A student of Arab nationalism writes: “[The Young Turks] favored a secular state, and one based on Turkish rather than Ottoman nationalism.…After the Young Turk revolt the Turks came to see themselves as a master race and sought to impose a Turkish imprint on the minority peoples.” Such widely accepted generalizations offer an inaccurate appraisal of Young Turk policies and obscure the political and social realities of the day. Even in a recent and very significant contribution to the new thinking on the linkages of a segment of the Arab elite to the Ottoman center it is not unusual to encounter the persisting generalizations: “The Young Turks, whose regime followed the 1908 coup in Anatolia, accelerated the education program while implementing their policy of Turkification of the non-Turkish population via schools.” The statement suggests the existence of one distinct “Young Turk regime” associated with predominantly Turkish Anatolia (the Balkans would have been more accurately singled out as the region where the Young Turks organized and the revolution broke out) and bent on utilizing education first and foremost as indoctrination in the implementation of a deliberate Turkification program. Indeed, any campaign aimed at Turkification would have had to include Turks as well, if Turkification meant more than teaching the language, as those who spoke Turkish hardly perceived themselves as an ethnic community.
In the new game of politics introduced by the parliamentary regime, opposition to government came to be expressed in an anti-Turkish idiom by different sectors of the Arab population. The “establishment” came to be defined as Turkish, regardless of the fact that many Arabs were part of it or supported it. Yet the CUP’s Arab critics were not motivated by an Arab nationalist ideology in accusing the CUP of Turkification, just as the CUP itself had not conceived of Turkish nationalism as a politically viable alternative to Ottomanism.
The question of Turkification was an extension of the centralization-decentralization debate and became an issue when Hamidian autocracy crumbled and the social groups dominating the revolutionary government prepared to establish a centralized government buttressed by a national economy. Although the decentralists submitted to the CUP in 1908, they became visible again as many deputies of the new Parliament came to support their program. The decentralists continued to favor diminished state control in the provinces and cut across all religious and ethnic groups. Those Arabs who found the centralizing policies of the CUP unpalatable for political, socioeconomic, or cultural reasons increasingly identified with the decentralist camp and found in the charges of Turkification a weapon to fight Unionist centralization and to produce a shift in the pro-CUP Arab public opinion. The Unionists soon saw that their version of Ottomanism, which presumed the ascendancy of a monolithic CUP, could not be made acceptable to all Ottomans merely by making constitutional and parliamentary principles an integral part of the Ottomanist package. The direction the Committee took was toward accommodating those “elements” (anasır) that did not harbor a political allegiance other than to the Ottoman state. During the 1910 convention of the CUP, Talat, as the minister of the interior, acknowledged that securing the allegiance of the non-Muslims to the Ottoman state had not been possible. A consequence of this admission would be the future policy of according greater emphasis to Islam.
The loss of Libya influenced the CUP’s redefinition of Ottomanism in a direction that gave primacy to the Muslims of the empire. İbrahim Hakkı Pasha expressed concern about “relinquishing an Arab province to a Christian power” and appearing to neglect “the interests of other races of the empire.” But İbrahim Hakkı and other Unionists were more concerned about the general effect of the annexation of Tripoli and Benghazi on the CUP’s centralization policy. They were sensitive not just to the Arab reaction but to that of all Ottomans. The Arab press exploited the Ottoman loss of Libya in order to weaken the CUP in the Arab provinces. In turn, when Italy decided to bomb eastern Mediterranean ports with the purpose of forcing the Ottoman government to yield in Libya, the CUP reinforced its position by availing of emergency measures and also by harnessing pro-unity sentiments arising from the immediate foreign threat. The most important outcome of the loss of Libya was that it highlighted the failure of Unionist policies of centralization, the justification for which had been the preservation of the empire’s territorial integrity.
By 1911 the CUP-backed government in İstanbul encountered vigorous organized opposition, in which many Arabs participated both inside and outside Parliament. Even though Arabist propaganda imparted strength to the decentralist agenda, the following contemporary appraisal of Arab nationalism and Turkish-Arab relations by the German consul in Beirut has a ring of truth about it: “A general Arab Question exists only in the heads of philologically-minded Orient-politicians who are charmed by the idea of a future Arabic empire because of their sympathies towards the Arabic language and poetry.…The racial antipathy that the Arab feels towards the Turk has only as much political importance as do the various Arab uprisings, namely none.”