From the first half of the nineteenth century, when the spread of nationalism in the Balkans and the apparent weakness of the Ottoman state vis-à-vis imperialist Europe strengthened disintegrationist movements in the empire, Ottomanism evolved as a supranationalist ideology designed to arrest these trends by creating state patriotism and allegiance to the ruler who embodied the state. A constantly redefined Ottomanism accommodated the many changes in the political fortunes of the empire until its final partitioning at the end of World War I.
Ottomanism as conceived during the Tanzimat promoted an identity based on territory; predicated upon the political equality of subjects regardless of religious affiliation and reinforced by a sense of loyalty to the House of Osman. Political equality had little appeal to the Muslim subjects who felt their psychological superiority within the Ottoman polity compromised. Thus, the secularizing Tanzimat policies in fact contributed to an overarching Muslim collective identity and reduced the likelihood of the politicization of ethnicity among the Muslims, who confronted Christian Europe and nationalist movements of Ottoman Christians.
The literary-political quest of the Young Ottomans for a constitutional representative regime culminated in the declaration of the 1876 constitution and the institution of Parliament. Parliament signified recognition of regional interests and of the political power of ascendant social groups in the provinces. While such power was forcefully asserted against the Palace and the Porte, a basis for a communality deriving from a common ethnic background did not emerge among the different Muslim groups in Parliament. Arab deputies were concerned with issues pertaining to either their local constituencies or to the empire at large.
Sultan Abdülhamid perceived the threat to his prerogatives latent in the constitutional regime and aborted the first Parliament. His Islamic policy shifted the emphasis in Ottomanism toward a reorientation of exclusive political allegiance to the sultan-caliph. Arabism and Turkism as protonationalist currents grew during the long reign of Sultan Abdülhamid on a literary and cultural level. The main thrust of political activity under Abdülhamid focused on the reinstitution of the constitution. Many Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, played a prominent role in the opposition movement. The constitutionalist groups in Europe as well as the younger generation of disaffected students in the capital included in their ranks Arabs who were ideologically opposed to the Hamidian regime. As the constitutional movement matured during Abdülhamid’s long reign, two distinct and rival political currents evolved among the constitutionalists: the centralist and decentralist. Arab and Turkish constitutionalists remained divided between these two currents, while the decentralist platform had a manifest appeal to the remaining Christian communities for cultural and economic reasons.
Evidence of isolated instances of subversive activity and occasional manifestos point to sporadic attempts to politicize Arab and, to a lesser extent, Turkish national consciousness in the second half of the nineteenth century. Arabist initiatives came mostly, though not exclusively, from Christians, many residing in Europe. Turkism had its strongest proponents within the ranks of Russian-Turkish immigrant intellectuals in İstanbul, who envisaged for Turkism a more universal range of influence than was the concern of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The sympathetic response to these political currents remained limited.
The view that Turkish nationalism engendered Arab nationalism has been long adopted by historians explicitly or implicitly, just as George Antonius’s presupposition about the early-nineteenth-century origins of Arab nationalism had not been questioned for many years. Non-Turkish opponents of the Committee of Union and Progress construed the Unionist policy of centralization as a methodical policy of Turkification. The Unionists’ eventual commitment to centralization was unmistak able. They viewed administrative centralization as a prerequisite to achieve the Ottomanist ideal, which assumed a new meaning under the constitutional order introduced in 1908. The Election Law was revised to exclude the requirement of proportional representation from different religious groups and aimed at replacing communal politics with party politics. This ideal of a secular and centralized civic Ottoman collectivity proved to be undesirable for Christian communities, not necessarily because it was found unworkable, but because it challenged the rights and privileges they had acquired as distinct communities. Charges of Turkification as an agenda to homogenize Ottoman peoples became the focal point of the decentralist propaganda of all non-Turkish opponents of the CUP. Such charges on the part of Arabs were based, first, on the enforcement of Ottoman Turkish in postelementary education, courts, and administrative offices and, second, on the relative scarcity of Arabs among the holders of higher state offices.
The uniform enforcement of Ottoman throughout the empire was viewed in İstanbul as a prerequisite for effective centralization. Benedict Anderson draws a distinction between the two different uses of a state language. It can be an administrative language, “a language used by and for officialdoms for their inner convenience [with no] idea of systematically imposing the language on the…various subject populations,” or it can be a tool employed by rulers “confronted with the rise of hostile popular linguistic-nationalisms.” The Unionist policies did not jeopardize the use of Arabic in the press, in primary education, or in matters pertaining to religion. The use of Ottoman in state institutions had a pragmatic goal consistent with the centralist agenda, which was supported by large sections of the Arabs. Furthermore, Ottoman had always served as the state language, and its use in administration or secondary education did not constitute a new departure.
The second matter that caused resentment (and rendered to interpretation as a main facet of Turkification) was the low proportion of Arabs among incumbents of high office. The Young Turk policies were perceived as discriminatory partly because the Unionist purge of the Hamidian cadres from important positions had resulted in the dismissal of many Arabs, the influential ones from the palace coterie of Abdülhamid. Historical patterns of recruitment, in fact, point to low Arab representation in the highest ranks of the İstanbul bureaucracy. Setting aside the aberration of the Hamidian regime, which departed from bureaucratic norms in the recruitment of a palace administration, the Young Turk period compared more favorably to past patterns with respect to the recruitment of Arabs. A comparison of the 1877–78 and 1908 Parliaments does not show a relative decline in the size of Arab representation. Unless the same prejudices can be ascribed to Abdülhamid or the statesmen of his regime, the reasons for underrepresentation should be sought in institutional and structural rather than ideological factors.
The Young Turk regimes responded to the various demands voiced by Arabs for a larger representation in state offices and a wider use of Arabic in the Arab provinces. Measures such as a stricter and more uniform enforcement of Ottoman Turkish in courts were repealed in view of local opposition and their impracticability. In 1913 and 1914 İstanbul took several steps in the direction of the fulfillment of the demands of the Arab Congress and the reform societies, including demands pertaining to the language question.
The leadership of the CUP consisted almost exclusively of Turkish speakers. Unsophisticated about questions of nationality, the Unionists betrayed Turkish chauvinism, particularly by their refusal to broaden the geographical, ethnic, and religious base of their core organization. However, they upheld the imperial polity and multiethnic agendas rather than implement a Turkish nationalist program in the conduct of state affairs. In fact, Turkish nationalist activity continued to be restricted to the cultural-literary domain. The CUP as a political party subscribed to Ottomanist and Islamist political ideals. Like Arabs, Turks (including Union ist Turks) carried multiple layers of identities. Some Unionists were attracted to Turkism, but cultural identities and allegiances did not correspond to political agendas.
Though the CUP initially attempted to dismantle the network of alliances that the Hamidian regime had forged in the countryside, political expediency gradually forced the Unionists to compromise with established landed and commercial interests, especially in those parts of the empire where the Committee’s organization was rudimentary and the semifeudal relationships were strong between urban notables and peasants or tribes. Thus, the CUP alienated some components of the constitutional opposition that had shared its social values and political goals. Furthermore, the decentralist trend reasserted itself and commanded wide appeal as the CUP’s popularity, which had derived from its role in the restoration of the constitution, diminished and as unrealistic expectations were disappointed. The Liberal-decentralist opposition was also joined by some notables who were excluded either by personal choice or by regional competitors from a symbiotic relationship with the Committee. Arab exponents of decentralization utilized the rhetoric of Turkification to discredit the Unionist governments. What one revisionist reexamination of nineteenth-century Russification (in this case, that of the Baltic provinces) concludes is also true for the Ottoman Empire: Turkification, like Russification, can “no longer serve as a generic designation of a constant governmental policy: it has been used in too many contexts as a term of political agitation and to articulate certain fears.”
The CUP remained the most important political group in the Ottoman Empire during the second constitutional period. Yet, different factors prevented the Committee from completely imposing its will in the government of the empire: the political inexperience of its leadership, the predominance of older politicians, the influence of European governments, strong political opposition, economic difficulties and dependency, international complications, an imperfect organizational structure as a political party, and, last but not least, differences of opinion among a diffuse leadership. Only for a brief interlude from mid-1913 to the outbreak of the world war in 1914 was the Committee able to overcome some of these handicaps. This period also witnessed a renewed emphasis on Islam as the ideological basis of the Ottoman Empire, which now consisted predominantly of Muslim peoples.
Secular Ottomanism failed to live up to the expectations of Young Turks. Its weakness was revealed and its relevance diminished as an ideology as separatist movements and dismemberment in Europe continued. In view of the fact that Arabs and Turks constituted the large majority of the empire in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and that religion continued to be the primary focus of allegiance for the Muslim masses, Ottomanism underwent a final redefinition to stress Islam as its main underpinning.
Thus, the Unionists came to rely on religion in their quest for centralization and social harmony much as their nemesis Abdülhamid had. Both the sultan and the CUP reacted to the failure of a secular experiment in arresting disintegration by turning to the powerful symbols and vocabulary of Islam. Islam’s “egalitarian doctrine” and “its scripturalist, orderly, restrained theology made it compatible with the requirements both of centralising regimes and of developmental programmes.” Compared with Hamidian Islamism, Young Turk Islamism had a better chance to serve as a unifying ideology given the new political and demographic circumstances that made the empire much less of a religious patchwork. The official emphasis on Islam defused the political overtones and divisive potential of Arabism and Turkism.
Discussions of Arab or Turkish nationalism in the prewar period are for the most part ambiguous with regard to the political framework within which the professed nationalist ideologies were to find expression. References to Turkish nationalism in the Young Turk period evoke the image of a political project that would unite all the Turks, if not all the so-called Turanian peoples. The Arab provinces would then be either forsaken or Turkified. References to Arab nationalism, in turn, bring to mind a political movement encompassing all Arab populated areas of the empire, whereas it would be more appropriate to refer to “Syrianism” rather than Arab nationalism in the period before the world war. Both the decentralists in the major towns of Syria and the Arab voices calling (mostly from Europe or Egypt) for a political existence independent of İstanbul thought in terms of Syria when espousing Arab group consciousness as a political idiom. The ambivalence about Sharif Husayn’s revolt revealed the preponderance of localist (and Ottomanist) attitudes in Syria.
The predominant sentiment among the Arabs of the Ottoman Empire in the Young Turk period favored allegiance to the Ottoman sultan and remaining as an integral part of the Islamic empire, even though demands for decentralization within this framework were voiced more and more loudly. Notions of Arab independence that had been current but not popular since the second half of the nineteenth century gained strength at times of unsuccessful foreign entanglements of the Ottoman government because of a desire to mitigate the impact of probable foreign hegemony following a breakdown of the Ottoman state. As early as 1878, when Russian armies came within miles of İstanbul, several groups—Christian and Muslim—in Syria called for Syrian independence. Similarly, in 1912 Ottoman involvement in wars against a coalition of powerful Balkan states fueled the propensity for independence in Beirut, Damascus, and Basra. Such stirrings frequently received European backing. Finally, during World War I Sharif Husayn’s conviction that rendering support to the Ottoman government against the British would result in the political demise of his dynastic family and the encouragement he received from segments of a disintegrated Arab elite in the rest of the empire initiated the Arab Revolt. This showdown in a side theater, with active British support, contributed to the separation of the Arab regions from the empire and, under the new geopolitical realities of foreign occupation, prepared the ground for the rise of particularistic nationalist movements in Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent.
1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 45. [BACK]
2. In 1877 these provinces sent fewer than 15 percent of all deputies, as opposed to closer to 25 percent in 1908 (20 percent, excluding Turkish deputies from Arab provinces). The rise corresponds to the increased weight of the Arab population in shrinking boundaries. [BACK]
3. Michael Garleff, “Relations between the Political Representation of the Baltic Provinces and the Russian Government, 1850–1917,” in Governments, Ethnic Groups, and Political Representation, ed. Geoffrey Alderman in collaboration with John Leslie and Klaus Erich Pollmann (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1993), 225. [BACK]
4. Ernest Gellner’s foreword to Arjomand, ix. [BACK]
5. Both Arab nationalists like ‘Abd al-Ghani al-‘Uraysi, who had dwelled on the presumed irreligiosity of the Unionists—if not Turks in general—in order to strike an Arab nationalist chord, and Turkish nationalists like Ziya Gökalp, who had made Islam a cornerstone of their thought, utilized religion as a political vehicle. Yet, “religion played a secondary role in the thinking of al-‘Uraysi,” and Ziya Gökalp opposed the CUP leadership, though a member of the Committee, for its Ottomanist and Islamic policies. On al-‘Uraysi, see Khalidi, “al-‘Uraysi,” 30, and on Gökalp, Taha Parla, The Social and Political Thought of Ziya Gökalp, 1876–1924 (Leiden: Brill, 1985), 15. [BACK]