Opinion differs as to the significance of the Arab movements before World War I. Dawn’s revisionism about the scope and strength of Arabism has been noted in more recent scholarship. In contrast, his conclusion about the unlikely role of Turkish nationalism in the development of Arab nationalism has not received similar attention. The view still prevails that the 1908 Revolution gave a most significant impetus to Turkish nationalism in the Ottoman polity, which in turn elicited a response in kind from the Arabs. To be sure, there is more recently the realization of the need to modify this view in two directions: by differentiating more precisely between Turkification and perceptions of centralization, and by focusing on the impact of European colonialism (on the rise during the Young Turk period) as another important factor in the growth of Arab nationalism. In the absence of research in Ottoman sources, however, Turkish nationalism and “Turkification,” as systematic policies of the Young Turk governments, have remained immune to serious revisionist scrutiny.
Critics of nationalist-minded historiography have not modified the prevailing common wisdom. With respect to the early modern period, for instance, Rifa‘t ‘Ali Abou-el-Haj aptly comments, “[W]e must research, think, and write less within the parameters of an inevitable but exclusive nationalist model, and more along the lines of an inclusive, universalist culture and society.” In the epilogue of his book, Abou-el-Haj looks beyond the period he examines to remark, “The nineteenth century Ottoman state took on other characteristics of the modern state, including a new ideology, Ottomanism, an uneasy mix of the old ideology (Ottoman culture and Islam) and modern nationalism.” He proceeds to conclude (and to converge with conventional wisdom), however, that “in the early twentieth century some Ottoman cultural elements and Islamic elements were abandoned in favor of Turkism, a more potent device based on an ethnic identity and dependent on a language-based nationalism.”
It is reasonable to assume that the Western-oriented segments of the Ottoman elite were drawn to the concept of the nation-state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but not in any ethnic sense. Şerif Mardin argues that in their attempts “to build a state modeled after the nation-state” these elites confronted three problems, all of which “brought into play the relations of the center with the periphery”: the integration of non-Muslim peoples, the integration of the Muslim periphery (which consisted in large part of the Arab provinces), and the incorporation of these two elements into a modern political system. The steady loss of largely non-Muslim-dominated regions made the integration of the Muslim periphery even more imperative. The creation of an inclusive society and polity based on consensus rather than coercion remained as the objective, to which an ethnic agenda would be anathema.
Eric Hobsbawm describes “belonging to a lasting political entity” as “the most decisive criterion of protonationalism.” The Young Turks envisaged the creation of a civic-territorial, indeed revolutionary- democratic, Ottoman political community by promoting an identification with the state and the country through the sultan and instituting representative government. Though they remained committed to the monarchy within the constitutional framework, they conceived of an Ottoman state and society akin to the French example in which religion and ethnicity would be supplanted by “state-based patriotism.” While it would be easy to dismiss the notion of a voluntaristic “Ottoman nation” based on rights of representation at this juncture, a quest for political integration that was premised on such a conception was perhaps not much more naive than were French revolutionary postulates about integration, as analyzed by Eugene Weber. The Young Turks did promote state-patriotism and clearly recognized the political risks, hinted by Hobsbawm, of blending it with “non-state nationalism.”