Modern Arab Kingship: Remaking the Ottoman Political Order in the Interwar Middle East – An Interview with Adam Mestyan
Alex Favalli in conversation with Adam Mestyan
Adam Mestyan is associate professor in the History Department of Duke University and a graduate of CEU and ELTE (Budapest). Currently, he is working on a history of postmortem wealth in Egypt and on an environmental history of Cairo. His works in cultural and political history include Modern Arab Kingship – Remaking the Ottoman Political Order in the Interwar Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2023), Primordial History, Print Capitalism, and Egyptology in Nineteenth-Century Cairo (Ifao, 2021); and Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2017). Adam Mestyan was a 2011/2012 EUME-Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
Alex Favalli: In your new book Modern Arab Kingship: Remaking the Ottoman Political Order in the Interwar Middle East you challenge the longheld idea that the „post-Ottoman“ political orders were mainly shaped by colonial powers in Europe. You speak of a process of „recycling empire“. What do you mean by that and what are the main ideas of your book?
Adam Mestyan: Let me begin by clarifying the meaning of the term “political order.” Scholars use it in various ways, some even include borders, violence, government, and other elements, literally everything. However, in my book, I adopt a more specific definition. As a category of analysis, the political order refers to an assembly of sources of authority, norms, and practices that govern domination and facilitate identification with a particular governmental bureaucracy. It represents the realm of constituent fictions underpinning the political and legal institutions within a government.
With this definition of the political order in mind, in Modern Arab Kingship (or MAK, as my editors started to call this book) I first delve into the imperial political order that characterized most societies worldwide until 1919, focusing particularly on the modern Ottoman imperial political order in the age of steam. It is imperative to understand this Ottoman imperial political order, the unique experiment of Sultan Abdülhamid II with religion and ethnicity as constituent fictions in the empire, which partly continued in the short period of Ottoman parliamentarism, in order to analyze the post-Ottoman Arab orders.
Contrary to the notion of a complete break with the imperial political order in 1919, I contend that these orders underwent a violent transformation, evolving into local political orders within smaller governments and newly established or reformed imperial entities. The emergence of local polities in regions previously governed by the Ottoman, Habsburg, and German empires can be attributed to this transformative process. The intricate workings of this transformation encompass the political, legal, and economic dimensions, resulting in the recycling of empire during the 1910s and 1920s. In Modern Arab Kingship, I privilege the Arabic ideas about the re-organization of imperial sovereignty (especially the federative imagination) and the regime forms (monarchy or republic) in new governments. Palestine is the exception because it did not become a local state in the period and remained only an administrative government to facilitate Zionist settlement.
The core concepts of the book include the Ottoman and ex-Ottoman Arab and European federative ideas, imperial constitutionalism, genealogical empire, the local political order, subordinated sovereignty, and the imperial production of monarchies. The concept of the local political order is a crucial term as it allows to distinguish between imperial and nation-state norms and highlights the coexistence of League-sovereignty and imperial sovereignty legal practices in the period.
Alex: You write that we shouldn’t think of the interwar Middle East in terms of colonies and nation-states, but as „subordinated sovereign local states — localized regimes of religious, ethnic, and dynastic sources of imperial authority“. What historical debate are you addressing and why?
Adam: Yes, my book is an experiment with decolonizing our thinking. Modern Arab Kingship contributes significantly to three key debates among historians, political scientists, and sociologists. Firstly, it engages with “new imperial history,” which gained prominence from the late 2000s, focusing on defining empire, particularly in the context of the American public after the Iraqi invasion. Notable inspirations for this aspect of the book include Jane Burbank, David Armitage, Fred Cooper, Susan Pedersen, Charles Maier, Lauren Benton, and scholars in my field like Ussama Makdisi, Michael Provence, Sarah Shields, Cemil Aydin, Cyrus Schayegh, and Aziz Al-Azmeh among others.
Secondly, the book addresses an earlier 1990s debate concerning the birth of nation-states and nationalism. Here, the influence of ideas from Partha Chatterjee and Rogers Brubaker is evident, as the book delves into theorizing ideas and practices of grouping in a critical distance from nationalism studies.
Lastly, the book contributes to an ongoing, urgent discussion about the impact of globalization on states and the understanding of recent wars, exemplified by events such as the near dissolution of Syria and Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine. The study of the post-Ottoman regions in the 1920s offers valuable lessons on the dissolution and reshaping of statehoods in this regard.
Alex: Regarding the understanding of recent wars, what lessons do you draw from the basis of your research?
Adam: MAK, after all, is a study of a historical post-war political arrangement. In this regard it documents how imperial legal practices continued after 1919 both in the new international institutions and in local politics. I would just enumerate the main points in the legal dimension. The first lesson, that Chapter 3 describes, is that administrative rights for the mandatory given by the League in the class A French mandate (Syria and Lebanon) were stronger than sovereignty for the mandated, also from the League. For current wars, it means that we must be extremely careful about the international legal framework in post-war reconstruction – for instance in the case of Syria. Second, I show that religion in state-making in the 1920s actually did not deter the recognition of sovereignty, for instance in the Kingdom of the Hijaz. This historical data means for today that the international community should rethink the case of the post-US Taliban Afghan government, for instance, even if their norms and practices look horrible to us. I myself would be even interested in discussions about how and why religious groups claimed statehood in the past thirty years! And finally, an important issue is that the ban on acquisition of territory by conquest became a cornerstone of international law from the 1900s onwards (though the Paris peace conference created exceptions). This explains why today’s jurists and politicians maintain their opposition against Russia’s occupations in Ukraine (although, mind you, Putin cleverly claims “popular vote” as the source for the right of acquisition of Crimea and not occupation) and against Israel’s occupations in Palestine.
Alex: The recycling of the empire cannot be recognized when looking at the imminent years after the end of WW1. To see the survival of imperial institutions, in a more localized form, one has to look at the 1920s and further. After you got a first idea on the direction your work would take, did the conceptualization shift due to methodological issues or new sources you found along the way?
Adam: Your assumption is mistaken. The recycling of empire began immediately after World War I and had, in fact, already been underway towards the war’s end. In the case of the Ottoman Arabic-speaking regions, the new emperor was intended to be Sharif al-Husayn in Mecca, referred to as the “King of the Arabs.” Many bewildered Ottoman Syrians in occupied cities like Beirut and Damascus even called him “sultan” during the fall of 1918.
Regarding new sources, it appears that I am the first in utilizing shari‘a court records to investigate the political history of the sharifian momentum (1918-1920) in Damascus. Furthermore, in Riyadh I discovered a crucial set of documents—the correspondence of a forgotten Syrian sheikh, Kamil al-Qassab — which provided insights into an inter-Mediterranean network of Arab activists in the 1920s and 1930s. But there is infinitely more new documents around, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Alex: How do you see your book being most effectively used in class?
Adam: Amidst the new wave of books on the interwar period in European and US history, Modern Arab Kingship stands out by adding the Middle Eastern narrative and incorporating an inter-Mediterranean, Middle East-Europe circulatory history. In contrast to traditional histories that emphasize the role of nationalism and violence in state-formation (many of which are commendable works), this book offers a compelling counter-narrative focusing on religion and empire.
Modern Arab Kingship proves particularly valuable for teaching legal and constitutional history of the modern Middle East, as well as for political theorists and anthropologists seeking new terms and concepts to depict temporal change. I would say it is also a good antidote against a certain type of “Muslim intellectual history” which usually decontextualizes and dehistoricizes historical actors and their ideas.
Alex: Why do you think history matters today?
Adam: I suspect this question may be a jest, given the current upheavals where people call for new types of histories, statues are being torn down, and President Putin’s apparent silent but persistent war on history amidst the actual Russian violence on Ukraine. However, history goes beyond matters of identity and war. Consider climate change—it essentially embodies history!
Alex Favalli works at the Forum Transregionale Studien and is part of the TRAFO Blog’s editorial team.
Citation: Modern Arab Kingship: Remaking the Ottoman Political Order in the Interwar Middle East – An Interview with Adam Mestyan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.08.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48118