Reform and Centralization
Abdülhamid’s consent to restore the constitution in July 1908 immediately opened the door for political reform, and the Young Turks quickly forced measures that would prevent the return of autocracy. By imperial decree, the clauses in the 1876 constitution that had made possible the abrogation of that charter were revoked, establishing checks and balances between the legislature and the executive. The grand vizier acquired the right to appoint the cabinet, even though the religious prerogatives of the sultan as caliph were untouched. These early changes lacked a firm legal basis, as Marschall, the German ambassador, observed in September 1908: “Now the Constitution of 1876 includes a number of liberal principles with the rejoinder “as circumscribed by law.” Thus, Turkey has freedom of press but no Press Law, freedom of association, but no usable Law of Association.”
In the months after the revolution a plethora of ethnic-based cultural and political clubs emerged. They were tolerated in the name of freedom of association. Among the newly formed societies were the Greek Political Club (Rum Siyasi Kulübü), the Serbian-Ottoman Club (Sırp-Osmanlı Kulübü), the Armenian Dashnak (Federation), the Bulgarian Club, the Jewish Youth Club (Musevi Gençler Kulübü), the Lovers of Anatolia (Anadolu Muhibleri), the Albanian Bashkim (Union), and the Kurdish Mutual Aid Society (Kürt Teâvün Kulübü). The organizational structure and propaganda of some of these bodies soon clashed with the CUP’s vision of Ottoman unity. Concerned governors reported to İstanbul about nationalist activity of ethnic clubs. The governor of Trabzon mentioned the Armenian Club’s decentralist propaganda in the Black Sea town of Giresun, behind which, according to rumors, the group pursued secret nationalist objectives and was distributing guns. Kosova’s governor transmitted a translation of the program of the Serbian Club in Üsküp (Skopje) indicating that the group was assuming the appearance of a general national assembly. Faced with such reports the grand vizier urged the Council of State to draft a law regulating associations and public meetings as early as March 1909. The counterrevolutionary uprising of April 1909 intervened and underscored the urgency of disciplining the activities of associations.
Parliament deliberated on the first legislative acts to define the extent of the freedoms granted by the constitution only in the summer of 1909. It passed a Press Law on 29 July and a Law of Association on 16 August, both of which were designed to curb the freedoms that had been enjoyed with few restraints before the counterrevolution. Amendments to the 1876 constitution enacted in August 1909 enhanced Parliament’s powers to initiate legislation and render cabinet ministers responsible to the legislature individually as well as collectively. Parliament procrastinated in passing other legislation under consideration, such as the Provincial Law, which would have had to address the main points of contention between the CUP and its decentralist opposition. Yet the government did take a conscious interest in the social and material welfare of the provinces, though its efforts were haphazard and rarely backed by legislation.
Like other revolutionaries, the Young Turks accepted education as the pivot of all reform. They were convinced that an increased level of education, both formal and informal, would enhance public consciousness, render the Ottoman people more receptive to constitutional and liberal ideas, and help institute law and order. Unlike the educational policy of Ottoman regimes since the Tanzimat, the Young Turks saw the purpose of education as the enlightenment of all Ottomans rather than the training of administrative and military personnel. The CUP sought to achieve this not only through government sponsored compulsory education but also by mobilizing its resources as a popular society. Among its objectives as a society, the CUP put forth in the resolutions of its first congress in 1908, in addition to private schools and night classes, the recruitment of able instructors (particularly for industrial schools); assistance to chambers of commerce, agriculture, and industry; the publication of practical books and manuals; and sending students to Europe.
The factors that hampered reform in many other areas frustrated also the attempts to build educational institutions. In the first ten months that followed the revolution the Ministry of Education changed hands seven times. The CUP’s efforts to establish new schools throughout the country, including many in the Arab provinces, point to the Committee’s continuing conviction that progress and unity would follow from increased education. In 1909 the CUP opened a school for 500 students in Damascus in addition to smaller schools and night classes in other Syrian towns, Jerusalem, and somewhat later Medina. The funding for these projects came from donations.
The government observed closely the promotion of provincial newspapers and tried to increase the readership in the provinces. The proliferation and propagation of written material were the most important factors in the politicization of Ottoman society. Political journals introduced the literate to new ideas and initiated debates. Newspapers published selective portions of parliamentary debates. Indeed, the discourse produced by stormy articles and rebuttals made the daily press a more current forum for the discussion of national political issues than the floor of the Chamber. As many newspapers and journals gradually moved to the opposition camp, the CUP found out that manipulating a consensus among deputies in Parliament was easier than bridling the press.
The more backward areas of the Arab provinces received particular and immediate attention in terms of reforms. Two reports, one received from a member of Medina’s ulema, ‘Abd al-Rahman Ilyas Pasha, and another from a Najdi notable, Rashid Nasir, illustrate the concern felt for reforms in Arabia. While Rashid Nasir emphasized the need for officials familiar with the local language and customs, Ilyas Pasha listed as the leading difficulties in administration the ignorance of the people, the smuggling of arms on the Red Sea coast, and the arbitrary actions of local officials. Ilyas Pasha’s report was studied in İstanbul as the basis of a broader reform scheme not only for the Peninsula but also encompassing the tribal areas of Baghdad, Basra, and Syria. Aware of the difficulty of extending governmental authority in the outlying Arab provinces, the government repeatedly addressed the question of nomadic tribes. The Young Turks believed that a centralized administration could be established only if these tribes could be permanently settled; and they presumed that this could be achieved by providing them the benefits of education. The failure of a school opened in Karak to attract enough students showed that nomads were not enthusiastic about sending their children to school. Ilyas was given a salary to travel in the Peninsula in order to oversee the establishment of schools and to appoint instructors and preachers familiar with the disposition of the tribal elements.
Talat impressed upon the grand vizierate the need to single out the regions where reform would bring timely and tangible results and to tackle the job gradually with the help of a commission of investigation and with a thought-out order of priority. The implementation of drastic reforms within a short period in such a vast and undeveloped region as the Peninsula was considered unrealistic given the government’s limited financial and military capabilities. The Ministry of the Interior stressed that the backwardness of these regions did not come about as a result of Ottoman rule, but rather had existed from time immemorial. It could be corrected over time only by the constitutional government.
In the İstanbul papers, articles addressed conditions in the Arab provinces. “If the peasants of Anatolia have been subjected to so many injustices during [Abdülhamid’s] administration, how much more must the helpless people of the remote provinces have suffered?” asked Tanin, which broached the example of the people of Fezzan, who emigrated to Tunis in fear of physical punishment for their inability to pay their taxes. When writing on conditions in Syria, Hüseyin Cahid indicated that the bitterness (hiss-i ihtiraz) that the Syrians felt against the government had to be appreciated. To harp upon the injustices and ill-treatment to which the Anatolians had been subjected, he argued, would not render the grievances of the Syrians less justified. The Committee realized and confronted the problems of outlying provinces, but with a naive conviction that representative government would somehow remedy them, enhance loyalty to the state, and assure territorial consolidation.
The Unionist precondition for reform was the extension of central authority to the widest extent possible and the standardization of administrative and financial practices in the provinces. The Unionists had always subscribed to the centralist trend in the Young Turk movement. They argued that the parliamentary regime would enable fair regional representation in government and thus protect regional interests within the framework of a unified government whose primary aim was the preservation of a united Ottoman state. In September 1908, Hüseyin Cahid wrote, “If our remote provinces that have not yet attained an advanced stage in their political lives were to be administered on the basis of decentralization, and a kind of autonomous administration evolves in these areas…the result will be lawlessness.” Centralization was viewed as particularly well suited to promote the welfare of the empire’s periphery.
In July 1908 those elements in the Arab provinces who had been critical of Hamidian rule for restricting higher administrative and religious positions in the provinces to wealthy ulema-bureaucratic families were ready supporters of the CUP. The Arab opponents of Abdülhamid shared with the Unionists the same social values; they were products of modern professional schools, were exposed to secular European ideas and ideologies, and accepted a representative constitutional order as the prerequisite to strengthen the Ottoman state and to preserve its integrity. They represented families with no particular social prestige, and thus resented the elitism of İstanbul as well as the social esteem and political authority that the traditional leaders enjoyed in the countryside.
As the CUP came to realize that it had to compromise with the conservative notability to ensure its political predominance in Parliament, it gradually alienated its former Arab allies. Arab opinion continued to favor unity under the Islamic Ottoman Empire and was averse to centrifugal influences in the direction of autonomy or separatism. However, toward the end of 1909 an adversarial relationship began to take shape between the Unionists and those Arab leaders who had failed to find immediate rewards under the increasingly more CUP-dominated constitutional regime.
The growing emphasis on education and the proliferation of published material—ushered in by enhanced freedom of expression—highlighted the question of language. The enforcement of the state language, namely, Ottoman Turkish, in all spheres of public life was integral to the Unionist program of centralization. As Armenians and Greeks asked for their respective languages to be accepted as state languages, Arabs, too, became interested in promoting Arabic in an official capacity. The first and most persistent challenge to Young Turk centralization from the Arabs was thus to emerge as the issue of language. The position Arabic would assume in the public sphere in the Arab provinces turned into an increasingly politicized bone of contention between Arabs and Young Turks.
The constitutional requirement for deputies to speak Turkish was only loosely applied in the 1908 Parliament. This averted a political problem but introduced a formidable practical one. Some Arab deputies from less developed regions such as Yemen or Hawran found it impossible to follow the proceedings or make their voices heard. Some complained, in Arabic, that their motions (probably also submitted in Arabic) did not get due attention. Even though Arabic proposals were usually translated into Turkish prior to deliberation, this was not always the case.
Even as the enforcement of the use of Turkish emerged as an important and sensitive issue in the relationship of the central government with the Arabs, the mainstream of Arab politics continued to conform to the broader trends in the empire. The first year of constitutional government did not shake the faith of Muslims in Ottomanism, despite the post-revolution disappointment of expectations and growing criticism of the CUP. Agendas of Arab separatism were repudiated, as the case of Mutran’s Syrian Central Committee showed. The Arabs demanded the regulation of administration, the expansion of state education, and the strengthening of the security apparatus: measures that called for an even greater role for the central government in the provinces.