Why Transcending Boundaries?
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have revived old debates and prejudices regarding Islam and violence: Is there indeed an inherent conflict between Islamic values and the standards of the Western (read: Christian) world? Has this really been the case ever since the Crusades? Are we faced with another incident that proves the so-called “clash of civilizations” or “clash of monotheisms” theory? The proposed seminar addresses the history of the religious, political and economic exchanges in the larger Mediterranean world and Europe in ways that transcend these flawed distinctions.
The traditional tendency in scholarship on European and Mediterranean history to imagine the Ottoman Empire as antithetical to Western standards, or the conceptualization of the Ottoman system as “anti-Europe” – historian Fernand Braudel’s term — has had a profound influence in obscuring the nuances of Ottoman and Islamic civilization as well as the many common elements it shared with the rest of Europe and the Mediterranean world. The Ottoman state and society was certainly distinctive, however, it was not exceptional in its militarism, brutality, religious fervor, or in its misogyny or sexual appetites. Even though Christian and Western legends frequently proclaimed that such characteristics were somehow distinctly Ottoman/Islamic during the 16-17th centuries, Ottomans and Frenchmen, or subjects of the Habsburg Empire, were less remote from one another than many of us would have thought. If we adopt a more nuanced and inclusive approach, it becomes possible to approach Ottomans, Venetians and Frenchmen of the early modern period as inhabitants of one and the same world, with some qualifications. They all lived in largely agricultural societies, their civilizations depended on similar technologies, and they shared a common material environment. The Seminar will explore this “common world” between the Ottoman Empire, Europe and the Mediterranean without lapsing into the apologetic position of “proving” that the Ottomans were just the same as Europeans, or equally advanced in their ways.
Post-orientalist scholars have problematized the notion of the pre-modern world composed of isolated blocks in constant conflict with each other, promoting instead the idea of a borderless and uncentered transcultural region of intense interaction and exchange, to the extent that some scholars began to speak of a shared “Islamo-Christian Mediterranean Civilization”. Recent scholarship on the Ottoman Empire based on interdisciplinary and comparative methods also emphasizes the permeability of boundaries between empires and their societies in the pre-modern era. This focus on global encounters urges us to revisit the role of the Ottoman Empire in European and Mediterranean history and to incorporate the latest insights into our research and teaching in the humanities. Indeed, when we move away from essentializing contrasts, Ottoman relations with the rest of Europe assume a startling character. Such a perspective reveals a relationship in which the ideological walls that seemed to divide Christian Europe from the Ottoman Empire instead become the framework to a rich and intricate web of interactions.
The Seminar will not seek to exhaust three centuries of Ottoman, Mediterranean and European history. Instead, it will place the notion of a connected world at the center as a framework to explore select encounters between those societies. The aim is to arrive at a nuanced approach combining comparative theoretical discussion with illustrative themes that participants can use as models in their own research or teaching.