“Ottoman Secularism, Civilization, and the Historical Discourse of the Syriac Nahda”
Bio: Henry Clements is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Yale University. His work considers the relations between secularism, Orientalism, and the modern concept of history in the late Ottoman Empire. His dissertation research has been supported by the Mellon Foundation’s Council on Library and Information Resources, Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED), the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, and the American Research Institute in Turkey.
Description: In the early twentieth century, Syriac Christian intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire established a number of periodicals in which they argued for a communal revival and awakening—a “nahda,” as some figured it, drawing a parallel with the contemporaneous Arabist cultural movement. These intellectuals called, on the one hand, for new forms of Syriac self-assertion. The Syriac Christians, they professed, were a distinctive historical community deserving of equal representation in Ottoman society and state, and it was incumbent upon the Syriac Christians to advocate for their own identitarian concerns and communal self-interest. Yet at the same time, these intellectuals called upon the Syriac Christians to conceive of themselves and their history as part of the broader history of “civilization,” of a universal human story of “progress” in the transcultural fields of science, knowledge, and literature. The rising historical consciousness of the Syriac Christians in the early twentieth century thus displayed a tension at its heart. For at the same time that the Syriac Christians came to conceive of themselves as a distinctive identity grouping worthy of equality and representation in its own right, they simultaneously insisted that they subject themselves and their history to a higher standard of judgment, a “civilizational” frame of reference, which placed new pressures on this incipient Syriac communal formation. In this talk I argue that the tension within this Syriac historical consciousness was the product of late Ottoman secularizing reform. Underlining the place of history in the administrative and cultural transformations of the Ottoman nineteenth century, I explore the problems and perils of the reorganization of the late Ottoman Empire for minority communities as they manifested in the historical discourse of the Syriac nahda.