As prototypes of what we recognize as Arab and Turkish nationalism today, the terms Arabism and Turkism, despite (or perhaps because of ) their indeterminacy, have served a useful purpose in thinking about early forms of Arab and Turkish nationalism. It would, however, be useful to bring more clarity to these terms, particularly because they do not have entirely parallel connotations.
The most common use of Arabism and Turkism is with respect to Arab and Turkish cultural and literary sentiments and currents. Cultural Arabism and Turkism, as they emerged in the late nineteenth century, signified more than an articulation of the distinctness of Arab or Turkish cultural markers. Rather, they represented the activation of cultural elements by intellectuals responding to social, political, and economic currents of the second half of the nineteenth century. Arabism and Turkism resulted from the mobilization of latent as well as newly forged elements of identity. Since Ernest Dawn identified Arabism as an oppositional cultural-political identification to Ottomanism, historians have referred to Arabism in describing a variety of political movements and currents among Arabs short of demands for Arab sovereignty. The range of connotations that Turkism has conveyed, in contrast, has remained rather narrow.
Arabism did not evolve into political nationalism during the period under study. To argue this on the basis of Ernest Gellner’s conception of nationalism as “a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent” would, of course, not be of much value in studying the empire. Somewhat more nuanced is John Breuilly’s conception that views a movement as a nationalist one if it seeks to secede from the state, to take it over, or to unite it with another state. Despite their denunciation of the Ottoman government, viewed as Turkish and Turkifying, most Arabists did not disavow the monarchy and lacked a clear conception of the territorial basis of a national Arab unit. Nevertheless, Arabism was closely connected to politics. Even if one does not subscribe to Dawn’s instrumentalist representation of Arabism, its relationship to empire-wide political agendas needs to be appraised in addressing it as Arab protonationalism.
Hobsbawm, who subscribes to a similar approach in the study of nationalism as Gellner by privileging its relationship with the nation-state, distinguishes three phases in the development of national movements (following Miroslav Hroch). Phase A is “purely cultural, literary and folkloric [with] no political or even national implications.” In phase B militants and activists engage in political propaganda to mobilize the cultural group. Finally, in phase C “nationalist programmes acquire mass support, or at least some of the mass support that nationalists always claim they represent.”
The first phase of Arabism and Turkism in Hroch and Hobsbawm’s terms predated the second constitutional period. Starting in the late nineteenth century there was an increased consciousness of an ethnic community among the Muslim groups. On the one hand, readily identifiable (primordial) group attributes were activated under the influence of enhanced communications, education, and commerce. On the other hand, there was the formulation and embellishment of these group attributes as new constructs. This did not occur under the direct influence of European cultural or political nationalism, rather as independent indigenous responses to reform and relative decline. Phase B of the Arab movement started in the second constitutional period, spurred by new freedoms of expression and beginnings of politics. Turkist trends in this period lagged in the category of phase A. Extrapolations of Turkism in the form of pan-Turkism did not impart to it a political content that had relevance to imperial political realities. Arabism, on the other hand, nourished political agendas that fit in with broader imperial patterns of political contestation, though it did not engender a coherent exclusionary or separatist Arab nationalist program. Its proponents vied for political goals and enhanced recognition within the imperial system. Politicization of Arabism did not lead to nationalism in the sense defined by Gellner or Breuilly, nor did it culminate in Hobsbawm’s phase C.