not work. What they want is a partnership. 


Thomas: Direct correspondence?


Minawi: Direct correspondence. A lot of the major downfalls of the Ottoman' adminstration's strategic project is that what Istanbul decides and what the provinces implement don't always match. So, the only way the Ottoman Empire could exert what they thought was an important strategic matter that would affect the position of the Ottoman Empire internationally is to communicate with the head of the Sanusi order directly, not through the provinces by sending, in this case, Sadik Azmzade, to talk with the head of the Sanusi order about a partnership in which they would recognize the caliph as the imperial overseer without affecting the autonomy of the order and how they rule. In fact, that's the only way they can do it, because the moment the Ottoman Empire tries to exert direct rule it would have been terribly counter-productive.


Thomas: Since you did mention his name, Sadik Azmzade, really the protagonist of the book in some ways and actually the way you initially got interested in this book. If you could introduce him as a figure to our readers and I believe you're working on a biography of him as well. I remember when I read him it also reminded me of Eşref bey, a figure we've had an interview on in the past.


Minawi: He's a very interesting figure. Like a lot of people from that end-of-empire period and it's mostly people that identify very strongly with the imperial citizenship, but they live long enough to see that waver. In his case, his very own children have to make the decision of which side of the border they would choose. He, himself, with this big family that is centered around mostly Damascus, he was the example of the success of this program that is established after the Tanzimat, but is really given life by Abdulhamid, in which those leaders from provincial families would have to tie their careers to Istanbul and not stay in the provinces to maintain their status. He is the perfect example of that. He went to the Mekteb-I Harbiye, the military academy here, and eventually ends up in Germany, where he finishes his education and becomes one of the many confidants of the Sultan. He establishes his life here in Teşvikiye and all of his children were Turkish-speakers before Arabic-speakers. Even his descendants that end up in Damascus have trouble acclimating to Arabic. But his life itself is very interesting, not just because he was everywhere, he was involved in every major project in Africa during this period I'm interested in, but he was a commissioner in Bulgaria when it declared its independence, he accompanied a British commission to investigate the massacres of 1895 in Sasyun. You find him at the heart of every major event. He accompanied Wilhelm II when he was travelling through, because he could speak German, French and Arabic. So, his career is very interesting, but also he by himself and his family are very interesting because they are people who are struggling through an identity crisis as non-Türk Ottomans, when that starts to mean something. His uncle ends up in parliament and is insultingly called "arap." So, he was living through that period, where suddenly you, the Ottomanest of Ottomans become defined by your ethnic origin or really your race, which we don't like to talk about. That's why I find him fascinating. And of course he left tons of records, mostly through the Başbakanlik, but what he left behind are his travelogue to Ethiopia, which I'm working on now, and of course his travellogue to the Sanusi order. There is also one of his trip to the Hejaz, but we lost when his house burns down. There's so much drama.


I also traced his family, his great-grandchildren and interviewed them. His story is fascinating, especially now in Turkey where people that had to sort of divorce themselves from their Ottoman past are starting to redig into it. I could tell you stories. It's really fascinating how people are reawakening to it and they're so disconnected from the recent past, it's tragic. It's really tragic. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, because they would think they are following someone's life, but they can't read Osmanlica. So they end up constructing these imaginary notions of who their family used to be, because they are counting on other people's research. Now, you can go on e-Devlet and this is only as of a month ago and you can go and put in your name in if you're a Turkish citizen, they'll give you your ancestors up to the beginning of the 19th century, because the government wants you to connect to your Ottoman past, which used to be a no-no.


Thomas: It's very timely in that way. Really you should be careful if you don't want this to be turned into a Turkish soap opera. So, is it safe to say that your new book will focus more on identity and how it changed in this time-period?


Minawi: It's going to be a side-project to be completely honest. I'm working on two books. The first book, the way I'm getting to Azmzade is through an annotated translation of his travelogue to Ethiopia, even though it's discussing others, it's really about him and how he fits into the world by observing the other, in this case, Somalis and Ethiopians. But I want it to be out and accessible to undergrads,because its fascinating, it's an Edwardian aristocrat observing his world change. The second book I'm working on is part two of the first book (The Ottoman Scramble for Africa) and it's about the Ottomans turning their attention to the Red Sea Coast, so Suakin, Massawa and the Somali coast.


Thomas: This is all very timely. So, to shift gears a bit, I've always been a bit of a theory-buff, and one part you didn't delve into very much other than one or two paragraphs, and this is perhaps the historian in you, is the implications for the theory of colonialism. You know, whether this is or is not colonialism, or if it is colonialism that's not really colonialism?


Minawi: It's the editor in me. That question, whether or we can call one thing colonialism or not sounds interesting and important from outside, but when you delve into the records and how people are governing and as you try to figure out whether it's colonialism or not it becomes a kind of meaningless catch-all. It means a lot to a lot of people because it has political implications now. And I didn't try to avoid it. I tried to really delve into when I was trying to figure out what's going on, before I realized that the question is not a question to satisfy research, but a question to satisfy people's curiosity about what we call colonialism or not. And it's usually done in a way to compare what the Ottomans do to non-Ottomans, which we call colonial powers. So, people try to see "Are the Ottomans doing what the British are doing? Are the Ottomans copying what the French are doing?" I tried to do this at the beginning and then I noticed that the Ottomans are doing what all empires, including the British and French, are doing at that time: try to figure out new ways to justify what is not justifiable anymore, so justify expansion into new territories when notions of sovereignity are changing. So you can no longer just walk into a place and pretend it's an empty land or put a stake down and claim it for the king or queen because we are more civilized or any of that. You actually use the same logic, but the logic is now disguised through this notion of international law that is created to provide that sort of moralistic justification. The Ottomans were trying to do the same thing at specific points, using different justifications, but only in a way that would allow them to participate in this emerging global order which depends on what we know think of as international law, that was created and developed to justify its actions. So, the Ottomans understood that the game had changed and now they have to justify any kind of expansion through what the Europeans understand as international law, not so much so they can have new territories, but so that they can guarantee their very own soveriegnity. This is an article coming out in which I delve into this very very deeply, because in the book rather than asking "Is what they are doing colonial?," which I don't know how you can determine, I tried to see what are the tools they are using to exert soveriegnity or rule.


Thomas: So, the how more than the what?


Minawi: The how more than the what, because the what is so slippery and a lot of Ottomanists are caught in this trap of trying to figure out whether the Ottomans are like Britain or France and whether they are borrowing some of the tools they are using, and if so, they are colonialists, if not they are not, they're doing things the old-fashioned Ottoman style. And that is really problematic, because we are assuming that the Ottomans are not living in the same time-period as the British and the French. This new global world order is new to the British and French as well and they are all trying to figure out new ways of exerting rule in Africa. All of this is to say that people really want me to take a stand and I am not comfortable with it. There are specific people that want me to say the Ottomans were colonialists and other people really don't want to hear that, "No, we're different than others." I can tell you that in certain cases in specific areas for specific reasons they used tools that might look colonial to someone who's comparing them to the British and the French and at the same time in specific areas in specific places, sometimes in the exact same place where they are using cultural colonial justifications for their existence, while using a different narrative on the ground. That's not unique to the Ottomans. Everyone did it. We're obsessed with the colonial question because there are ramifications for what is happening now in the world. What it is a new tool in a bag of tools. But we cannot have like a masterlist of how the Ottomans exerted rule in a specific moment of time across the empire. I can tell you if you ask me what did they do in Chad, I can tell you what they did in Chad or what they did in Yemen and then if this question such a burning one for you, I'll leave it up to you.


Thomas, Ok, so it's really just a case of adopting to this new world. Very interesting. Part of what you were trying to do in the book neces jumping around a bit to tell the story you wanted to tell. But the con to that is that there a lot of strings that you tease out that you don't get to pull out all the way. So, maybe if you could tell us more about this article and there are any other strings in there that you hope to explore further in the future?


Minawi: No, absolutely. That string it gnawed on me and it did so because in the publishing industry right now you whittle down some of what we think of as theoreitical musings or whatever to the bare minimum, because you want to produce a book that is under two hundred pages, that is readable and so forth. What I want to do with the article that I've been working on for a while is that instead of exploring those questions we discussed, is instead of going into whether colonial or not, I wanted to figure out if what are some of the implications of changing their rhetoric and participating in this new world order, about the emergence of notions of international law of who belongs to family of nations and who doesn't. It's really the beginning of the marginalization at least in legal terms and the Ottomans at that moment in time are marginalized in terms of hard power, the military was garbage, they were broke, but technically they are still part of the family of nations and they wanted to exploit that in a way that would allow them to maintain their position among the sovereign, and therefore civilized, nations in a way that would allow them to move into the new world order. When the opposite was happenning from the European side. From the European side, they were starting to marginalize the Ottoman Empire in a way that would allow them to later on legally not be invited as a sovereign nation. To me, the motivation from the Ottoman side is not about colonies, it's about maintaining your sovereignity in a specific moment in time. You're either part of the system that creates the rules and thus has to be a colonizer, or you become part of the rest of the world, where those laws are applied but they don't have the privilege of taking advantange of them because your sovereignity is not respected, by definition. And the Ottomans always wanted to fight against not been seen as a sovereign power.


Thomas: Can we expect any translations of the book?


Minawi: Yes, actually it is being translated right now by Koç University Press into Turkish, coming out later this year. I'm hoping it'll be translated into Arabic, but I'm not sure when that would be.


Thomas: Since we do have a little bit of time now to reflect on the book with it being, I guess, three years now, how has the reception been so far? Has it been received well in academic circles? Do you see some change now in academic in some of these very specific questions?


Minawi: It has been surprisingly very well received. I was expecting a lot of pushback, especially from Ottomanists, because I was arguing for something new. I was basically speaking to other Ottomanists, saying "Stop looking at the Sultan's personal proclivities and take the empire seriously as a power that was weak, but was fully engaged in participating in this new world order." Initially, when I started talking about it, I would really get a lot of pushback, particularly from Ottomanists who wanted to maintain what we thought were stable narratives. "Yeah, the Ottoman Empire was not dying, but the way we know it is Abdulhamid was doing all reforms, but they were trying to survive with what they had, forget international affairs." Me saying that they were doing a lot more than surviving, they were actually strategizing, because it's not just about survival, it's about notions of sovereignity. I would get comments like "Are you saying the Ottomans are colonial?" So, when the book came out, I expected that the same thing would happen. Instead, I was very pleased to see that both Ottomanists and particularly Africanists were interested in this kind of- the book is short and it touches on specific points intentionally to hopefully push people to look at the Ottoman Empire in a new way, particularly when it comes to Africa, but in general. And people are taking it exactly like that. So it's doing what I wanted it to do and it's very exciting for me. So, graduate students are applying with new ideas of what they want to work on. And also Africanists particularly get it. It's not just a new set of documents were looking at about the same struggle, no. It changes the way you think about colonialism all together. If you take the Ottomans into it, it's no longer just the "North vs. South, White vs. Black." It complicates things in very interesting ways that force you take another look at what happened in Africa during this period. For the Ottomanists they're starting to think of the Ottoman Empire, and not just because of my work, other work is doing in different ways, in a much more nuanced manner when it comes to international affairs. Let's give it the kind of global participation outlook that we give to other empires. There is some valid critique that I got, mostly not going to local sources mostly in Libya. And that's valid, I couldn't go for obvious reasons. There's about eight to nine reviews now and all of them understand why this book should be important.


Thomas: That's great! I'm happy to hear it. I really like the point you made in the conclusion about historians sometimes allowing the success or failure of a historical endeavor or project to influence the degree to which it is studied. You said "Hey, even if this failed in actually expanding the empire, it is still very important."


Minawi: What worries me about focusing on things that succeeded is that we understand what happened and then we go looking for it in the archives. What I was trying to do was say "Why don't you go into the archives not looking for how something that came to be came to be, but rather allow the archives to lead you to something that succeeded or not, because the process is very important. It tells you a lot about what the Ottoman Empire was thinking about itself, about what Istanbul would do, but they failed, they never ended up with the land they wanted in the first place.  But it also tells us about areas that, otherwise, are written out of history. Think of Somalia. In this new project I'm working on, Somalia is at the heart of Ethiopian, Italian, British and Ottoman axis of competition. The Ottomans end up what they technically in legal terms was theirs, these two port cities. They were all fighting over what we think of now as insignificant, but these incredibly important strategic areas that the Ottomans had legally under their sovereignity as recognized by the other powers until the other powers stopped recognizing Ottoman sovereignity. But we don't know about this story because the Ottomans didn't end up expanding into Somalia, the British came in. But that history is written out, because it's about these competitions that we otherwise don't look at, because they eventually ended up with nothing. Same thing with Djibouti, with Suakin, with Massawa. Nothing has been written on it. The only reason I know to look there is because it was mentioned several times during my first book "There's something happening in the Red Sea. There's something happening in the Red Sea." But if you follow what the archives tell you, you will be overwhelmed by the amount of information.


Thomas: So, to wrap up the interview, as always our last question we use for interviews as the Bosphorus Review of Books. What are you reading now other than your research?


Minawi: I always have two books going. One fiction book so that my writing will not suffer, because otherwise you'll start writing like how the archives sound, and one to keep my foot dipped in the field. One is Eileen Ryan's book "Religion as Resistance," it's fascinating. She's a friend that has been working on the Sanusi order and that basically starts where my book ends with the order with the Italian engagement. But I would highly recommend her research. She's a Europeanist that actually knows Arabic and has done some research in Libya before the war. But she mostly uses Roman sources to write this kind of new trans-regional history of Libya. The fiction, I'm a huge fan of Rabih Alameddine. His most recent book out is called "The Angel of History." It's fascinating. It's about the AIDS crisis in the Middle East. His writing is just so beautiful and so historically informed. So, those are the two books I would recommend.