The Ottoman Caliphate and Arab Nationalism

Pictured above: Ottoman Army Cameliers

Unlike Turkey-in-Europe, where the rise of nationalism dealt a body blow to Ottoman imperialism, there was no nationalist fervour among the Ottoman Empire’s Arabic-speaking subjects. One historian has credibly estimated that a mere 350 activists belonged to all the secret Arab societies operating throughout the Middle East at the outbreak of World War I, and most of them were not seeking actual Arab independence but rather greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire [Eliezer Tauber, The Emergence of the Arab Movements, London, Frank Cass, 1993, Chapter 28]. To  the vast majority of the eight to ten million Arabic-speaking Ottoman subjects the message of these tiny societies meant nothing. They remained loyal to their imperial master to the bitter end and shunned the sharifian revolt altogether. Between 100,000 and 300,000 of them even fought in the Ottoman army during the war…

These realities were of little import for Hussein and his sons. For all the rhetoric of Arab independence in which they couched their communications with the British, the Hashemites were no champions of national liberation but imperialist aspirants anxious to exploit a unique window of opportunity to substitute their own empire for that of the Ottomans. Hussein had demonstrated no nationalist sentiments prior to the war, when he had generally been considered a loyal Ottoman apparatchik, and neither he nor his sons changed in this respect during the revolt. They did not regard themselves as part of a wider Arab nation, bound together by a shared language, religion, history, or culture…

What the Hashemites demanded of the post-war peace conference, then, was not self-determination for the Arabic-speaking subjects of the defunct Ottoman Empire but the formation of a successor empire, extending well beyond the predominantly Arabic-speaking territories and comprising such diverse ethnic and national groups as Turks, Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, Assyrians, Chechens, Circassians, and Jews. As Hussein told Lawrence of Arabia in the summer of 1917: “If advisable we will pursue the Turks to Constantinople and Erzurum—so why talk about Beirut, Aleppo, and Hailo?”

Abdallah put it in similar terms when demanding that Britain abide by the vast territorial promises made to his father: “it was . . . up to the British government to see that the Arab kingdom is such as will make it a substitute for the Ottoman Empire.”  This regal mindset was vividly illustrated by the frequent Hashemite allusions to Islamic imperial glory, rather than to national rights, which served as justifications for their territorial claims. Thus, for example, Hussein based his objection to British attempts to exclude Iraq from the prospective empire on the fact that “the Iraqi vilayets are parts of the pure Arab Kingdom, and were in fact the seat of its government in the time of Ali Ibn-Abu-Talib, and in the time of all the khalifs [caliphs] who succeeded him.” Similarly, Abdallah rejected the French occupation of Syria not on the ground that this territory had constituted an integral part of the “Arab homeland” but because it was inconceivable for the Umayyad capital of Damascus to become a French colony.

[Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: A History, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2013, pp. 133-134]

  

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