The International in Security

by Pinar Bilgin, Bilkent University

In what follows, I start out by telling the story of Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz’s visit to the 1867 Paris World Fair. I chose this story because it allows me to tease out—what I term—‘the international in security’. Studying ‘the international in security’ refers inquiring into the ways in which others’ conceptions of the international shape their insecurities and/or conceptions of security. While security as viewed through the lenses of European great powers and later the United States has shaped the study of security, insecurities as experienced and/or conceptualised in the rest of the world did not always find their way into our studies. Let me begin with the story of the Ottoman Sultan before suggesting the need for inquiring into ‘the international in security’.

The Ottoman Sultan at the Paris World Fair

During the nineteenth century, world fairs served as occasions for states and empires to showcase their technological and cultural accomplishments. Previous fairs were held in Paris (1844), London (1851 and 1862) and New York (1853). What was different about the 1867 Paris fair was its universalist pretentions. While the previous world fairs focused mostly on ‘Europe’, the organisers of the 1867 Paris fair had made a special effort for the world outside ‘Europe’ also to be represented. Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz was invited by the French Emperor Napoleon III as his personal guest.

41 delegations in total were present at the 1867 World Fair. The Parisian hosts’ use of space gave away their view of the world. At the very centre was the main building where ‘Europe’s industrial and cultural achievements were displayed. During the nineteenth century, such portrayals helped to put ‘Europe’ at the centre of narratives of world history to the neglect of Europe’s debts to others, as discussed in John Hobson’s book, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (2004). Since most industrial achievements were attributed solely to ‘Europe’, their ‘cultural’ differences were what all the others were left with for showcasing purposes. In small pavilions surrounding the main building, everyday lives of those coming from outside ‘Europe’ were put on display in their custom-built villages, coffeehouses and/or temples/mosques. In some cases, the ‘natives’ also put on ‘shows’ based on their everyday practices (Corbey 1995). As with many other delegations that were coming from outside ‘Europe’, the Ottomans had participated in the Paris World Fair to display their ‘civilization’ and counter prevalent representations of Ottoman ‘savagery’, while remaining cognizant of being on display due to their differences (Deringil 2003).

Sultan Abdülaziz’s Paris visit was a significant occasion for the Ottomans. For, it was the first time an Ottoman Sultan arrived at the land of dar-ül-harb (zone of war, according to the Ottomans’ spatial approach to the international) for reasons other than waging war. Some at home objected to an Ottoman Sultan visiting dar-ül-harb for non-war reasons. Some others offered the solution that special shoes be prepared, putting in a sole layered with Ottoman soil so that Sultan Abdülaziz would technically remain on dar-ül-sulh (zone of peace) throughout his visit (Zaptcioglu 2012). We do not know whether the Sultan actually wore these shoes. Nonetheless, he traipsed through multiple worlds: Europe/non-Europe; civilized/savage; dar-ül-harb/dar-ül-sulh.

Sultan Abdülaziz’s visit was a significant occasion for his French hosts as well. The Sultan’s appearance is reported to have caused awe and wonder in Paris. This was not because he was so ‘different’, but because he did not seem as ‘different’ as an Ottoman Sultan was imagined to be. Sultan Abdülaziz was dressed in military attire very similar to European military uniforms of the time. The only significant difference was his headgear, the fez. He was also not that different in in terms of demeanour; for the way he handled himself in Paris social circles was entirely keeping with the European norms of the time. Many expressed disappointment with the Ottoman Sultan’s semblance to his European counterparts, passing the verdict that Sultan Abdülaziz was not ‘authentic’ (Zaptcioglu 2012).

The international in security

By the time the 1867 Paris world fair was organised, the Ottoman view of its own position in the world had increasingly come under challenge. Previously, at the high time of the Empire, Ottoman notion of the international rested on a hierarchical view of the world driven from a Muslim cosmology, which placed the Ottomans at the top of the hierarchy as the protector of dar ul sulh (peace in the land of Islam). Contrary to popular representations, this Muslim cosmology did not demand war with non-Muslims (those who lived in dar ul harb); but placed non-Muslim and Muslims on different pedestals in relation to the Ottoman self. Neither Muslim nor non-Muslim others were considered the Empire’s equals. However, whereas the former were designated as ‘the protected’ (through conquest if needed) the latter were accorded no such protection – unless, that is they specifically asked for help and were then placed under protection. From the late 17th century onwards, as the Empire experienced one battlefield loss after another, Ottomans found it increasingly difficult to hold on to such a hierarchical view of world politics (Abou el Haj 1974)

Sultan Abdülaziz’s insecurity was not isolated to military losses but was rooted in the challenge to the Ottoman notion of the international. Whereas they previous considered the Empire on top of a hierarchy driven from a Muslim cosmology, from the 18th century onwards, they found themselves located on a different hierarchy by European great powers. In this latter hierarchy, the Ottomans had not only lost their top position but were not even considered an equal of the European great powers. Rather, the Ottoman Empire was placed outside of ‘the Civilization’, which warranted a particular treatment (Bilgin 2012). Those who were considered as civilized had their relations governed by International Law as evolved in European diplomatic practices. Those who were considered lacking in terms of civilization were, in turn, not allowed those rights and protections that were accorded by International Law (Grovogui). The Ottoman Sultan’s in/security was rooted as much in such portrayals of the Empire as they were in battlefield losses. The 1867 Paris World Fair was considered an important opportunity by the Ottoman rulers to showcase the Empire’s own civilized status and make a claim for equal treatment in the world arena (Deringil 2003).

Neither of these two instances of in/security could be found in mainstream treatises on security. This is not only because ‘security’ as a term and as a notion has become common currency only in the second half of the 20th century. Aforementioned instances of in/security did not get reported also because the mainstream approaches study security in a way that does not allow considering ‘the international in security’, how others’ conceptions of the international shape their insecurities and/or conceptions of security.

Pinar Bilgin is Associate Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at War Studies, King’s College London. She is the author of Regional Security in the Middle East: A Critical Perspective (Routledge, 2005).