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Book Review

Re-interpreting the importance of the ‘Young Turk’ movement in the Ottoman Empire

Arabs and Young Turks: The Ottoman Empire 1908 - 1918, by Hasan Kayali, Pub: University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997. Pp: 291. Pbk: $18.00.
Dr Othman Ali

This study is a significant breakthrough in modern historiography of the Middle East. In addition to its academic merits, the author dwells on a very important debate: ‘Ottomanism’ versus both Turkism and Arabism. This debate has resurfaced in Muslim states where the Islamic movement is opposing secular nationalism, and this book is a good study of the historical roots of this problem.

The Young Turks, who were represented in the Ottoman Empire by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), ruled a sizeable chunk of the Muslim world from 1908 to 1918. It was then that the Ottoman Empire was finally dismembered by the western powers, and it was also the formative period for Arab and Turkish nationalism. George Antonius claimed that it was the Young Turks’ policy of ‘turkification’ that kindled the flames of nationalism among non-Turkish subjects of the Ottoman state, in his book The Arab Awakening: the Story of the Arab Nationalist Movement (New York, 1937), and most historians echoed this view until the 1970s. Antonius believed that a liberal, secular Arab nationalist movement had strong popular support by the end of the first ‘world war’. However, a number of recent works have argued that Arab nationalism is largely a post-war phenomenon.

Kayali’s book falls within this largely revisionist trend. Using European and Ottoman archival sources, as well as many Turkish and Arabic secondary sources, Kayali has produced a solid work of historical revisionism. Its approach and interpretation are both revisionist. First, he considers it anachronistic to study Arab-Ottoman relations during this period through the prism of ethnic and racial identities and conflicts; he regards the very term ‘Young Turks’ a misnomer (pp. 82 - 83). In addition, most works on this subject have been written from Arab or European perspectives; Kayali presents his analysis from that of the policy-makers in Istanbul. In general, the study provides a rationale, and to some extent a justification for the Young Turks’ centralisation policies, which Kayali considers an at-tempt to foster and promote “imperial inclusiveness” (pp. 2-3).

The book is cast in the form of an analytical narrative. It begins with a thorough and informative summary of historiography on the origins of Arab and Turkish nationalism, followed by a chronological survey of the role of the Arabs in Ottoman political life generally, and in the Young Turk opposition movement in particular. Kayali then proceeds to analyse Young Turk policies toward the Arab provinces in five closely-focused chapters, including a case-study of centralisation in the Hijaz province. A dominant theme in these chapters is the tension between the emergent opposition and the government of the Young Turks, who often resorted to co-opting, exiling or even murdering opponents. Kayali has no sympathy for this opposition. He contends that the Arabs and other ethnic groups had unrealistic expectations. Arab leaders thought that the reforms promised by the CUP meant decentralisation, whereas the CUP regarded centralisation as a necessity in order to modernise the empire and so prevent its disintegration.

Arabs played a significant role in the government. The commander-in-chief of the army and many political leaders were Arabs. Shawkat Pasha, an Arab, led both the 1908 coup and the move in 1909 to depose the sultan, as well as the 1913 coup to restore Young Turk rule, for instance. Arabs also played a leading role in the main opposition-parties in Istanbul. Kayali contends that even during Young Turk rule the Ottoman empire was never ethnically exclusionist.

Using the correspondence of Sharif Husayn of Makkah with the Otto-mans and the British, Kayali shows that the Arab revolt was caused largely by the Sharif’s dynastic ambitions, which the British had encouraged in order to further their own interests.

However, Kayali agrees with Arab nationalist writers that Jamal Pasha’s policies towards Syrian notables and Arab officers in the Ottoman army were unpopular and unnecessarily rigid. It was these disaffected elements, according to Kayali, who supported Sharif Husayn’s revolt. It is interesting to note that when Sharif Husayn and other Arab leaders found out that the British had betrayed them by secretly deciding to divide Arab lands among the European colonial powers, instead of granting them their independence as they had been promised, they tried to reopen negotiations with Istanbul. They hoped to present a united Muslim front against European colonialism, but by then it was too late.

Nonetheless there are some points that Kayali fails in this book to address. Like many writers, he describes Sultan Abd al-Hamid as “tyrannical”, without anywhere substantiating this allegation. Recently a number of studies, published in both Turkey and the west, have demonstrated that he was neither tyrannical nor opposed to reform; in fact, it was rather the Young Turks themselves whose government was the most violent and autocratic in Ottoman history. Kayali also tends to present the Young Turks as an indigenous reform movement. However, most scholars agree that leading CUP members were greatly influenced by the reforms imposed by the European powers on the Ottoman state. The leaders of both the Tanzimat (the Ottoman movement to modernise the state) and the Young Turks had close links with Masonic lodges in the cities of Monaster and Salonika; the headquarters of the CUP remained in Salonika rather than Istanbul even after the coup, until that city fell to the Allies during the war.

The friendly relations between the Young Turks and the zionist movement also point to strong western influences. During their rule, the Ottomans obtained many loans from European banks, which were often run by Jews. In return they allowed unlimited immigration of Jews to Palestine. In 1909, when Arab parliamentary deputies expressed their concerns about this, the Minister of the Interior replied that Jews were free to buy property anywhere in the empire except in the Hijaz (p.105). Sultan Abd al-Hamid had allowed the Jews to settle anywhere except in Palestine.

The Young Turks’ strong centralist tendencies were due partly to their efforts to build a modern unitary state like Germany or Italy. In order to achieve this, they carried out a ‘turkification’ policy in the name of Ottomanism. When they had lost most of the empire’s non-Muslim territories, they then resorted to rhetoric about Islam, while continuing to ‘turkify’ the Albanians, Arabs, Kurds and Laz (a Caucasian people in Turkey). Kayali tries to play down the adverse effects of this policy.

This book reminds us that the modern practice of Muslim states entering into secret or open alliances with the west and Israel against each other has never achieved the benefits that the authors of these agreements promise. Instead, Muslim states and movements need to coordinate their efforts in order to avoid more betrayals and the loss of still more Muslim land.

Muslimedia: August 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 11

Rabi' al-Thani 19, 14201999-08-01

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