In trying to cross the perilous waters between the Turkish coast and the Greek islands, the Syrian refugees who hope to escape the tyranny of the Assad government or the self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS, symbolize a long chain of mass violence and migrations during the last century.

From 1922 to 1924, about a million Ottoman Greeks were forced to migrate from Anatolia to Greece, either fleeing war or obeying the internationally binding legal arrangement of population exchange. In return, millions of Muslims who found themselves within the new borders of Greece, were forced to migrate to Turkey between 1912 and 1924.

In the aftermath of the First World War, US President Wilson’s ideal of homogenous nation-states emerged as panacea supposed to cure the pains caused by multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires such as the Ottoman Empire. But this magic pill proved to be highly poisonous, shattering millions of lives by justifying countless cases of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and population transfers.

One powerful way that the current nation-state order has naturalized its own inevitability is through its monopoly over certain historical narratives. According to dominant nationalist narratives, for example, Greece has always been a civilized, white, Christian nation, which lived under the rule of oppressive, barbaric Muslim Ottoman sultans. Thus, not only Greek independence in 1830, but the full unmixing of Muslim and Christian populations of Greece and Turkey, became necessary to fulfil the separation from the somewhat “other.”

A similar nationalist monopoly exists with regard to the Ottoman Caliphate. The caliphate is generally seen as a remnant of primordial Muslim religious and legal obligations, which were eventually discarded by secular nationalism. But from this perspective it is impossible to understand why Indian Muslims who had never been governed by the Ottomans began to express their spiritual loyalty to the Ottoman caliphs – at the peak of the new European imperialism.

Indian Muslims were drawn to the caliphate, not because it was oppressing non-Muslim subjects, but precisely the opposite: they emphasized that the government in Istanbul appointed Jewish, Greek, and Armenian ministers and ambassadors, while the British Empire was reserving higher-level positions for white Christians. The caliphate became a symbol for enlightened societal conditions. Nonetheless, loyalist Indian Muslims criticized racism within the British Empire, without rejecting the legitimacy of the empire itself.

A century passed, from 1914, when the caliphate in Istanbul was a symbol of imperial Cosmopolitanism and inclusion, to 2014, when the newly self-proclaimed caliphate in Mosul became a symbol of exclusion, violence, and oppression of minorities. We need critically to examine this intervening century, retrospectively defined as an era of nationalism and nation-state formation, to understand why the global community condoned a political system of structural violence and exclusion. Further, we must rescue modern world history from the prison of nationalist narratives in order to promote inclusive pluralistic societies today.