Courtesy of the University

Prof. Minawi traced the history of the Ottoman Empire's diplomatic relations at his lecture Wednesday.

November 30, 2017

Historian Reveals Role of International Law in Blocking Ottoman Colonialism

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In a quaint room in the Toboggan Lodge, a building that used to be a ski lodge when Beebe Lake froze over, Prof. Mostafa Minawi, history, drew his audience to the late 19th-century Ottoman Empire, intriguing them through pictures, maps and how ambiguous legal language was used for expansionist practices known as “juridical colonialism.”

In his lecture, Minawi traced Ottoman diplomatic actions from their inclusion in the European “Family of Nations,” to the 1890s when secret deals were being made behind the Ottomans’ backs to take away territory that they had under their control.

This progression in European outlook was also portrayed by the professor through a series of paintings that covered three decades, which showed how over time the Ottoman delegation — which at one point was at the center of paintings — later shrinked into abstraction and isolation with only a single man characterized by his beard and fez.

Minawi talked about how the Ottomans were a part of the European bid to secure colonies, but were able to secure colonies not by the conventional economic or military measures. Being neither “civilized” Europeans nor “savage” non-Europeans, their limbo status allowed the Sultanate to use modern international law to its advantage, he said.

“They claimed colonies not through economic means, not by being there, but instead through legality. Their stance was that we have signed this treaty, we are Europeans and hence we have a claim to this land,” he said.

Soon after, however, Minawi explained how this competition over colonies reoriented itself to instead focus on preserving Ottoman sovereignty.

“The only way they could remain in the international system and the European system was by playing at this game [of controlling colonies] that they were losing,” Minawi said. “But at least they were still playing the game.”

Minawi said that many people have asked him why the Ottomans were so determined to gain control over lands in Sub-Saharan Africa, when at that time they were not even economically important. He believes it was a question of survival.

“All of this was not just for a piece of land: you acquiesce, your sovereignty is at stake and you are out of the European system,” he said.

To tie this 19th century history to the present, Minawi explained how the juridical Ottoman colonial history is used to justify current geostrategic politics playing out in places like Somalia and Djibouti.

“The government is now actively investing in this narrative that we are tied to East Africa through our shared history and that we understand you better,” Minawi said. “They’re doing this by differentiating themselves from western colonialism.”