Young Turk, Arab spring: a parallel

The experience of the late-Ottoman revolt of 1908 is relevant to the cycle of uprising and violence in the region today. 

Vicken Cheterian
24 June 2015

The Arab spring of 2011 produced a search for an appropriate historical analogy that might help explain the great events that were unfolding. Some compared the events with the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1848; others - including this author - drew a more recent comparison, with the two waves of post-communist revolutions that overthrew the rule of single parties in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-91.

Any parallel to the search for freedom and dignity by a new generation of Arab young people had to understand the political culture and the dynamics of what was happening. This became more relevant when, within months, the Arab spring turned away from its initial direction, and succumbed to cycles of limitless violence and self-destruction. This contrasted with the post-communist revolutions, which - at least in the earlier phase of rotation of power - had been surprisingly free of violence. Today, the revolutionary wave in the Arab world has been replaced by a series of civil wars, which increasingly take the outer form of religious wars. Analysts are left without a meaningful historical analogy, and partly for this reason are unable to predict the future course of developments.

Tensions of change

In this respect a recent work by Bedross Der Matossian is valuable, for it proposes a different analogy to the Arab spring and thus casts new light on the present.Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire (Stanford University Press, 2014) is above all a work of historical scholarship, but it also makes a compelling case for looking at the Arab spring in light of the Young Turk revolution - which began with a military coup d'etat - in the Ottoman empire in 1908.

In two ways the book's approach is also refreshing. First, it finds many references within the region and its history that reach forward to the present, instead of looking for analogies within other social contexts. Second, the book emphasises the contribution of minority groups to major historic events that shaped the Middle East, and the important roles they played in various domains. This theme is often absent from official, largely nationalist historiography, so it is welcome to see it being explored more widely.

Bedross Der Matossian’s main focus is the reaction of ethnic and religious minorities to the Young Turk takeover of 1908. He weaves the experience of three communities in particular - Arabs, Armenians, and Jews - into a dense narrative enriched by his access to sources in all the relevant languages: Arabic, Armenian, and Hebrew as well as Turkish, plus English and French. This reveals that the minorities initially welcomed the overthrow of the autocratic Sultan Abdul Hamid II, and their widespread celebrations were met with mutual expressions of brotherhood. Soon, however, distinct views began to emerge about the Young Turk takeover among the non-Turkish ethnic groups and their social classes. 

The Armenians were in general enthusiastic about the revolution. Armenian political activists, such as members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnaktsoutyun, or ARF), were in alliance with the Young Turk leadership (the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti, or CUP) and had taken an active part in the changeover of power. The background to this choice was decades of repression under Abdul Hamid II, known as the “Red Sultan” for the anti-Armenian massacres of 1894-96, when an estimated 200,000-300,000 Armenians had been killed.

The Jewish community was more polarised. Its conservative religious leadership remained overall against the revolutionaries, while a younger nationalist generation associated with Zionism was enthusiastic. The latter hoped that political change would open up ways for increasing Jewish settlement in Palestine, along some form of political autonomy. The Arab communities were largely sceptical if not hostile towards the Young Turk revolution. There were divisions: in Beirut, news of the change and the reintroduction of the 1876 constitution was received with festivities, but in Damascus it with wariness. In Mount Lebanon, which enjoyed a large measure of self-government from the Ottoman centre, a debate about participation in the new parliament saw some argue that sending delegates to it might endanger Lebanon's autonomy.

The non-Turkish ethnic groups also had very different expectations from the revolution and the reforms it might bring about. Most Christians in the empire wanted the new government to be a decentralising one, says Der Matossian, whereas Muslims (including Arabs) preferred it to promote a centralised course. Meanwhile, the Young Turks themselves were not clear in their objectives. They may have raised slogans similar to those of the French revolution, but they never accepted the idea of equality between the different confessional groups or the idea that Muslim-Turks could relinquish power. The CUP press published articles “propagating the concept of millet-i hâkime (the ruling nation)” as well as the idea of “Turkey for the Turks”.

Threads of a century

Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire charts the political challenges of the revolution in its first year, and ends in March 1909 with the counter-revolutionary attempt that was followed by the Adana massacre. And here the many parallels with the Arab present become clearer. The regime change of 1908 and the reaction to it destabilised societies, raised expectations and fears, and provoked intercommunal tensions. In 1909, anti-Armenian pogroms took place in which (Muslim-Turk) city notables played an organising role, and inter-confessional tensions erupted into further violence. When the leadership of pro-CUP officers despatched regular troops to Adana, a second wave of massacres ensued which destroyed entirely the city's Armenian quarter. Most of the 30,000 killed in Adana were Armenians. It was an early warning of the coming threat: the Ottoman Turks' annihilation (or its attempt) of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians.

A brief comparison with the Arab spring comes at the end of the book. Yet a major structural difference between 1908 and 2011 should be noted: the first began with a top-down coup d’état by mainly “progressivist” army officers who feared the immediate collapse of an Ottoman empire long ruled by Abdul Hamid II. The second was a massive, popular, grassroots revolution against authoritarian regimes with a deep connection to the experience of 1908-09. After all, aren’t the Nasserite and Ba'athist regimes in Egypt, Syria or Libya in the tradition of military dictatorships promising modernisation, a model introduced by the Young Turks' putsch of 1908?

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