GradAttack Podcast #2 Brad Ronald Dennis

Podcast #2 – 12/02/2015

Conflict, Terrorism, and Reprisals in the Middle East at the Turn of the Century

Brad DennisBrad Ronald Dennis

Brad Dennis, who will graduate with his Ph.D. in History from the University of Utah this December, discusses the origins of interethnic and interreligious conflict at the birth of the modern Middle East from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The conflicts he describes, instigated by foreign interventions and realizing a horrific peak of violence in terrorism and the mistrust, discrimination, and eventual ethnic cleansing that it engenders, provide a fascinating and almost eerily analogous comparison to — and cautionary lesson about — contemporary events.

Download the file here: Conflict, Terrorism, and Reprisals in the Middle East at the Turn of the Century with Brad Ronald Dennis

Patrick Hadley: Welcome to the University of Utah GradAttack podcast, where we’re speaking with researchers, and especially graduate students and postgraduates at the University of Utah. Today we’re talking with Brad Ronald Dennis, who has recently submitted – I believe, finally submitted, is that correct?

Brad Dennis: Yeah, I just recently submitted the final version, I hope. I mean, they’re still editing it, so if I get any corrections back, then I’ll correct it again, I guess, but it should be fairly good to go.

PH: More or less, I think so. So, the more or less final version of a fascinating dissertation entitled, Explaining Coexistence and Conflict in Eastern Anatolia: 1800-1878. And we were very pleased to read this in the Thesis Office as it came through. We were fascinated by it, and it brought up a lot of questions, and I want to kind of put these to you, if you don’t mind.

First of all, your thesis was fascinating in part because it uses such a wide variety of archival sources. Some of us have done a bit of work in the humanities, and it’s often difficult to work with these very old archival sources. So, in addition to being interesting, this was just impressively thorough. So I wanted to ask – and this is a difficult question sometimes – but I wanted to ask you, based on all of that difficult information that you boiled down for the thesis, how would you take all of that and refine it into what your thesis is about, for a layman?

BD: I tried to make the title as clear as possible, just explaining how people lived together despite being of different religious groups and different ethnic groups. I guess in the United States today, it’s structured so that a lot of people of different religions and ethnic groups can liver here and speak different languages, and it doesn’t matter too much. You don’t see the Chinese immigrants trying to break off and form a different Chinese state in the United States. But if you go to Europe, and if you go to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Russia, or Turkey, which I was looking at, ethnicity and religion, religious diffeences, they came to mean a lot, and people did try to break off and form independent states based on ethnic identities and ever religious identities, as well. And this was the cause of a great deal of conflict, and we can honestly say that both WWI and WWII emerged largely because of ethnic issues: Who was entitled to what piece of the land based on ethnic principles. So, Gavrilo Princip, the person who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, triggering WWI, he was basically a Serbian asserting that Bosnia, which was part of Austria-Hungary at that time, should be part of the Greater Serbia, and that this territory was Austria-Hungary’s illegitimately. And so ethnicity is a big issue, and people who study Europe and part of the Middle East, especially Turkey, they make ethnicity a big issue. When we look at WWI, there’s a much-disputed series of massacres at the time that many people refer to as the Armenian Genocide, and many people equate it to the Holocaust of the Jews, and although there are differences, in terms of the magnitude and just the violence, it’s pretty much on that level. And this occurred in 1915, and because of that issue,  a lot of people picture history in Eastern Anatolia, where this occurred, as a very tense time where Armenians and Armenian Christians and Muslims – well, the Christians were oppressed very horribly the whole time, and it was just a very negative history. My aim is to go back to 1800, and to look at the period between 1800 and 1878, before all the massive tension and conflict broke out between Christians and Muslims along different lines, and just look at how people coexisted.

PH: To see whether this was longstanding, or to see how it developed, this tension?

BD: To see how tension developed, and to see if there is coexistence, why? Why are people managing to coexist, in spite of the fact that later on they end up killing each other and pushing each other out because of ethnic and religious differences. So my hope is basically to contribute to a growing body of literature that looks at groups such as in – for example, there are some studies being done in Rwanda on Hutus an Tutsis, and also on Jews in Europe, of course – to see how they managed to live together.

PH: Rather than just what tore them apart?

BD: Yeah, exactly. Rather than just what tore them apart, and to say, you know, are people assimilating? Because in the United States, we take that for granted. You know, I come from Welsh, German, and English stock, but I don’t think of myself as a Welsh person, or German, necessarily. So, to what degree was that occurring in other places? Are they assimilating and are they managing to get along together? The reason I chose this period, too, is because, honestly, there’s not a whole lot of research done on this period, at least not in the English language. There’s stuff done in Turkish, and there’s stuff done in Armenian. And I’ve studied both languages and looked at a lot of the secondary literature, as well as archival literature, as much as I could find, mainly in the Ottoman archives, which are mostly Turkish.

PH: Excellent. If I may interrupt very briefly, you mentioned working with Armenian and Turkish sources. Now, I heard you speaking Turkish with the other assistant editor when you came in, and you speak, for my ear, incredibly well. And I’m wondering, how did you develop this proficiency? Was this purely through study at the University of Utah, or was this something you took up in Turkey?

BD: Well, both. I studied it starting here at the University of Utah, and then I lived in Turkey, as well. So I studied at Boğaziçi University, which is in Istanbul, and I studied in Izmir, as well, or in a town near Izmir called Eylül.

PH: In your dissertation, you draw a lot of parallels between the modern world and the Ottoman Empire. And I think those are very apt, especially for what’s going on right now in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. Of course, as I’m driving into work this morning and home in the evening for the past couple of weeks, it’s been a nonstop horror story of a refugee crisis spurred by what some are calling religious tension and some are calling ethnic tension, and of course there are historical reasons for all of this… But by making comparisons between these two situations, I actually wanted to ask you, What connections do you actually see between the interethnic conflict of the late Ottoman Empire, or at least the development of it over time, and the conflicts shaping the region today. Based on your research, are there any lessons we can actually learn and apply to the current host of proplems in our modern situation, or are we just comparing apples and oranges if we try?

BD: I think it’s very relevant. I think you can draw a connection between the violence that occurred earlier and the violence that’s going on now. Clearly there are some issues that have arisen that weren’t there before, but I look at it this way: Just psychologically, in the human psyche, as a child you learn lessons from your parents, your identity is very much shaped by how they remember things. Ethnicity and religion in that area – you know, people remember, and the Kurds especially, Kurds in Turkey and Syria and Iraq, they’re remembering great heroes of the past. The one person I mentioned in my dissertation is a person by the name of Bedr Khan. He’s considered a Kurdish hero, leading one of the first revolts against the Ottoman Empire, he tried to form sort of this proto-nation-state. Kurdish nationalists consider him one of the first nationalists who actually tried to form a nation-state. I don’t think he quite understood what he was doing to be along the lines of how we understand politics or nation-states today. It was quite different, but nonetheless he was an important figure. So people talk about these things in Kurdish society. They talk about Bedr Khan. They talk about Ubeydullah, who was a religious leader who also led a revolt against the Ottoman Empire and Iran in the 1880s, though I don’t talk about him much in my dissertation, he’s a little beyond the scope. In WWI there’s a number of other Kurdish revolts that occur, and so in their memory, there is this idea, and what they pass along to their children is this idea of Kurdish greatness, this idea that Kurds were historically oppressed by the Ottoman Empire, by the Turks, by the Iranians, and they deserve an independent nation-state on the basis of being Kurdish, and ethnically Kurdish nation-state. I think this helps us understand Turkey, Iraq – and consider it this way, too, that ISIS are not managing to attract any Kurds. And why is this? The Kurds are Sunni, many of them are religiously conservative, but the fact of the matter is that for the Kurds, by and large, one of the main issues on their minds is how they identify themselves, and that’s as Kurds, and I think this has to do with the historical context.

PH: Okay. And do you think this begins roughly with the period of your dissertation, around 1800, or does it go back a little further for the Kurds? I guess what I’m asking if I can rephrase this, Is this when their national consciousness begins to take shape, inasmuch as it influences their political consciousness today?

BD: Yeah. I really think, a sort of ethnic consciousness, and then later a sort of nationalist consciousness. I think the nationalist consciousness emerges later on, but the ethnic consciousness emerges really early on. I mean, in the Ottoman documents we see already references to “Kurdistan”, an actual land of the Kurds, very early on. We see this in the 1700s. So this suggests that the Kurds were very emphatic that “we’re different ethnically, and this is our nation”, so to speak, Kurdistan. So the idea of Kurdistan is a very old one.

PH: Okay. Now, as we were getting into this I think you probably knew some of the questions I was prone to ask you. But you were mentioning, of course, the Armenian Genocide. We all kind of come at topics with certain assumptions and prejudices, which you’ve mentioned, and I’ve heard this said by a number of people, that we make the comparison very often between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust committed by the Germans. And sometimes these assumptions can take a really violent shaking when you look at them more closely. And just thinking, in particular, of the Armenian Genocide, or even more broadly at some of the modern prejudices of the nationa-states that formed out of the Ottoman Empire, some of which, in the case of Armenia, have been very insistent on this being declared a genocide, and the United States has to tiptoe around this, implying that something bad happened but never using the word genocide. And so this remains a very touchy issue. And with ISIS now, I can assume it’s only going to get more touchy, all of these ethnic and religious conflicts. So I just wanted to ask you, based on these prejudices and assumptions that we have, what surprised you most about your findings as you did this research? Because, you know, based on what you’re saying, German, Welsh, and English background, you come from a similar background as myself, and I’m wondering, what really hit you over the head and made you say “ah, maybe I should reconsider this.”

BD: What really surprised me is the fact that many of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were armed and they could hold their own, and they were strong. This is surprising, given the fact that, if you go to Istanbul during that time, or other parts of the Ottoman Empire, the Christians were treated differently – they were the businessmen, the merchants, the financiers, the doctors, and they just held those positions, they didn’t hold any government positions. But in Eastern Anatolia,  there were these semi-independent Armenian enclaves that I was just fascinated to find out about, and how they managed to hold their own in many battles. I was fascinated especially because I think that it’s interesting that, in spite of the oppression and persecution that Armenians ended up facing, how much they held on to Armenian-ness, how much they held on to religion – most of them were Orthodox, of the Apostolic Armenian Church. I just think it’s interesting how minorities will continue to hold onto their traditions in spite of the odds against them.

PH: And when did it start to change? When did the situation change from them being able to really hold their own, to be armed and able to defend themselves, and when did they lose that ability to such an extent that the massacres that took place in 1915 could be perpetrated? Or is that beyond the scope of your work?

BD: I’ll go ahead and answer it. I think that what ends up happening is that, as Russia enters the fray, the Muslims of the region start developing their own consciousness. Before that, they’re very much divided and they’re more interested in tribal affiliations, but as Russia enters the fray, they start identifying themselves more as Muslims in contradistinction to Christians. And even Kurds – well, the Kurds joined Russia, and that’s another surprising find, is that the Kurds, in spite of being Muslims, would fight on the Armenian Empire on the side of Russia. And so once the Muslims started to develop their own national consciousness, or emphasized that a their main identity because of Russia, they start acquiring arms and they start acquiring technology, organizing, and communicating among wider circles. And by the time we hit 1878, by the time the Russians and the Ottomans fight in that 1878 war, the Kurds, especially, gain much greater Muslim and Kurdish consciousness, and they start seeing the Armenians as a huge threat. The problem is that the Armenians, in spite of these enclaves existing, they are very much isolated, and they aren’t connected together. And because they aren’t connected together, that’s a huge tactical disadvantage for them against the Kurds and Muslims who, once they’ve kind of figured out that the tribal affiliations aren’t as important and decide to put those intertribal conflicts aside to fight a greater conflict against the “infidel threat”, so to speak, they set that aside and start fighting the Armenians. And as we go on, what happens is the Armenians develop a different consciousness, too. Many of them are influenced by socialism and Narodnaya Volya, sort of an anarchist extremist group who assassinated the czar in 1881 – they were very much a nihilist, anarchist group. And so some of the Armenians form these revolutionary parties, which are aimed at sort of insane anarchist tactics, and they are even willing  – and this is beyond the scope of my dissertation, as this happens during the 1880s and 1890s – but one of their tactics is to provoke conflict, to actually self-sacrifice for the purpose of attracting attention. The idea is that what happened in the Balkans, when the people in the Balkans were able to garner the attention of Britain and Russia, well, the Armenians aren’t able to, so we’ve got to really shake things up, get their attention, and through this means we’ll gain greater autonomy. So, because of this, because of all these rumors, and because of some interesting episodes that really happened, when people were feeling threatened, a lot of conspiracy theory, a lot of paranoia starts to spread among the Muslims of Anatolia. More and more, Kurds and Muslims, even Turks, start to distrust Armenians, and they start to think, “We don’t know who you are. We don’t know if you’re revolutionary, and we don’t know if you’re on the Ottoman side.” And it just gets worse and worse, and by 1915 what ends up happening is Russia invades the Ottoman Empire, and along with them are tens of thousands of Armenian volunteer units, and they instigate Armenian uprisings. There’s a revolt in the city of Van by Armenians, and they basically take it and want to create an independent Armenia in that region, and Muslims feel very uneasy about this, and they come to the idea that, well “we’re either going to be killed, or they have to be killed.” And I think this is why the massacres occur in 1915. The Kurds are extremely paranoid, and they figured the Armenians were of no use to them. It’s mainly the Kurds and mainly local groups that end up taking the initiative against the Armenians, and some state figures, as well.

PH: Okay. Very interesting. So we’ve talked a bit about the presuppositions that were sometimes shattered and sometimes just led to interesting research. Now, as you were doing the research, as you were reading all this very fascinating stuff, what was the biggest difficulty you faced in researching this topic. I mean, we’ve talked about the enormous mass of archival material you were dealing with: you were dealing with at least three or four different languages, all kinds of different peoples, and a lot of strongly held opinions, so what was the biggest difficulty that you faced here?

BD: I think the biggest difficulty is the fact that there is a lot of information available in the archives, available in the memoirs; missionaries travel throughout the area, and they write quite a bit about Eastern Anatolia –

PH: I’d like to say here, as a note for our listeners, that reading through your dissertation as the editor, I found that one of the most interesting sources of information, was all of the notes from missionaries who were writing about it.

BD: Yeah, it’s fascinating. It’s interesting why these missionaries wee there. I think they just felt some sort of messianic calling that, “Oh, we need to spread the Gospel to all these peoples.” And it was a great adventure for them, and then of course they contacted people back in Britain and the United States and said, “be in contact with me, and watch out for what I’m doing.” And they stayed in contact with government and consular officials, as well. Nonetheless, they’re a good source of information. But yeah, the problem is, there’s just so much information, it’s hard to sift through it. It’s almost like, a lot of times, I just had to take a step back and think to myself … just sort of brainstorm or hypothesize about, How did this all happen? What am I really looking at, and how did it all happen? And then just come up with a theory of how it all happened, and then I’d test that theory against some of the stuff that I’d read, and say, okay, this confirms it, then the other things that I’d read, I’d say, “okay, this is not true”, and I’d revise it. But, to tell you the truth I don’t think I really had a good sense of the main idea of my dissertation until later on after I’d already written several chapters. And then once I was trying to tie it all together, it just kind of dawned on me, and I said, “oh, we’ll just kind of talk about the different reasons for conflicts. You know, sometimes people are jut divided along different lines, other than religion and ethnicity – that’s not the only reason why people fight each other. And that was the case in Eastern Anatolia, where they fought each other along all sorts of different lines.

PH: Okay. And so, having done that tying together, having basically done a fantastic job of tying all of that together and dealing with all of these problems, I wanted to know, in case any of your fellow graduate cohort is listening right now, and for the other graduate students who are doing this, what advice would you give to people doing serious, in-depth graduate studies in the humanities. This is a difficult thing to do, so what advice would you give to those taking the first steps?

BD: I think that one of the problems in graduate studies and in humanities specialties, is that it’s hard to find a good topic, and it’s hard to narrow it down. What helped me was actually just listening to the news, and listening to current debates. And then I got a good sense of talking points on different sides, and then I tried to apply that to the past, realizing that the past is different, and it’s not the same, but at the same time, we’ve developed a lot more philosophical tools for analyzing how humans interact and how they behave. And this shows up in debates. And the nice thing about debates is that they’re easy to follow. They aren’t thick. Also, on a lot of different debates, you probably have an opinion, a very strong opinion, and so you want to tap into what that strong opinion is, and you want to try to understand human nature. You know, “how do I understand human nature? Why are people doing all this stuff? What are my real ideas?” Once you kind of tap into that energy, then you can read documents with a sort of filter, and I think once you do that, once you have the filter in mind, it’s a lot easier to do.

PH: It’s fascinating that you actually used contemporary debates explicitly in spelling out how you were going to approach this historical subject. I think that’s telling of a lot of what history is doing these days, in terms of, it’s not merely understanding the past, it’s understanding the present, as well. And that was your explicit mindset in doing this. I think that’s really cool. Is there anything else you’d like to say to scholars out there in the world who want to look at this topic?

BD: Specifically my topic, or this area that I’m covering?

PH: Yeah, either.

BD: I think that, as a grad student, I did a lot of research because I was interested in it. It just interested me. And it’s good to do that sort of research, but it’s also good to try to tie it to another audience, to try to attract other people, try to see what is interesting people, and what is drawing their attention, and maybe try to write to that, a little bit. And I think it’s true that, by drawing people’s attention, you can hopefully develop a network and find opportunities in the future for how to use your research, be it at a think tank or in a teaching position in a university, ort as a research librarian. I mean, there’s all sorts of ways you can use your research, but you have to be creative. The nice thing is that part of the journey is you’re just getting the chance to look at some of these issues in depth, and I know a lot of people – I’ve worked in international business and other communities – and I’ve just always met people who’ve said that, “oh, man, I’m just so busy with my job now. I wish I could look at these sorts of issues in depth.” So, relish the time that you have to do that, because not everybody has that chance, and there are so may people who say, “I wish I could study religion. I wish I could study conflict more. It’s just so fascinating to me, and I’ve got no time.” That’s something I’ve just enjoyed about grad school even though it’s been a lot of struggles, and it doesn’t pay well, and there’s a lot of anxiety about this and that, sure, but, you know, it’s a fun ride. What life is about should be pursuing some of your passions.

PH: That’s very good to hear. On that note, do you know where the ride is taking you now, what the next step is, or is it too early to say?

BD: I’ve kind of looked at the market, just the job market in general, and I’ve been a type of person who’s had a lot of fingers in different pots. I was in international business a while ago, in the energy industry, in the fuel industry just recently. So I was using my different language skills to help do that. As the oil prices dropped, I got laid off, so I decided to go back and start teaching. For me personally, being in Utah has been really financially advantageous. My wife has a good job here, we have an amazing house that we rent out part of, because it has an amazing basement. It’s just a bunch of little different factors that make me say, “Okay, I should try to shape my career around here.” But you know, I’ve worked in the government for a little bit, too. I ‘ve worked for a consulting firm in DC for a little bit. So there are all sorts of little things that I’ve done. I think it’s important just to keep options open. Right now I just really like teaching, just standing up in front of a classroom and trying to explain how things happened.

PH: You’re very good at it.

BD: Oh, thank you. I like seeing students learn. I like the feeling when they see how it fits together. I like trying to help orient them, because the future’s always changing and you never know what’s going to happen. So I like trying to help orient them to use your mind, use your skills, try to chisel out something that works for you.

PH: Okay. Excellent. We wish you the very best of luck on that, Brad. This has been Brad Ronald Dennis talking about his dissertation Explaining Ceoxistence and Conflict in Eastern Anatolia 1800-1878. So we wish Brad the best of luck, and thank you for joining us.

BD: Alright. Thank you very much.