The Arabs and Modern Turkey: A Century of Changing Perceptions

By Nafi, Basheer M. | Insight Turkey, January 2009 | Go to article overview

The Arabs and Modern Turkey: A Century of Changing Perceptions


Nafi, Basheer M., Insight Turkey


There are no two peoples in the Middle East whose histories have been so intertwined as the Arabs and the Turks. For centuries, both were subjects of the Ottoman Sultanate, where a dominant Ottoman culture and an Ottoman mode of religiosity affected almost all of the Muslim peoples of the empire; Ottoman systems of government and justice were applied in Adana as well as in Cairo; and u lama, administrators, soldiers and merchants moved freely between various cities of the empire, but neither people identified itself in terms of the nation. With the emergence of the modern state in the mid-19th century, self and mutual consciousness would begin to change. Advances in the means of communication, military conscription and modern education, escalating foreign threats and competition for power and influence in the modern state would all contribute to the development of an Ottoman shared space as well as to its contradictions, the Turkish and Arab sense of nation-ness. Gradually, however, the Ottoman sense of belonging, on the one side, and the novel sense of national identity, on the other, were to pull the empire in two different directions.

The last decade of the Ottoman Sultanate was the most turbulent in the relations between the Arabs and the Turks. Pressures of the modern state, centralization policies and nationalism played their part in raising doubts about the future of the Ottoman league. But the final partition of the empire was certainly the result of defeat in World War 1. The founding of the Turkish Republic and several Arab states during the 1920s created a new political map in the region and subsequently led to the evolvement of a new Arab consciousness of the modern Turkey. To be sure, Arab perceptions of the Turkish Republic were never simple or constant, but rather a continuously changing affair, influenced by a variety of elements and historical conditions. Some of the most powerful forces that contributed to the framing of the Turkish image in Arab eyes related to interpretations of the Ottoman past, the legacy of Mustafa Kemal, Cold War conflicts and alliances, and the recent rise to power of the justice and Development Party (AKP).

The Ottoman Past Reconsidered

Arab nationalism was first born in Greater Syria, during the interwar period; however, it was soon to become the main legitimating theme for almost all Arab entities, whether independent countries or those still struggling against imperialist control. Imbedded in the Arab nationalist discourse was a narrative condemnatory of the Ottoman past, in which "Ottoman" and "Turk" would frequently appear as synonymous. The historical projection of the regime of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and the 1916 Arab revolt of Sharif Husayn of Makka would play a crucial role in the construction of this narrative. Although Arab responses to the revolt were at the time mixed, to say the least, the publishing of George Antonious' The Arab Awakening, Sati' al-Husari's works on Arab nationalism and a few other academic and semi-academic tracts with a similar outlook (1) created a new perception of the revolt and its contribution to the making of Arab nationalism. According to this version of history, the origins of Arab nationalism were rooted in the 19th century, and the Arab revolt was a legitimate response to the Turkification and despotic policies of the CUP, and the ultimate, inescapable expression of the Arabs' aspiration to establish their independence from the heavy burden of the long "Ottoman occupation." By denoting it as al-thawra al-'arabiyya al-kubra (the great Arab revolt), the Sharifian movement was depicted as a mass Arab insurrection, and a positive, major force in the revival of the modern Arab nation.

The appearance of Zeine N. Zeine's Origins of Arab Nationalism, and its later Arabic version, represented the first challenge to the dominant nationalist version. (2) While asserting the link between the CUP's policies and the development of Arabist feelings, Zeine questioned the whole assumption of the existence of an Arab liberal-nationalist awakening prior to the Ottoman second constitutional period. …

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