Preferred Citation: Kayali, Hasan. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

The Decentralist Challenge and a New “Arab Policy,” 1912–1913


The sequence of events that led to the dissolution of the reform movement convinced the government of the need to respond to demands in the Arab provinces. Concessions in the realm of language had the widest appeal and greatest symbolic weight. The language question was the issue that had received the greatest attention from all reform groups. The demand for the local use of Arabic also happened to be the least disagreeable to the CUP, whose principal aim was to defuse the more radical demands voiced by the Beirut Reform Committee, specifically the strengthening of the provincial council vis-à-vis the governor and the employment of foreign advisors.

A decree issued in April 1913 sanctioned the use of Arabic in law courts and as the main medium of instruction in schools (except the higher sultaniye schools, which existed in some provincial centers) and provided for the drafting of petitions and official communications in Arabic.[89] Lowther described the new decree as the adoption by the CUP of the opposition’s policy of decentralization. The new language policy, and especially its immediate implementation, came as a surprise and produced the desired effect. In Damascus, court officials who did not know Arabic were replaced. Implementation of Arabic in schools, however, had to wait because textbooks could not be rewritten overnight.[90]

The Ministry of the Interior received petitions from district officials, some written in Arabic, requesting the replacement of certain non-Arabic-speaking functionaries.[91] The provinces saw an opportunity in the new language policy to remove unpopular or politically undesirable local officials. The Damascus governor ‘Arif, for instance, asked that the chief judge of the province, Hurşid, be replaced by the former deputy for Acre, As‘ad Bey (al-Shuqayri), because of the former’s unfamiliarity with Arabic. The Ministry rejected the request and argued that Hurşid was not only competent in his job but also in Arabic.[92]

With the exception of Beirut and Basra, where Talib now sought to enhance his position by means of the reform society that he established, the CUP government was able to restore its authority in the Arab provinces. This should be considered a political success for the CUP, especially in light of its failures on the military and diplomatic front. When the First Balkan War came to a conclusion in May 1913, the CUP had not been able to regain Edirne and, thus, had forfeited the justification for the coup of January 1913.

The government did intend to go beyond palliative measures in order to satisfy Arab demands and to establish effective administration in the Arab provinces. With further losses of land in the Balkan wars, the Arab provinces came to constitute a greater percentage of the empire in terms of population, territory, and economic potential. The reform movement brought home the fact that the Arab peoples could no longer be regarded merely as other Muslims within the Ottomanist framework that downplayed economic, ethnic, and regional differences. The government would have to consider the demands by different social strata in diverse Arab regions lest these groups turn to separatist programs and create the conditions that the Ottoman government had found impossible to curb in its former European possessions.

In view of the territorial losses incurred in Europe, the relocation of the Ottoman capital away from the proximity of enemy lines came on the agenda. From a more central location the influence of the sultan-caliph could be projected more effectively into the Arab provinces. An article by Marshal von der Goltz in the Neue Freie Presse on 18 May 1913 started the debate on the transfer of the capital.[93] Von der Goltz contemplated an Austro-Hungarian model for the Ottoman Empire and viewed Aleppo, with its central location and multiethnic population, as an appropriate choice for the imperial center.

The proposition attracted much interest. The French ambassador in İstanbul, Boppe, commented that the measure could be used by the Young Turks to win over Arabs to a stronger Ottomanist position, and added that it would be easier to administer the empire from its middle than from the periphery.[94] Boppe’s German counterpart, Wangenheim, also contemplated the pros and cons of the issue. He indicated that, on the one hand, the luxury of life in İstanbul had a demoralizing and corrupting influence on government officials; but, on the other hand, having served as the seat of the government for centuries and occupying a coveted strategic location, İstanbul’s abandonment as capital could have serious domestic and international implications. In fact, the German ambassador maintained that displacing the seat of the caliphate would further encourage the agitation for the establishment of an Arab caliphate.[95]

Wangenheim also mentioned that Grand Vizier Mahmud Shawkat Pasha was partial to relocation. As a general, Mahmud Shawkat was mindful of the strategic vulnerability of İstanbul. As an Ottomanist Arab he probably also thought that the transfer of the capital to Aleppo would help remedy the estrangement of segments of the Arab elite from the government. In the Ottoman press other suggestions were put forward. Ahmed Ferid [Tek], former deputy from the western Anatolian town of Kütahya, proposed Kayseri in south-central Anatolia as the best choice. He argued against a shift further south, because such a move might again peripheralize the capital, should the Arabs strive for autonomy. He also justifiably criticized the notion of a biracial Turco-Arab empire on the Austria-Hungary model. According to Ahmed Ferid, Austria-Galicia-Bohemia-Carinthia provided a more appropriate analogy than Austria-Hungary. The Ottoman Empire’s Arab lands did not constitute a single unit, and social and political circumstances differed from one region to the other.[96]

In the end the Unionist position prevailed. The CUP’s power base had always been in Rumelia. For psychological and political reasons the CUP did not favor the proposed relocation of the Ottoman capital. In fact, all public reference to the subject was prohibited, bringing an end to the debate once and for all. Mahmud Shawkat Pasha’s assassination in June 1913 resulted in the abandonment of the idea. Nevertheless, even if the Unionists objected to moving the capital, they were increasingly convinced of the need to satisfy demands voiced in the Arab districts and inclined to give further thought to the “Austria-Hungary model” in order to preclude potential separatism. Indeed, in preparation for the next elections, the Ministry of the Interior instructed Hüseyin Hilmi Pasha, now ambassador in Vienna, to investigate the Austro-Hungarian electoral law.[97]

The reform movement did not disappear with the closing of the Beirut Reform Committee, the ensuing protests of the townspeople, or the resignations of new Arab appointees. A group of Syrians residing in Paris took the initiative to revitalize the movement. Eight Muslim and Christian Syrians wrote a circular that denounced Unionist policies, called for the unification of all Syrians around the principle of decentralization, and invited delegations to a general Arab conference in Paris where the following four main issues would be discussed: the national existence of Arabs and their opposition to foreign occupation; the rights of Arabs in the Ottoman Empire; the necessity of reforms on the basis of decentralization; immigration to and emigration from Syria.[98]

The call from Paris found receptive ears in Beirut, but not in the interior. In Damascus, Medina, and even Aleppo, the conservatism of the notables prevailed. Some Damascenes protested a congress in Paris by establishing the “True” Reform Party.[99] In Aleppo, according to the Austrian consul, the town’s poorer merchants and craftsmen were sympathetic to the movement, yet too weak and timid to call for reforms. The idea was popular with the town’s sizable Christian population, which was also relatively better educated and more Europeanized. Any initiative on their part in favor of reforms, however, would have appeared as schismatic and invited repression.[100] Indeed, the strong representation of Christians in the Arab Congress, coupled with the fact that it was held in the capital of a European state that was hardly disinterested in Syria, undermined its credibility.

The Congress met in Paris between 18 and 24 June 1913. The majority of delegates consisted of Syrians, many living outside the Ottoman Empire. ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Zahrawi presided over the sessions. The largest contingents were from Beirut, the Decentralization Party in Cairo, and the Syrian Arab community in France. The proceedings revolved around the idea of reform within the Ottoman Empire, with no mention of any separatist aims.[101] It came out, however, that Christian members of the Beirut delegation (Dr. Ayyub Thabit and Khalil Zainiyyah) had held prior private meetings with French officials in Beirut.[102] When Beirut’s Muslim members found out about these links, they felt compromised and decided to settle the questions of reform directly with the Ottoman government. Eager to co-opt the Arab leaders in Paris, the CUP had sent a delegation under the leadership of Midhat Şükrü, a CUP Central Committee member, to carry out negotiations,[103] in which a Christian CUP loyalist, Sulayman Bustani, also participated.[104] Midhat Şükrü signed an agreement with the members of the Arab Congress granting many of the latter’s demands: enforcement of Arabic in provincial government and in schools at all levels; employment of foreign experts in provincial administration; local military service; and specified quotas of Arabs as governors, mutasarrıfs, and senators.[105]

While the agreement between Arab leaders and the Ottoman government fulfilled some of the demands of the decentralists, its overall effect was to moderate the decentralization movement. During the organizational stages of the Congress it had become evident that the commitment to decentralization did not supplant integrationist political and social forces among the Arabs outside of Beirut. In Paris, the pro-Europe separatist component of the reform movement was exposed to the dismay of the majority of Ottoman participants. The Muslim members of the Beirut delegation to the Arab Congress (Salim ‘Ali al-Salam, Ahmad Mukhtar Bayhum, Ahmad Tabbara) visited İstanbul on their return, and at a special audience with Sultan Reşad declared their loyalty to the Ottoman state and caliphate.[106]

In the meantime, Mahmud Shawkat Pasha’s assassination was used by the CUP to crush the Liberal opponents in İstanbul. Prominent Liberals held responsible for plotting the grand vizier’s murder were rounded up and court-martialed, and 350 were exiled to Sinop in the central Black Sea region. The execution of twelve opponents of the CUP in İstanbul, now under Cemal Pasha’s military governorship, coincided with the closing day of the Arab Congress. The executions eliminated the Liberal opposition in the capital and foreshadowed similar drastic measures (including trumped-up charges, summary executions, and deportations) that Cemal would employ against the Arab decentralists as governor of Syria and commander of the Fourth Army in Syria during the war.[107] The purge of the leaders of the opposition was a clear sign that politics as usual would be curtailed. In the absence of party politics, Arabism lost much of its meaning.

The Ottoman state had greater relative success in the Second Balkan War, which ended with the recapture of Edirne by the Ottoman army in July 1913. The second half of 1913 saw a respite from military engagements and a reevaluation of the country’s internal condition. Warfare had impoverished the economy and hurt the commercial elements,[108] weakening (quite apart from the reprisals) the Liberal opposition to the CUP in the Arab districts and elsewhere in the empire. Progovernment groups in the provinces became more vocal in their support of İstanbul and rejection of the decentralists.[109]

The appointment of Sa‘id Halim Pasha, a statesman with Arab affinities, as grand vizier upon the death of Mahmud Shawkat Pasha in June 1913 signified the new outlook in İstanbul vis-à-vis the Arab element in the empire. Sa‘id Halim was the son of a disaffected member of the khedivial family, Halim Pasha, who settled in İstanbul in 1870, when Sa‘id was seven years old.[110] The language spoken at home may have been Turkish, though Sa‘id Halim was proficient in several Middle Eastern and European languages. He studied political science in Switzerland and preferred French as his pen language in drafting his Islamist-modernist essays later on. Upon his return to İstanbul, he was made a member of the Council of State in 1888. His association with the CUP led to his ouster from the capital. He spent his exile in Egypt and Europe, primarily in Cairo, where he was commissioned by the CUP to promote Unionist propaganda among Arabs. He returned to İstanbul after the revolution, was appointed to the Senate, and rose in the ranks of the CUP to join the Said Pasha cabinet as the president of the Council of State and to be named secretary general in the Committee’s 1912 Congress. He was serving as foreign minister in the Mahmud Shawkat cabinet at the time of the assassination of the grand vizier. Despite Sultan Reşad’s alleged reservations,[111] he was pushed by the CUP to replace Mahmud Shawkat.

The CUP appointed more and more of its partisans to posts in the provinces, and a greater proportion of the new appointees were Arabs. One result of this policy was that party and ideological differences supplanted ethnic and regional ones. For instance, in Acre Liberal notables raised objections about the replacement of a Turkish Liberal mutasarrıf by an Arab Unionist. At this time, none of the four mutasarrıfs in the Beirut vilayet were Turkish: three were Arab, and the fourth was a Kurd.[112]

The agreement that the Arab Congress concluded with the government signified a separation of the reformists from those decentralists who viewed foreign involvement as a necessary condition of decentralization. While not all Beiruti Muslim reformists were co-opted to Union ism, the reform movement petered out in Syria following the Congress. Important Arab notables such as Muhammad Fawzi Pasha al-‘Azm, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Yusuf, Shakib Arslan, and Shaykh As‘ad al-Shuqayri declared their opposition to the Arab Congress and contended that it was not representative of the Arab provinces.[113] The government attempted to co-opt other Arab notables, primarily Damascenes, who opposed the reform movement.[114] It recalled the four Unionist deputies from Damascus for consultations. In İstanbul the government formed commissions, in which Arab officials took part, in order to supervise the implementation of reforms, apparently in particular the enforcement of Arabic language policies.[115] Many of the reforms actually implemented fell short of expectations.[116] Now that the Balkan quandary was settled and domestic opposition stifled, the CUP procrastinated on reform issues in the Arab provinces, envisaging more fundamental, empire-wide reforms.

Meanwhile, France intensified its missionary activity in Syria and established closer links with the disaffected elements, while Britain shifted its attention to the Persian Gulf.[117] It was partly due to this enhanced British presence near the Persian Gulf that the reform movement in Iraq gained in force. On 9 June 1913 the progovernment Baghdad paper Al-zuhur pointed out the growing British influence in the region and held Britain responsible for the unrest in Najd.[118] In Baghdad the general provincial council convened in November, and its delegates voiced the demand that Iraq should belong to the Iraqis.[119] In Basra Sayyid Talib, head of the Basra Reform Committee, provoked protests against the Ottoman government, which he then “quelled” in a crafty demonstration of his local power and prestige.[120]

In the Fifth CUP Congress that met in September 1913 economic issues predominated. (With Salonika lost in the Balkan Wars, the 1913 Congress was the first to be held in İstanbul.) The only explicit endorsement of policies that had been enacted in the spring was instruction in local languages. The first item of the Congress’s political program was an administrative clause that called for the time-honored precept of tevsi’-i mezuniyet, or the extension of the administrative prerogatives of local officials.[121] This was hailed by the French ambassador Bompard somewhat inaccurately as a “striking conversion of Young Turks to the ideas of administrative decentralization.”[122]

Most noticeable in the new program was an explicit denunciation of the capitulations that perpetuated the economic bondage of the empire to Europe. The idea long current in İstanbul that the economic concessions enjoyed by European countries in Ottoman territories caused the economic decline of the empire spread also in the provinces. In November the Austrian consul reported from Aleppo:

Differences between Turks and Arabs have lost their intensity noticeably. The number of adherents of the Young Turk Party is on the increase. The view is expressed more and more loudly that the Europeans are aiming at the destruction of Turkey, and thus that of the Muslim world-view, and at the economic exploitation of its people.[123]

The Decentralist Challenge and a New “Arab Policy,” 1912–1913

Preferred Citation: Kayali, Hasan. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.