Saturday, October 27, 2007

Anthropologists in ideal position to convey the Ottoman Empire's secrets to the US

The US military is putting trained anthropologists into the field in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some anthropologists have responded by proposing a boycott of this "anthropologists on the battlefield" plan by the military (also known as the “human terrain” program). Writing in the NY Times, University of Chicago's Richard A. Schweder explains why a boycott is not such a wise idea, in the larger scheme of things:
. . . I began to imagine an occupying army of moral relativists, enforcing the peace by drawing a lesson from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lasted a much longer time than the British Empire in part because they had a brilliant counterinsurgency strategy. They did not try to impose their values on others. Instead, they made room — their famous “millet system” — for cultural pluralism, leaving each ethnic and religious group to control its own territory and at liberty to carry forward its distinctive way of life.
The Ottoman Turks knew the secret to keeping peace in the Middle East. One of the great tragic mistakes of the past century was the decision by the allies to break up the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. A Peace to End all Peace by David Fromkin remains one of most important books on the Middle East.

As Rick Schweder points out, the experience of the Ottoman Turks holds some important lessons for America. And so far as anthropologists can position themselves to help the United States to hear that message, so much the better.

Update: To read my follow-up to this post, click here.

1 comment:

  1. I think this boils down to the question: "Should harm-eschewing do-gooders work with those who kill people and blow things up in order to have more positive influence on them?"

    For instance if you were that Scottish kid in Uganda, offered the opportunity to advise Idi Amin as he tortured and murdered Uganda's population, wouldn't you take it? If that horny young fellow had taken his role a little more seriously, he might have been able to stop the expulsion of the Asians and all kinds of other atrocities and eventually moved Idi Amin to be more like Nelson Mandela.

    Or if you had the opportunity to be part of Hitler's inner circle as the Nazis carried out the Holocaust, shouldn't you have taken that position and tried to convince them to kill Jews at a slower pace so there would be more of them left over when the war was done?

    If we'd just take our silly vain moral ideals less seriously and instead became dispassionate pragmatists with a long view, the world would be a better place and people would be raped, murdered, occupied, tortured and oppressed with considerably more humanity and pluralism than they are today.


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