ABDUL WAHHAB, Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan, and Sayyid Ahmed of Aligarh—each of these men typified a different idea of what went wrong with the Islamic world and how to fix it. Throughout the nineteenth century, numerous permutations of these three currents evolved and spread. Of them all, it was secular modernism, the direction championed by Sayyid Ahmad of Aligarh, that acquired political power most overtly. This is not to say that Sayyid Ahmad fathered some mighty movement himself. He was just one of many secular reformists across the Islamic world who came up with roughly similar ideas. What made these ideas so persuasive was a trio of phenomena spilling into the Islamic heartland just then, from Europe: industrialization, constitutionalism, and nationalism.
The most consequential of the three was probably industrialization, the seductions of which affected every part of the world. In Europe, the Industrial Revolution came out of a great flurry of inventions straddling the year 1800 CE, beginning with the steam engine. Often, we speak of great inventions as if they make their own case merely by existing, but in fact, people don’t start building and using a device simply because it’s clever. The technological breakthrough represented by an invention is only one ingredient in its success. The social context is what really determines whether it will “take.”
The steam engine provides a case in point. What could be more useful? What could be more obviously world-changing? Yet the steam engine was invented in the Muslim world over three centuries before it popped up in the West, and in the Muslim world it didn’t change much of anything. The steam engine invented there was used to power a spit so that a whole sheep might be roasted efficiently at a rich man’s banquet. (A description of this device appears in a 1551 book by the Turkish engineer Taqi al-Din.) After the spit, however, no other application for the device occurred to anyone, so it was forgotten.
Another case in point: the ancient Chinese had all the technology they needed by the tenth century to mechanize production and mass produce goods, but they didn’t use it that way. They used geared machinery to make toys. They used a water-driven turbine to power a big clock. If they had used these technologies to build labor-saving machinery of the type that spawned factories in nineteenth-century Europe, the Industrial Revolution would almost certainly have started in China.
So why didn’t it? Why did these inventions fail to “take” until they were invented in the West? The answer has less to do with the inventions themselves than it does with the social context into which the inventions were born.
When the Chinese invented geared machinery, theirs was an efficient, highly centralized state in which an imperial bureacracy managed the entire society. The main function of this bureacracy aside from record-keeping and defense was to organize public works. The genius of Chinese political culture was its ability to soak up surplus labor with massive construction projects useful to the public good. The first emperor, for example, put about a million people to work building the Great Wall. A later emperor employed even more workers to dig the Grand Canal, which connected the country’s two major river systems. Yes, China had the technology to build labor-saving machinery, but who was going to build it? Only the imperial bureacracy had the capacity, and why would it bother to save something it already had too much of? China was overpopulated and labor was cheap. If a lot of laborers were left at loose ends, whose job would it be to deal with the resulting social disruptions? The bureacracy. The one institution capable of industrializing China had no motive to undertake it.
Likewise, Muslim inventors didn’t think of using steam power to make devices that would mass-produce consumer goods, because they lived in a society already overflowing with an abundance of consumer goods, handcrafted by millions of artisans and distributed by efficient trade networks. Besides, the inventors worked for an idle class of elite folks who had all the goods they could consume and whose lot in life did not call upon them to produce—much less mass-produce—anything.
It wasn’t some dysfunction in these societies that generated their indifference to potentially world-changing technologies, quite the opposite. It was something working too well that led them into “a high-level equilibrium trap” (to borrow a phrase from historian Mark Elvin.1) Necessity, it turns out, isn’t really the mother of invention; it’s the mother of the process that turns an invention into a product, and in late-eighteenth-century Europe, that mother was ready.
Steam engines evolved out of steam-powered pumps used by private mine owners to keep their mine shafts free of water. These same mine owners had another business problem they urgently desired to solve: getting their ore as quickly as possible from the mine to a river or seaport, so they could beat their competitors to market. Traditionally, they hauled the ore in horse-drawn carts that rolled along on parallel wooden tracks called tramways. One day, George Stephenson, an illiterate English mining manager, figured out that a steam pump could be bolted to a cart and made to turn the wheels, with appropriate gearing. The locomotive was born.
England at this point brimmed with private business owners competing to move products and materials to markets ahead of one another. Anyone with access to a railroad could get an edge on all the others, unless they too shipped by train; so everyone started using railroads, whereupon everyone who had the means to build a railroad, did so.
Likewise, after James Watt perfected the steam engine in the late eighteenth century, clever European inventors figured out how to mechanize textile looms. Anyone who possessed a power loom could now outproduce rival cloth makers and drive them out of business—unless the rivals acquired power looms too; so they all did.
But anyone who had the capital to acquire two power looms, ten looms, a hundred, could drive out many many many many competitors and grow rich, rich, rich! All the money to be made got clever tinkerers wondering what else could be manufactured by fuel-driven geared machinery. Shoes? Yes. Furniture? Yes. Spoons? Absolutely. In fact, once people got started, they came to find that almost every item in common use could be made by some fuel-driven machine faster, cheaper, and in much greater quantities than by hand. And who wouldn’t want to be a shoe tycoon? Or a spoon tycoon or any kind of tycoon?
Of course, this process left countless artisans and craftspeople out of work, but this is where nineteenth-century Europe differed from tenth-century China. In Europe, those who had the means to install industrial machinery had no particular responsibility for those whose livelihood would be destroyed by a sudden abundance of cheap, machine-made goods. Nor were the folks they affected downstream their kinfolk or fellow tribesmen, just strangers whom they had never met and would never know by name. What’s more, it was somebody else’s job to deal with the social disruptions caused by widespread unemployment, not theirs. Going ahead with industrialization didn’t signify some moral flaw in them; it merely reflected the way this particular society was compartmentalized.
The Industrial Revolution could take place only where certain social preconditions existed, and in Europe at that time they happened to exist. The Industrial Revolution also had inevitable social consequences and in Europe, at that point, turning production over to machinery did change societies, daily life, and Europeans themselves. Let us count (some of) the ways:
• Rural areas emptied into exploding new cities.
• Animals vanished from daily life for most people.
• Clock and calendar time became more important than natural time markers such as the sun and the moon.
• Large family networks dissolved, and the nuclear family—one man, one woman, and their children—became the universally accepted default unit of the industrial age.
• The connection between people and place weakened as new economic realities demanded mobility: people had to go where the work was, and suddenly the work could be anywhere.
• The connection between generations weakened, as most individuals no longer had any useful work skills to learn from their parents and little of value to pass on to their kids. The best parents could do for their children was to make sure they had the basic skills needed to flex, learn, and adapt. Thus, more broadly than ever before, reading, writing, and arithmetic became the indispensable skills of functional individuals.
• And finally, psychological adaptability—an ability to constantly relinquish old values and ideas and embrace new ones—became a competitive asset.
All these changes generated anxiety, but it was not catastrophic anxiety, because Europeans (and Americans even more) had already evolved a complex of attitudes enabling them to cope, and the core of this complex was individualism, an orientation that had taken centuries to develop in the West.
When Europeans came to the Islamic world, they brought along goods that were the end products of the Industrial Revolution, but not the evolutionary processes that made those goods possible. Muslims wanted the products, of course, as who wouldn’t: the cheap cloth, the machine-made shoes, the packaged dried goods and whatnot, and saw no reason why they should not have them. They could buy and operate any machine the West could make. They could take the machines apart, study how they were built, and make similar machines themselves. Nothing in the manufacturing process lay beyond their comprehension.
But the social underpinnings were a different matter. The preconditions of industrialization could not be instantly imported. The social consequences could not be so easily absorbed in societies structured so differently from those of western Europe.
In the Ottoman world, for example, manufacturing had long been in the hands of guilds, which were interwoven with Sufi orders, which were interwoven with the machinery of the Ottoman state and society, which was interlinked with the fact that every person had numerous tribal affiliations, which was interwoven with a universal assumption that the public realm belonged exclusively to men and that women were properly kept sequestered in a private world, cut off from politics and production.
And yet, all across the world, in Europe as much as in the Islamic world, before industrialization, a great deal of manufacturing was actually in the hands of women, since almost everything of value was produced in or near the home. Women wove the cloth and made the garments. Women had a big role in animal husbandry. Women transformed the raw products of flocks and fields into useful products, and they practiced many other handicrafts as well. When these processes were mechanized, “cottage industries” went under and left countless women out of work.
In Europe, large numbers of these women then went to work in factories, shops, and eventually offices. Given the European social structure, they could do so: it caused some social and psychological disruption, to be sure, but women had already won access to the public realm, and so they could go to work outside the home, and they did, and out of this great movement, which was going to happen anyway, came the philosophical musings, political theorizing, and social activism known today as feminism, a movement premised on the existence and sanctity of individual rights. (Only after a concept of “the individual” exists can one say, “Every individual has rights” and once that assertion is accepted, one can entertain the notion that women might have the same rights as men, since both are individuals.)
In the Islamic world, the pervasively embedded division of the world into a masculine public realm and a feminine private one made the move from cottage industries to industrial production much more problematic and produced social dislocations that were much more wrenching. It required, first of all, overturning that whole divided social system, which struck at the core of family life for every family and left unsettled questions of identity for both men and women at the deepest level of conscious and even subconscious life, as became most evident by the late twentieth century.
But also, replacing guilds with factories meant severing the connection between manufacturing and Sufi orders, which at some level implied severing the connection between spirituality and work. What’s more, moving production into factories required that people start living a life regulated by clocks; yet the fundamental core of Muslim life, the prayer ritual that must be performed five times daily, is situated in a framework of natural time markers: the position of the sun was what determined the times of prayer. Here, then, was another way in which industrialization pitted production against spiritual practice. (Europe would have faced the same contradiction had industrialization emerged in feudal times when events such as matins and vespers framed people’s schedules.)
Besides all this, industrialization required that a society organized universally as large networks of interconnected clans with tribal loyalties superseding most other affiliations rethink itself overnight as a universe of atomized individuals, each one making independent economic decisions based on rational self-interest and responsible only to a nuclear family. It wasn’t going to happen; not easily. And it couldn’t happen suddenly. It asserted a crosscurrent against the whole river of Islamic civilization since the 700s. Muslim societies needed time to let the social preconditions of industrialization evolve in their world. But that wasn’t going to happen either; even less so. For one thing, no one thought in terms of developing “social preconditions.” They thought in terms of acquiring products, technologies and their underlying scientific principles.
That is, no one looking at machine-made consumer goods said, “Gee, we, too, should have a Reformation and develop a cult of individualism and then undergo a long period of letting reason erode the authority of faith while developing political insitutions that encourage free inquiry so that we can happen onto the ideas of modern science while at the same time evolving an economic system built on competition among private businesses so that when our science spawns new technologies we can jump on them and thus, in a few hundred years, quite independently of Europe, make these same sorts of goods ourselves.” No, people said, “Nice goods, where can we get some?” Because it’s pointless to reinvent the wheel when the wheel is already sitting on the shelf, priced to move.
Marx and Engels, among others, documented that industrialization had some undesirable side effects in the West, but it caused even greater social and psychological disruption in the Islamic world. Yet the mere existence of industrially produced consumer goods made an argument that no pamphlet could refute and no religious harangue undercut. “We’re nice stuff; you should get some,” they whispered, triggering a widespread sense that something had to change, that people living in Iran or Afghanistan or Asia Minor or Egypt or Morocco had to become in some way . . . more Western. Thus, as awareness of the Industrial Revolution seeped through the Muslim world, secular reform ideas gained ground in Islamic countries.
In Iran, after the 1840s, an extremely energetic prime minister named Mirza Taqi, also called Amir Kabir, “the Great Leader,” launched a crash program to “modernize” the country. By “modernize,” he meant “industrialize,” but he understood this to be a complicated process. He knew Iran couldn’t just acquire industrial goods. To really match up to the Western powers devouring their country, Iranians had to acquire some aspects of Western culture. But what aspects? The key, Amir Kabir decided, was education.
He built a network of secular public schools across the country. Just outside Tehran, he established the university mentioned earlier, Dar al-Funun or “house of wisdom,” where students could study foreign languages, science, technical subjects, and the history of Western cultures. Iran started sending students abroad, as well, to countries such as Germany and France. Not surprisingly, these students hailed largely from privileged urban families assocated with the court and government bureacracy—not from rural peasant stock, merchant families, or high-status religious families. And so, the new educational program expanded social divisions that already existed in this society.
Graduates pouring out of the secular education system were tapped to staff a “modernized” government bureacracy and army. (Modern in this context meant “more like you would see in Europe.”) Thus, the Iranian response to industrialism generated a new social class in Iran consisting of educated civil servants, army officers, university students, teachers, technicians, professionals, anyone who had graduated from Dar al-Funun, anyone who had studied in Europe. . . . This burgeoning class developed an ever more secular outlook and grew ever more receptive to thinking of Islam as a system of rational, ethical values rather than a revelation-based manual for getting into heaven.
Constitutionalism, a second phenomenon born in Europe, now began to have an impact in Iran, largely because this new class was open to it. Constitutionalism is not quite the same as democratic idealism, since even totalitarian dictatorships can have constitutions, but a constitution is certainly a necessary precondition to democracy. It asserts that a society operates within a stable framework of stated laws binding ruler as well as ruled. Absolute monarchies, the system long in place throughout the Muslim world, gave rulers de facto power to decide the rules as they pleased at any given moment. It’s important to realize that in absolute monarchies this pattern doesn’t apply just to the top ruler; it is reified throughout society, each man having arbitary power over those below him and subject to the arbitrary whims of those above. (Similarly, democracy doesn’t just mean top leaders gaining office through election; it means that some sort of interactive participatory process goes on at every level: elections are not equivalent to democracy; they are only a sign that democracy exists.)
Constitutionalism made headway in Iran in part because, out of the rising class of educated secular modernists, a new intelligentsia emerged. They announced their modernity not just in their ideas but in the very language they used to express their ideas. New writers began to eschew the diction of classical Persian literature, which was so full of ornate rhetorical flourishes and devices, and developed instead a simple, muscular prose, which they used to write, not epic poems and mystical lyrics, but satirical novels, political plays, and the like.
Literary scholar Hamid Dabashi notes the curious case of the English language novel The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, written by a traveler named James Morier, who pretended he had merely translated a Persian original. Morier used a ridiculous diction in his novel to lampoon Persian speech and depicted Iranians as dishonest scoundrels and buffoons.
Then, in the 1880s, an astounding thing happened. Iranian grammarian Mirza Habib translated Hajji Baba into Persian. Remarkably, what in English was offensive racist trash became, in translation, a literary masterpiece that laid the groundwork for a modernist Persian literary voice and “a seminal text in the course of the constitutional movement.” The ridicule that Morier directed against Iranians in an Orientalist manner, the translator redirected against clerical and courtly corruption in Iranian society, thereby transforming Hajji Baba into an incendiary political critique.2
With the emergence of a secular modernist intelligentsia, the classics of Persian literature, poetry by the likes of Rumi and Sa’di and Hafez, began to gather dust while readers instead devoured, not just the new Iranian writing, but also books by European thinkers such as Charles Montesquieu and Auguste Comte, philosophers who theorized that societies evolved through successively higher stages. Montesquieu categorized and ranked political systems, declaring that republics were the next higher stage after monarchies and despotisms. Comte said that as people grew more civilized they evolved from religious to metaphysical to scientific consciousness.3
Iranian modernist intellectuals decided their country needed to evolve. Their discontent focused on the Qajar monarchs, now into their second century of rule. These kings had pretty much been treating the country like a private possession. One Qajar after another had been selling off the national economy bit by bit to foreigners, to fund their own luxuries and amusements, including expensive excursions to Europe.
Resentment among secular modernists came to a head with the Tobacco Boycott, the movement so passionately promoted by Jamaluddin-i-Afghan. As it happens, Jamaluddin also drew the Shi’i clerical establishment into the Tobacco Boycott, and it was this alliance that forced the shah to back down. But once the shah nullified the British monopoly on tobacco sales in Iran, the clerics felt they had won and retired from the field.
The remaining activists held together, however, and crafted new demands. They called for a constitution that would limit the powers of the king and give the people a voice in running the country. Cheered on from afar by Jamaluddin (deported to Asia Minor by this time), these secular modernists began to discuss building a parliamentary democracy. The clerics totally opposed them. A constitution would be un-Islamic, they said, because Iran already had a constitution: it was called the Shari’a. They derided the idea of democracy, too: only dynastic rule was permitted by Islam, they declared. By the early years of the twentieth century, the long struggle in Iran between clerics and crown had turned into a complicated three-way struggle among clerics, crown, and secular modernist intelligentsia, a struggle in which any two factions might pair up against the third. In the matter of the constitution, clerics and crown stood united against the modernists.
But the modernist tide was running high. In 1906, Qajar king Muzaffar al-din yielded, finally. He accepted a consitution that limited his powers severely and allowed a parliament to be formed, the Majlis, as it was called. The king died a week after the Majlis first convened, and his son Mohammad Ali Shah took over. It wasn’t clear what powers the parliament really had—it didn’t have an army and didn’t command a police force—yet within two years the Majlis had passed a host of laws that laid the basis for free speech, a free press, and a full range of civil liberties in Iran.
Before the third year was up, however, the king pointed cannons at the parliament building and blew it down, his way of saying: “Let’s give the old ways another chance.” The ulama and all the other traditional groups cheered him on; and this is where matters stood in Iran as World War I approached.
Meanwhile, a third European phenomenon was seducing minds and hearts across the Islamic world: nationalism. Iran provided the least fertile soil for this ideology, perhaps because it was already pretty much a nation-state, or at least closer to one than any other part of the Islamic heartland. In India, nationalism began transforming Aligarh modernism into a movement that would finally give birth to Pakistan. But it was in the Ottoman Empire and in territories that had once been part of this empire that nationalism really caught on.
When I say nationalism, I don’t mean the nation-state per se. A nation-state is a concrete geographical fact: a territory with definite borders, a single central government, a single set of laws enforced by that single government, a single currency, an army, a police force, and so on. Nation-states such as France and England developed spontaneously out of historical circumstances and not because nationalists conceived of them and then built them.
The nationalism I’m speaking of was (is) an idea. It didn’t develop where nation-states had formed, but where they hadn’t. It didn’t describe what was but what (supposedly) ought to be. The German-speaking people came into the nineteenth century as a multitude of principalities and kingdoms. Italy was similarly divided, and so was the whole of Europe east of Germany. Nationalism sprouted in these areas.
The seeds of the idea go back to the eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Herder, who criticized “enlightenment” philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. The enlightenment philosophers taught that man is essentially a rational being and that moral values must ultimately be based on reason. Since the rules of reason are the same for everyone, at all times, in all places, civilized people who subdue their passions and let themselves be guided solely by reason must eventually progress toward a single universal set of laws and value judgments.
Herder, however, argued that there was no such thing as universal values, either moral or aesthetic: rather, he said, the world was composed of various cultural entities, which he called volks: or “people.” Each of these entities had a volksgeist, a spiritual essence possessed in common by the given people. Shared language, traditions, customs, history—ties like these bound a group of people together as a volk. Although a true volk was a purely social entity, its “groupness” wasn’t just a social contract or some sort of agreement among its members to team up, any more than a multitude of cells agree to come together and be an organism. Nations had a unified singleness that made them as real as butterflies or mountains: that’s the sort of thing Herder meant by volk. And when Herder spoke of volksgeist, he meant something like what religious people mean by soul or what psychologists mean when they speak of “the self.” Every nation, to Herder, had some such unified spiritual essence.
Herder’s argument implied that no moral or aesthetic judgment was universally valid or objectively true. If humanity was not reducible to a capacity for reason, then values were not the same at all times for all people. In aesthetics, for example, an Indian and a German might disagree about what was beautiful, but this didn’t mean one side was right and the other wrong. Each judgment reflected a volksgeist and was true only insofar as it truly expressed the volksgeist. A value judgment could rise no higher than the level of the nation.
Herder wasn’t saying one nation was better than another, just that they were different, and that one nation couldn’t be judged by the values of another. But a slightly younger philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, took Herder’s ideas a step further and shifted their import. Fichte agreed that humanity clumped together as discrete nations, each one bound together by a common spirit; but he suggested that some volks might actually be superior to others. Specifically, he suggested that Germans had a great inherant capacity for liberty, theirs being a vigorous living language as contrasted to the French language, which was dead. (The French no doubt disagreed.)
Fichte died in 1814: his career, therefore, peaked in the period when Napoleon was conquering Europe and dominating the Germans, which is probably one key to Fichte’s influence. Many Germans chafing under French rule felt that, yes, they could tell: French and German really were two different spirits; and they liked hearing that even though the French might be dominant, the Germans might be somehow “higher”. . .
Fast-forward five decades from the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte to the year 1870. Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had just forged a single nation out of the many little German states. France, as it happened, was now ruled by Napoleon’s buffoonish great-nephew Napoleon III, who was twice as pompous and half as talented as Napoleon the First. Bismarck goaded this Napoleon into declaring war on him, then overwhelmed France with a lightning strike, conquered Paris within months, and imposed humiliating terms upon the French, as well as wresting two resource-rich border provinces away from France.
German nationalism, born out of defeat and resentment, now had victory to batten on. A triumphalist vision of a German nation with a mythic destiny took wing. Artists sought the sources of the German volksgeist in ancient Teutonic myths. Wagner expressed the German nationalist passion in bombastic operas. Historians began spinning a mythological narrative tracing German origins back to the primal Indo-Europeans, the Aryan tribes of the Caucasus mountains.
German nationalism especially captivated professors at the Gymnasium, which was then Germany’s most prestigious institution of higher education. Here, philosophers such as Heinrich von Treitschke began teaching that nations were the most authentic social entities in the world and the highest expression of human life. They rhapsodized about a pan-German nation that would rule all territories in which German speakers lived. They spoke of the heroic destiny that justified “great” nations imposing their will on barbaric lands. (In other words, colonialism was noble.) Their pupils, laden with these passions, moved into society as engineers, bankers, teachers, or whatnot, and infected the German masses with this virus of pan-German nationalism.
In Italy, meanwhile, a revolutionary named Joseph Mazzini was adding further and perhaps the final pieces to nationalism as a political ideology. Mazzini was mainly interested in rescuing Italy from foreign rulers such as the Austrians and saw unificiation as the only means for achieving this goal. His politics led him to propound that individuals could act only as collective units, and should relinquish their individual personalities to their nation. “Say not I but we,” he harangued his fellow revolutionaries in his pamphlet On the Duties of Man. “Let each man among you strive to incarnate his country in himself.”4 Mazzini went on to assert a theory of collective rights based on nationalism. Every nation had “a right” to a territory of its own, a “right” to leaders from amongst its own, a “right” to defined borders, a “right” to extend those borders as far as necessary to encompass all the people who comprised the nation, and a “right” to complete sovereignty within those borders. It was only right, natural, and noble, he said, for the people of a nation to live within one geographically continuous state, so that none of them would have to live among strangers.
In the last half of the nineteenth century, movements fueled by nationalism spawned first Germany and then Italy, but the virus spread beyond these countries, into eastern Europe, where a multitude of disparate communities speaking many languages, claiming different ethnic origins, and telling diverse stories about their origins rattled around as indigestible parts of two ramshackle empires, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. The government of both empires tried to squelch all nationalists within their borders, but succeeded only in driving them underground, where they went on seething in secrecy. European cartoonists imagined these revolutionaries as stout little bearded men carrying bombs shaped like bowling balls under bulky overcoats: an amusing image. The real anarchist and terrorist movements spawned by European nationalism were not so amusing. And it was from here that nationalism rolled east into the Islamic heartlands.
Before leaving Europe, however, let me mention two other nationalist movements of consequence that matured in the West. One had immediate relevance for the Ottoman Empire; the other would signify later. The latter one took shape in North America where a new country formed. Technically, this country was born when thirteen small colonies of British settlers revolted against their home government and launched independent destinies, but in many ways the confederation they put together didn’t actually become a nation-state until the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. Before that war, people in the United States spoke of their country as “these united states.” After the war, they called it “the United States.”5 The issue of slavery triggered the war, but President Lincoln frankly put preserving the union at the center of his arguments for the justice and necessity of the war. In his Gettysburg Address, he said the war was being fought to test whether a nation “conceived in liberty” and a government of, by, and for the people could endure. He and others who forged the United States—politicians, historians, philosophers, writers, thinkers, and citizens in general—asserted a nationalist idea quite distinct from the ideologies spawned in Europe. Instead of seeking nationhood in a common religion, history, traditions, customs, race, or ethnic identity, they proposed that multitudes of individuals could become “a people” by virtue of shared principles and shared allegiance to a process. It was a nationalism based on ideas, a nationalism that anyone could embrace because, in theory, it was a nation any person could become a member of, not just those who worn born into it.
During that same Civil War, the emerging country gave notice of its potential power. The American Civil War was the first in which a single man at one point commanded an army of a million, the first in which nearly a quarter of a million soldiers clashed on a single battlefield, and the first in which industrial technology from railroads to submarines to proto-machine guns, played a decisive role. It’s true that in this war the (dis)united states were fighting each other and posed, therefore, no military threat to anyone else, but anyone could imagine what a formidable power would emerge once the two sides melted back into a single state.
The other European nationalist movement of world-historical consequence and immediate relevance for the Muslim world was Zionism. This bundle of passion and ideas was just like all the other nineteenth-century European nationalisms in its arguments and appeals. It agreed with Herder that people who share a language, culture, and history were a nation. It agreed with Mazzini that a nation had a right to its own self-ruling state situated securely in a territory of its own. It agreed with the likes of Treitschke that a nation-state had a right (even a destiny) to include all of its own people within its borders and a right to exclude all others if necessary. If the Germans were a nation and had such rights, said the founders of political Zionism, if the Italians were a nation, if the French were a nation, then by God the Jews were a nation too.
There was, however, one key difference between Zionism and other nineteenth-century European nationalisms. The Italians, Germans, Serbians, and others claimed a nationalist right to the territory they inhabited. The Jewish people had no territory. They had been scattered around the globe for two millenia and were now living as landless minorities in other people’s states. Throughout their two thousand years in Diaspora, however, Jews had held together, maintaining a sense of peoplehood built around a Judaism that was as much cultural and historical as it was religious: in nineteenth-century Europe, it was perfectly possible to be Jewish without being a practicing or even a “believing” Jew. Still, a core element of the Jewish religious-historical narrative asserted that God had promised the land of Canaan to the original Hebrews—Abraham and his tribal descendants—in exchange for their worshipping no other and obeying only His commandments. According to this narrative, the Jewish people had kept their side of the bargain and had thus earned the right to reclaim “their” land, the territory called Palestine, which was now inhabited by Arabs and ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Many nineteenth-century European Zionists were secular but this tenet about a Promised Land nonetheless made its way into the argument for a Jewish nation-state along the eastern Mediterannean coast.
In 1897, an Austrian journalist, Theodor Herzl, founded the first official organ of political Zionism, the World Zionist Congress, but Zionism already existed and its ideas went back to the early 1800s. It was amid all the other nationalist murmurings of that era that Jewish intellectuals in Europe began to speak of moving to Palestine. Some German proto-nationalists agreed with these proto-Zionists, and not in a friendly way. Fichte, for example, held that Jews could never assimilate into German culture, even if they were German-speaking from birth. If they stayed in Germany, they would always be a state within a state, and therefore, he suggested, they should seek their national destiny in Palestine.
Palestine had never been without an indigenous Jewish population, but in 1800 that population formed a miniscule fraction of the total—about 2.5 percent as opposed to the more than 97 percent who were Arabs. By the 1880s, when Jewish immigration from Europe to Palestine began in earnest, the ratio of Jews to Arabs had climbed to roughly 6 percent of the total. About thirty thousand moved to Palestine in the first aliyah, as waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine were called, and the ratio changed again. The first immigrants, however, were idealistic urban intellectuals who pictured themselves as Palestinian farmers, even though they didn’t know a shovel from a hoe. Most of them returned to Europe, and the first aliyah petered out. That is where matters stood as World War I approached.
When these three phenomena from Europe—constitutionalism, nationalism, and industrialism—seeped into the Ottoman world they had a particularly corrosive effect, in part because the Ottoman “world” was shrinking throughout the nineteenth century, which was engendering much restless anxiety. Algeria was absorbed into France. Great Britain took over Egypt in all but name. Technically, the Mediterranean coast north of Egypt belonged to the Ottoman empire, as did the whole Arabian peninsula and most of what is now Iraq, but even here the Ottomans gradually found themselves bowing to Europeans. Meanwhile, the Ottoman hold on its European territories kept weakening. The whole of this ancient empire, so recently the world’s greatest, was like some colossal creature whose extremities had fallen away and whose body was rotting, but was somehow still breathing, still alive.
It was alive, but Western business forces, backed by the power of their governments, operated freely here. Through the first half of the nineteenth century, their interaction with the Ottomans could be summed up in one word: capitulations.
Capitulations: it sounds like another word for “humiliating concessions.” That, however, is not what the word meant at first.
The capitulations began when the empire was at its height, and the term simply referred to permissions granted by mighty Ottoman sultans to petty petitioners from Europe pleading to do business in the empire. The capitulations merely listed what these folks were permitted to do in Ottoman territory. Anything not listed was forbidden. Why call them “capitulations”? Because in Latin, the word simply means “categorize by headings.” So the capitulations were lists of permitted business activities for Europeans, organized by category.
Since no single great war reversed the balance of power between the Ottomans and the Europeans, there was no single moment when capitulations stopped meaning “permissions doled out haughtily by mighty Ottoman lords” and started meaning “humiliating concessions wrung out triumphantly from Ottoman officials (by haughty European bosses).” But that’s certainly what they meant by 1838, when the Ottomans signed the Treaty of Balta Liman with a consortium of European powers (to secure their aid against Mohammed Ali), a treaty establishing unequal terms between Ottomans and Europeans on Ottoman soil. The treaty placed low tariffs, for example, on European products coming into the empire but imposed high tariffs on Ottoman products flowing out. It forbade Ottoman subjects to establish monopolies but permitted and eased the way for Europeans to do exactly that. These capitulations had but one purpose: to ensure that Ottomans would be unable to compete with European businessmen on their own soil.
In the few decades after the Treaty of Balta Liman, the Ottoman government shook its aging limbs and promulgated a series of new rules to revamp Ottoman society so that it could match up to the Europeans—exactly the sort of thing that was going on in Iran around this same time. In the Ottoman Empire, these modernizing moves were called Tanzimat or “reorganization measures.” They began with an 1839 proclamation grandiosely titled “The Noble Edict of the Rose Chamber.” In 1856 came another document, “The Imperial Edict.” Then in 1860 came a third set of reform measures.
Here are a few things the Tanzimat established:
• a new national government bureaucracy modeled along French lines;
• secular state courts superseding the traditional Shari’a courts;
• a new code of criminal justice based on France’s “Napoleonic” code;
• new commercial rules favoring “free trade,” which essentially gave Europeans a free hand to set business rules in the Ottoman empire;
• a conscripted army modeled on the Prussian system, to replace the devshirme;
• public schools with a secular curriculum similar to what was taught in British schools, bypassing the traditional school system run by Muslim clerics;
• one single empire-wide state-run tax collection agency (rather like the IRS in today’s United States), replacing the traditional Ottoman “tax farmers” (who were, essentially, freelance tax collectors working on commission);
• guarantees that the “honor, life, and property” of all Ottoman subjects were inviolable and would be secured, regardless of race or religion.
On paper these reforms may look good, especially that one about guaranteeing the life and safety of all citizens, regardless of ethnic origin: who could be against ending discrimination? It’s practically European.
But put yourself in the shoes of an average Turkish Muslim citizen of the empire in the nineteenth century: the inherent merits of such reforms would be hard to separate from the fact that they were dictated to Ottoman officials by Europeans—literally, according to historian James L. Gelvin: apparently the Imperial Edict was written out verbatim by British ambassador Stratford Canning and handed to Ottoman officials with instructions to translate it and proclaim it publicly.6 Noble Edict of the Rose Chamber indeed! To many Ottoman Muslims, these smelled less like reforms and more like fresh evidence of alien power over their lives.
Not all Ottoman Muslims felt this way. A growing movement of reformists in Asia Minor, a Turkish version of movements in India, Afghanistan, and Iran, embraced and promoted the Tanzimat. They thought the only way to defeat European imperialism was to beat the Europeans at their own game, which would necessitate, first of all, adopting whatever European ideas accounted for European strength.
But the ulama were still around. The Tanzimat worked directly against their interests. Taking education out of clerical hands . . . replacing Shari’ah courts with secular courts . . . substituting French laws for Islamic law—such reforms not only stripped the ulama of power but robbed them of a reason to exist. Of course they were going to resist; and the ulama still had a lot of moral authority among the ordinary people. They still wielded clout at court too.
The sultan and his advisers, therefore, soon found themselves caught between the clamor of secular modernists and the yammer of an Islamic old guard. Tugged and yanked from both sides, the court tilted now this way, now that. As the secular modernists argued ever more stridently for European-style reforms, the traditionalists dug in ever more stubbornly to reactionary dicta. When the modernists called for mechanized state-run factories, the ulama railed against Ottoman officials using typewriters—Prophet Mohammed never used one, they argued.
For a moment, the modernists gained the upper hand. In 1876, they forced the sultan to adopt a constitution, a momentous victory widely celebrated as the “French Revolution of the East.” For just a few years there, the crumbling empire was a constitutional monarchy like Great Britain (in form). In that brief period, modernizing activists of every ethnic and religious stripe interacted companionably in a heady atmosphere of progressive enthusiasm: Turkish Muslims, Arab Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Armenians, all rubbed shoulders as members of a single broad movement to build a new world.
But the old guard retrenched, outmaneuvered the modernists, and rebuilt the sultan’s power, until he was strong enough to abolish the constitution and rule as an absolute monarch again. The pendulum swung back, in part, because the reforms were not working. Turkish Muslims of Asia Minor saw their standard of living sinking, their autonomy shrinking. They felt ever more powerless against the enormous forces of Europe pressing from outside.
But they did have what they regarded as one fragment of that outside world within their borders and completely in their power. That fragment was the Armenian community. In reality, of course, the Armenians were no more European than the Turks. They lived right where they had been living since time immemorial. They had their own non-European language, traditions, and history. They didn’t come from anywhere else and were, in fact, more indigenous than the Turks.
They were, however, a Christian minority surrounded by a Muslim majority, and what’s more, in that period of ever more humiliating capitulations, when business interests from western Europe acquired the power to march into the Ottoman Empire and establish profitable business operations at the expense of the locals, the Armenians found themselves in a paradoxical position. For Ottoman citizens, the only way to prosper at this point was to work for, do business with, or best of all form partnerships with European businesses. But when Europeans sought business partners in the empire, they gravitated quite naturally towards those with whom they felt kinship, and if they had a choice, they chose Armenian Christians over Muslim Turks, so the favorable terms extracted by foreigners seemed to benefit the Armenian community within the empire, or such at least was the perception among resentful Muslims slipping into poverty.
The Armenians had lived peacefully in the Ottoman world up to this time; as non-Turks, however, they had been shut out of the military-aristocratic ruling caste. They had also been cut off, to some extent, from big-time land ownership and “tax farming.” Many therefore, had turned to business and finance to make a living.
Finance—that’s what used to be called moneylending. It was frowned upon pretty widely in early times. Charging interest on a loan was explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an, just as it was in Medieval Christian Europe where the term usury in canon law didn’t mean “charging exorbitant interest” but “charging any interest.” Why did moneylending have this odor? I suppose it’s because ordinary folks saw the lending of money in the context of charity, not of business: it was something one did when a neighbor got into trouble and needed help. Seen in that framework, charging interest on a loan smacked of exploiting somebody’s misery to get rich. Yet the need to borrow money came up constantly, even in the most primitive feudal economy, often in the wake of crisis: a blacksmith’s workshop burned down; a famous cleric died unexpectedly leaving his family to host an expensive funeral; someone wanted to get married without having saved up a dowry; someone fell catastrophically ill. . . . People went to moneylenders at moments when they felt particularly vulnerable and raw, yet they went with a culturally implanted feeling that any decent person would give them a loan for nothing. The desperation that forced them to accept a banker’s terms only added a further dollop of resentment. When the borrower and the moneylender belonged to the same community, other sentiments such as kinship or loyalty might temper the resentment, but when people went to moneylenders whom they already saw as the Other, the dynamics of the interaction tended to exacerbate any existing communal hostility. The worst possible case, then, was for moneylending to become the exclusive province of a distinct cultural minority surrounded by a vast majority. In Europe, this dynamic made victims of the Jews. In the Ottoman Empire, it was the Armenians who fell afoul of it.
As tension built up, it was easy to forget that Turks and Armenians had lived together peacefully, not even three generations back; the hostility seemed like an age-old feature of the two communities’ relationship. The Ottoman policy of dividing the population into self-governing communities was originally a way of conferring upon each a measure of cultural sovereignty. It reflected tolerance. It functioned as an instrument of harmony. Now, this same policy became a deficiency, a liability, a crucial key to the coming troubles, because it worked to separate, isolate, and spotlight the unfortunate Armenians. In fact, the millet system became a mechanism for exacerbating existing fault lines in Ottoman society.
Between 1894 and 1896, in eastern Anatolia, a series of anti-Armenian pogroms broke out. Turkish villagers began to massacre Armenians, much as Jews were being massacred in eastern Europe and Russia, but on an even larger scale. As many as three hundred thousand Armenians died before the madness subsided, and it subsided then only because Europeans put pressure on the Ottoman government to do something. Since the power of Europeans to dictate to Ottoman officials was a factor in the resentment vented upon the Armenians, this authority ending the violence only exacerbated the original psychosocial sources of the violence. It was like parents stepping in to protect a little boy from neighborhood bullies and then going off about their business: once the little boy is alone with the bullies again, he’s in worse trouble than before.
Meanwhile, even though the sultan had scuttled the constitution, power remained divided between old guard and new bucks. The political struggle kept raging on and the balance inexorably tipped back to the new guys, for here, as in Iran, the tide was with the modernists. By 1900, a whole new generation of activists were calling for the constitution to be restored. They wanted their parents’ French Revolution back.
Politically it was an exhilarating but confusing time. It wasn’t like one group of agitators were nationalists, another group secular modernists, some other one liberal constitutionalists. Many ideologies and movements were intertwined and interacting. Any single person might espouse a bit of this and a bit of that. There had not yet been time enough to sort out which ideas went together and which were incompatible. All who set themselves against the old guard thought themselves Ottoman citizens with a common stake in reshaping the empire. All felt like young people in the know aligned against clueless elders, comrades-in-arms merely because they all fiercely favored the “modern,” whatever that was.
This new generation of activists called themselves the Young Turks. They used the name in part because they actually were young, in their twenties, mostly, but also in part as a way of thumbing their noses at the old guard, for among traditional Muslims, older was always regarded as better—respectful titles such as shiekh and pir literally meant “old man.” What the fuddy-duddies derided as a shortcoming, the Young Turks flaunted with pride: they were young!
Although they had many incipient disagreements, the Young Turks held together long enough to overwhelm the last Ottoman sultan, a weak and silly man named Abdul Hamid II. In 1908, they forced him to reinstate the constitution, reducing himself to a figurehead.
No sooner had they wrestled the sultan to the mat, however, then the Young Turks realized they were not one group but several. One faction, for example, favored decentralizing the empire, securing rights for minorities, and giving the people a bigger voice in the government. They were quickly squeezed out of the government altogether. Another faction embraced Turkish nationalism. Founded around 1902 by six medical students, it coalesced into a tightly organized, militaristic party called the Committee for Union and Progress.
The CUP found ever-increasing support for its views. Many anti-imperial Turks, many younger Turks, many educated civil servants, university students, intelligentsia and children of the intelligentsia, many literati who had read the nationalist arguments of the European philosophers and knew all about the successful strivings of German and Italian nationalists, began to see nationalism as their road to salvation from imperialism. Get rid of the cumbersome, old-fashioned, multicultural, Ottoman idea of empire and replace it with a lean, clean, mean, specifically Turkish state machine: this was the idea. The Arab provinces would have to be cut loose, of course, they no longer fit, but these new Turkish nationalists dreamed of linking up Anatolia with those central Asian territories that formed the ancestral homeland of the Turkish people. They dreamed of a Turkish nation-state that would stretch from the Bosporus to places like Kazakhstan.
Turkish nationalist intellectuals began to argue that Christian minorities, especially the Armenians, were a privileged aristocracy in Turkey, inherant internal enemies of the state, in league with the Russians, in league with the western Europeans, in league with the breakaway Slavic territories of Eastern Europe.
This new generation of Turkish nationalists said the nation superseded all smaller identities and suggested that the national “soul” might be vested in some single colossal personality, an idea that came straight from the German nationalist philosophers. The writer Ziya Gökalp declared that except for heroes and geniuses, individuals had no value. He urged his fellow Turks never to speak of “rights.” There were no rights, he said, only duties: the duty to hear the voice of the nation and follow its demands.7
Trouble for the empire tended to confer glamour upon such militaristic nationalism. And trouble did keep coming. It had been coming for a long, long time. Bulgaria wrenched free. Bosnia and Herzegovina left the Ottoman fold to be annexed by the Habsurgs into their Austro-Hungarian empire. About a million Muslims, forced into exile by these changes, streamed into Anatolia looking for new homes in the dying, dysfunctional, and already-crowded empire. Then the Ottomans lost Crete. Nearly half the population of that island were Muslims, nearly all of whom migrated east. All this social dislocation generated a pervasive atmosphere of free-floating anxiety.
Amid the uproar, nationalism began heating up among other groups. Arab nationalism began to bubble, for one. And after all the horrors they had suffered at the hands of their fellow Turks, Armenian activists too declared a need and right to carve out a sovereign nation-state of Armenia. These were exactly the same nationalist impulses stirring among so many self-identified nationalities in eastern Europe at this time.
In 1912, a war in the Balkans stripped the empire of Albania, of Macedonia, of its last European holdings outside Istanbul, a military defeat that triggered a final spasm of anxiety, resentment, and confusion in Asia Minor. Turmoil like this favors the most tightly organized group, whatever its popular support may be; the Bolsheviks proved as much in Russia five years later. In Istanbul, the most tightly organized group just then was the ultranationalist Committee for Union and Progress. On January 23, 1913, the CUP seized control in a coup d’etat, assassinated the incumbent vizier, deposed the last Ottoman sultan, ousted all other leaders from the government, declared all other parties illegal, and turned Ottoman Turkey into a one-party state. A triumverate of men emerged as spearheads of this single party: Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha, and Djemal Pasha, and it was these “three Pashas” who happened to be ruling the truncated remains of the Ottoman empire in 1914, when the long-anticipated European civil war broke out.
In Europe, it was called the Great War; to the Middle World, however, it looked like a European civil war at first: Germany and Austria lined up against France, Britain, and Russia, and most other European countries soon jumped in or got dragged in unwillingly.
Muslims had no dog in this fight, but CUP leaders thought that they might reap big benefits by joining the winning side before the fighting ended. Like most people, they assumed the war would last no more than a few months, because the great powers of Europe had been stockpiling “advanced” technological weapons for decades, fearsome firepower against which nobody and nothing could possibly stand for long, so it looked as if the war could only be a sudden bloody shootout from which the first to fire and the last to run out of ammo would emerge as winner.
CUP strategists decided this winner would be Germany. After all, Germany was the continent’s mightiest industrial power, it had already squashed the French, and it held central Europe, which meant that it could move troops and war machines through its own territory on its superb rail network to every battlefront. Besides, by siding with Germany, the Turks would be fighting two of its enduring foes, Russia and Great Britain.
Eight months into the war, with Russian troops already threatening the northern border of their empire, CUP leaders ordered the infamous Deportation Act. Officially, this order was supposed to “relocate” the Armenians living near Russia to sites deeper within the empire where they wouldn’t be able to make common cause with the Russians. To this day, the Turkish government insists that the Deportation Act was purely a security measure necessitated by war. They admit that, yes, some killing did take place, but a civil war was raging, so what can you expect, and besides the violence went both ways—such is the official position from which no Turkish government has yet budged.
And the fact is, there was a war on, the Russian were coming, some Armenians were collaborating with the Russians, some Armenians did kill some Turks, and some of the violence of 1915 early on was, it seems, a continuation of that unstructured hatred that burst out in the 1890s as pogroms and ethnic cleansing. (The United Nations defines “ethnic cleansing” as the attempt to enforce ethnic homogeneity in a given territory by driving out or killing unwanted groups, often by committing atrocities that frighten them in into fleeing.)
Outside of Turkey, however, few scholars doubt that in 1915 something much worse than ethnic cleansing took place, reprehensible as that alone would have been. The Deportation Act was the beginning of an organized attempt by Talaat Pasha, and perhaps Enver Pasha, and possibly other nameless leaders in the anonymous secret core of the CUP, to exterminate the Armenians, as a people—not just from Asia Minor or Turkish-designated areas but from the very Earth. Those who were being “relocated” were actually force-marched and brutalized to death; it was, in short, attempted genocide (defined by the United Nations as any attempt to erase a targeted ethnic group not just from a given area but altogether). The exact toll remains a matter of dispute but it exceeded a million. Talaat Pasha presided over this horror as minister of the Interior and then prime minister of Ottoman Turkey, a post he held until the end of World War I.
Turkish revisionist historian Taner Akçam quotes a doctor affiliated with the CUP at the time of the massacres explaining that, “Your nationality comes before everything else. . . . The Armenians of the East were so excited against us that if they remained in their land, not a single Turk, not a single Muslim could stay alive. . . . Thus, I told myself: oh, Dr. Rechid, there are only two options. Either they will cleanse the Turks or they will be cleansed by the Turks. I could not remain undecided between these two alternatives. My Turkishness overcame my condition as a doctor. I told myself: ‘instead of being exterminated by them, we should exterminate them.’”8
But the CUP had thoroughly miscalculated. For one thing, the war did not end quickly. Instead of one big blast of offensive destruction, the western-European theater ground down to a bizarre defensive struggle between armies of millions, lined up for hundreds of miles, in trenches separated by desolate killing fields that were littered with explosives and barbed wire. Battles kept breaking out along these lines, and sometimes they killed tens of thousands in the course of a few hours but the territory won or lost in these battles was often measurable in mere inches. This was the European theater.
To break the deadlock, the British decide to attack the Axis powers from behind, by coming at them through Asia Minor. Doing this required first crippling the Ottomans. The Allies landed troops on the peninsula of Gallipoli, from which they hoped to storm Istanbul, but this assault failed and Allied troops were massacred.
Meanwhile, the British were already busy trying to exploit another Ottoman weakness: rebellion was percolating throughout the empire’s Arab provinces, stemming from many sources. Nationalist movements sought Arab independence from Turks. Ancient tribal alignments chaffed at Ottoman administrative rules. Various powerful Arab families sought to establish themselves as sovereign local dynasties. In all this discontent, the British smelled an opportunity.
Among the dynastic contenders, two families stood out: the house of Ibn Saud, which was still allied with Wahhabi clerics, and the Hashimite family, which ruled Mecca, the spiritual center of Islam.
The Saudi-Wahhabi realm had shrunk down to a Bedouin tribal state in central Arabia but was still headed by a direct descendant of that ancestral eighteenth-century Saudi chieftain Mohammed Ibn Saud, the one who had struck a deal with the radically conservative cleric Ibn Wahhab. Over the decades, the two men’s families had intermarried extensively; the Saudi sheikh was now the religious head of the Wahhabi establishment, and Ibn Wahhab’s descendents still constituted the leading ulama of Saudi-ruled territories. British agents dispatched by the Anglo-Indian foreign office visited the Saudi chief, looking to cut a deal. They did what they could to excite his ambitions and offered him money and arms to attack the Ottomans. Ibn Saud responded cautiously but the interaction gave him good reason to believe that he would be rewarded after the war for any damage he could do to the Turks.
The Hashimite patriarch was named Hussein Ibn Ali. He was caretaker of the Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest shrine, and he was known by the title of Sharif, which meant he was descended from the Prophet’s own clan, the Banu Hashim. Remember that the ninth-century revolutionaries who had brought the Abbasids to power called themselves the Hashimites: the name had an ancient and revered lineage and now a family by this name was ruling again in Mecca.
But Mecca was not enough for Sharif Hussein. He dreamed of an Arab kingdom stretching from Mesopotamia to the Arabian Sea, and he thought the British might help him forge it. The British gladly let him think they could and would. They sent a flamboyant military intelligence officer to work with him, a one-time archeologist named Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, who spoke Arabic and liked to dress in Bedouin tribal dress, a practice that eventually earned him the nickname “Lawrence of Arabia.”
WORLD WAR I AND THE ARAB REVOLT
Looking back, it’s easy to see what a pot of trouble the British were mixing up here. The Hashimites and the Saudis were the two strongest tribal groups in the Arabian peninsula; both hoped to break the Ottoman hold on Arabia, and each saw the other as its deadly rival. The British were sending agents into both camps, making promises to both families, and leading both to believe that the British would help them establish their own kingdom in roughly the same territory, if only they would fight the Ottomans. The British didn’t actually care which of the two ruled this region: they just wanted immediate help undermining Ottoman power, so they could beat the Germans back home.
As it turned out, the Hashimites led the way in helping the British. They fomented the Arab Revolt. Two of Hussein’s sons, working with Lawrence, drove the Turks out of the region, clearing the way for the British to take Damascus and Baghdad. From there, the British could put pressure on the Ottomans.
THE SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT
At the very time that British agents were making promises to the two Arab families, however, two European diplomats, Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot, were meeting secretly with a map and a pencil, over a civilized cup of tea, to decide how the region should be carved up among the victorious European powers after the war. They agreed which part should go to Sykes’s Britain, which part to Picot’s France, and where a nod to Russian interests might be appropriate. Which part the Arabs should get went curiously unmentioned.
All these ingredients portended trouble enough, but wait, as they say on late-night-TV infomercials, there was more! Arab nationalism was starting to bubble in Palestine and adjacent Arab-inhabited territories, including Egypt, and this had nothing to do with the dynastic aspirations of the Hashimites and Saudis. It was the secular modernists who embraced this new nationalism, all those professionals, government workers, and emerging urban bourgeoisie for whom constitutionalism and industrialism also had great appeal. In Palestine and Syria, these Arab nationalists not only demanded independence from the Ottomans and Europeans but also from the Hashimites and Saudis.
Then there was one last problematic ingredient, perhaps the most intractable of them all: Jewish immigration from Europe to Palestine. European anti-Semitism, which had helped give rise to Zionism, had continued to intensify as the continent moved toward war, making life ever more untenable for Jews throughout Europe. As a result, the Jewish population of Palestine swelled from 4 percent in 1883 to 8 percent by the start of World War I to nearly 13 percent by the time the war ended.
In 1917, the British foreign minister Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Lionel Rothschild, a British banker and a leading Zionist, a man who had supported Jewish immigration to the Levant generously out of his own private funds. Balfour told Rothschild that the British government would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
Balfour also insisted that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious right of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” but how Britain planned to accommodate both Jewish and Arab nationalism in the same territory, Balfour didn’t say.
To recap—it’s worth a recap: Britain essentially promised the same territory to the Hashimites, the Saudis, and the Zionists of Europe, territory actually inhabited by still another Arab people with rapidly developing nationalist aspirations of their own—while in fact Britain and France had already secretly agreed to carve up the whole promised territory between themselves. Despite the many quibbles, qualifiers, and disclaimers offered over the years about who agreed to what and what was promised to whom, that’s the gist of the situation, and it guaranteed an explosion in the future.
But the good thing about the future was that it lay in the future. In the present a war was raging, and what the British and French cooked up for the short term worked wonderfully: the CUP lost everything the Ottomans had ever owned outside of Asia Minor. They ceded Palestine, Greater Syria, and Mesopotamia to the British. And the war was going badly for their friends in Europe, as well. In 1918, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies, and the three Pashas knew they were in big trouble. All three of them, Talaat, Enver, and Djemal, fled Istanbul inches ahead of arrest warrants. Talaat went to Berlin, where an Armenian assassinated him in 1921. Djemal went to Georgia, where an Armenian assassinated him in 1922. Enver went to Central Asia to stir up rebellion against the Bolsheviks. A Red Army detachment commanded by an Armenian Bolshevik killed him there in 1922.
So ended the Committee for Union and Progress, a bad government to be sure, but with its demise, the carcass of the “Ottoman Empire” was left with no government at all.