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New Texts Out Now: Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire

[Cover of Bedross Der Matossian, [Cover of Bedross Der Matossian, "Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire"]

Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Bedross Der Matossian (BDM): I have always been interested in the history of the late Ottoman period, in particular the era of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) and the Second Constitutional Period (1908-1918). Most of the scholarship about the period in the past has been written from the perspective of the dominant ruling elite/political center. It is only in the past decade that we see new studies that provide a broader picture of the period by incorporating non-dominant groups. It is with this intention in mind that I decided to concentrate on examining one of the most important turning points in the beginning of the modern Middle East from the perspective of the non-dominant groups.

Much has been written on the causes and initial implementation of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. There is, however, a dearth of material that appropriately addresses its complexity and its impact on the worldview of the different non-dominant groups in the post-revolutionary period. Existing scholarship on the impact of the Young Turk Revolution on the Ottoman society is divided into two groups. One views the Revolution as a factor that led to the debilitation of interethnic relations leading to the rise of ethnic nationalism among the non-dominant groups, while the other romanticizes the period as the beginning of “civic nationalism” under the rubric of Ottomanism which was interrupted by World War I. I argue in the book that both approaches fail to adequately problematize the Revolution and demonstrate its complexities.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

BDM: The book highlights the ambiguities and contradictions of the Young Turk Revolution's goals and the reluctance of both the leaders of the Revolution and the majority of the empire's ethnic groups to come to a compromise regarding the new political framework of the empire. In order to demonstrate this, the book concentrates on three ethnic groups: Arabs, Armenians, and Jews. These three diversified groups represented vast geographic areas, as well as a wide range of interest groups, religions, classes, political parties, and factions. By utilizing primary sources in Arabic, Armenian, French, German, Hebrew, Ladino, and Ottoman Turkish, the book analyzes the revolution from the perspective of non-dominant groups. This approach is vital in order to comprehend the complexities of the post-revolutionary period. The book examines the ways in which the Revolution and constitutionalism raised these groups' expectations amid the post-revolutionary turmoil and how they internalized the Revolution, negotiating their space and identity within the rapidly changing political landscape of the period.

The book argues that the Young Turks' reluctance to sincerely accommodate the political aspirations of ethnic groups put an end to the ideals of the Revolution, which, despite their ambiguity, were adhered to by the different ethnic groups. The principles of the Revolution remained unrealized due to the lack of a sincere negotiation process between the ruling elite and the non-dominant groups concerning the empire's political systems, the emergence of ethnic politics in tandem with the consolidation of national identities, and international pressure on the Ottoman state, all of which became serious challenges to the amalgamation of modernity and tradition and hampered healthy political development. In addition, the book argues that the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ruling Young Turk party, did not wholeheartedly believe in constitutionalism. For them, constitutionalism was only a means to an end: to maintain the integrity of a centralized Ottoman Empire. In fact, they were determined to preserve the empire even if that meant violating the spirit of constitutionalism itself, as they later demonstrated in their coup d’état of 23 January 1913. After the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the CUP hijacked first the legal system and then the executive branch to protect its vital interests. It forced the declining Empire into World War I, which culminated in its defeat, the Armenian Genocide, the collapse of the Empire, and the advent of colonialism into the Middle East.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

BDM: The book departs from my previous research that concentrated on the socio-economic and political history of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In the past I have written numerous articles that dealt with different aspects of understanding Armenian history in the late Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East: from Armenian commercial networks in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century to the destruction of the Armenian economic infrastructure during the Armenian Genocide and from the history of Armenians in the provinces of Trabzon and Kayseri to the history of Armenians under the British Mandate of Palestine. In addition, I also published a few articles dealing with inter-communal relations in the late Ottoman period. In Shattered Dreams of Revolution, I aimed at examining a major transformation in the history of the modern Middle East through a comparative, multilingual, and cross-cultural analysis. I think that the best way to understand the history of ethnic groups in the Empire is to compare and contrast them to each other in order to appreciate their commonalities and differences and to obtain a more cohesive understanding of the period. So the book at the same time sheds light on Ottoman Armenian, Arab, Jewish, and Turkish history from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

BDM: I hope that the book will attract students and scholars from a variety of disciplines. Most obviously, it targets those who are interested in understanding the intricacies of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East. The book elucidates the complexities of revolutions through a comparative, inter- and intra-communal, cross-cultural analysis and initiates further dialogue among scholars in studies in a variety of disciplines. It adds to the substantial scholarship on this subject undertaken during the past few years. The book will be of great interest to scholars in the field of Ottoman and Turkish Studies, Arab Studies, Armenian Studies, and Sephardic and Jewish Studies. It also would be of interest to the disciplines of history, political science, sociology, and anthropology.

The impact I would like the book to have is to emphasize the necessity of understanding the history of the region through recognizing the role and historical agency of non-dominant groups, which have been marginalized in the past decades. Through a cross-cultural analysis utilizing a variety of languages and sources, I attempt to write the history of the late Ottoman period not from the perspective of the Ottoman political center (that is, the Ottoman Archives), but from the perspective of both the geographic and political periphery. By encompassing the different provinces of the Empire, we can better understand how the revolution impacted these areas and altered the dynamics of power within these regions.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

BDM: Currently, I am working on a project entitled Revolution and Violence: The Adana Massacres of 1909. Considered one of the major acts of violence during the turn of the century, these massacres still remain a source of historiographical contention. The research will culminate in a book that examines the massacres through a comparative perspective on communal violence and in the context of revolution, violence, the public sphere, and the political and socio-economic transformations taking place in the region in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I am also co-editing a book with Suleiman Mourad and Naomi Koltun-Fromm entitled Routledge Handbook on Jerusalem, to be published in 2017.

J: Do you think that this project is relevant to the understanding of the Arab Uprisings?

BDM: Of course, understanding the past revolutions of the MENA region is crucial to a thorough understanding of the current turmoil. The hopes that swept the region in the wake of the Young Turk Revolution in the beginning of the twentieth century were resurrected a century later in the wake of the Arab Spring. The vibrant discourse about justice, legality, constitutionalism, freedom, equality, and fraternity that is currently shaping post-revolutionary societies in the Arab world can be traced back to the 1908 Revolution.

Despite having the same lexicon, however, there are some major differences in the discourses of these two historical periods. Whereas revolutionary movements against authoritarian regimes are now taking place within postcolonial nation-states, the Revolution of 1908 took place in an imperial framework. Similar festivities and euphoric feelings celebrating the hope of revolution and the downfall of absolutist regimes took place in MENA. However, as euphoric feelings faded, once again the real litmus test of the new, supposedly “democratic” political orders began. In most of these regions the revolution failed to live up to its expectations. The post-revolutionary period in MENA is characterized by bloody civil wars, unstable governments, and the regrowth of authoritarian regimes. All of these reinforce the historical record that revolutions are complex and unpredictable phenomena that carry in them unexpected scenarios—from civil wars and genocides, to the regrowth of dictatorial regimes, and only in unique cases, peaceful transition to democratic political systems.  

Excerpt from Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in Late Ottoman Empire

From the Introduction

On 30 August 1908, more than one hundred years ago, a major ceremony took place in the Armenian apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator (Surb Grigor Lusavorich‘) in Cairo, celebrating the Young Turk Revolution of 24 July 1908. The celebration, which was organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Society, was attended by important Muslim and Christian figures from a range of ethnic backgrounds. The event, led by the Armenian bishop Mguerdich Aghavnuni, was attended by important dignitaries such as Rashid Rida, the famous Islamic jurist and scholar, and Dr. Faris Nimr, editor of the pro-British Al-Muqaṭṭam (named after the mountain overlooking the city). During the event, Bishop Aghavnuni invited Nimr to the altar,[1] and Nimr commenced his speech:

My Ottoman Brothers:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am addressing you as my Ottoman brothers, devoid of epithets and titles and stripped of veneration and glorification, as I do not find a sweeter expression on the ottoman ear than this simple phrase, and there is no expression more desirable to the Ottoman and dearer to his heart than this simple phrase after we tasted the sweetness of Ottoman freedom and made the commitment to brotherhood and equality under the patronage of our empire.[2]

Nimr continued his speech by emphasizing that Muslims and Christians living in the empire were equals. After listening to other similar speeches, the Muslim crowd became enthusiastic. Several audience members lifted Rashid Rida onto their shoulders and carried him to the altar to embrace the Armenian bishop.[3] This symbolic move was made for the practical implementation of one of the revolution’s major ideals: brotherhood.

There is no doubt that the revolution of 1908 was affected by the regional and global waves of revolutions and constitutional movements that emerged in France (1789), Japan (1868), Russia (1905), and Iran (1905–1911).[4] All of these revolutions had in common that they believed the predicaments of their states and societies should be solved through the kind of political reform that had transformed the West into a successful entity: constitutionalism and parliamentary rule vehicles to curb the power of the monarchy. The revolutionaries of this period saw these political mechanisms as the only sure way to guarantee the demise of older, absolutist political systems.

The French Revolution of 1789, with its aura of success, as well as its slogans, symbolism, and language, became the master template for the revolutions of this period, an ahistoric model that traveled from one context to another.[5] In some cases, the revolutions failed to achieve their goals because of internal and external factors that hindered the endurance of their ideals.[6] In other cases, constitutionalism was used as a means to strengthen, centralize, and preserve the integrity of the national territory.

Much has been written on the causes and initial implementation of Middle Eastern revolutions during the early twentieth century. There is, however, a paucity of material that appropriately addresses their complexity and their impact on the Weltanschauung of the different ethno-religious groups in the postrevolutionary era. Existing scholarship on the impact of the Young Turk Revolution is divided into two groups. One views the revolution as a factor that led to a decline of interethnic relations that culminated in the rise of ethnic nationalism, while the other romanticizes the period as the beginning of a positive project that was interrupted by World War I and the collapse of the empire.[7] Both approaches fail to adequately problematize the revolution and demonstrate its complexities. In fact, the revolutionaries’ uncritical adaptation, acceptance, and implementation of constitutionalism became counterproductive in an era in which it proved impossible to forge a unified nation and preserve the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, romanticizing the period and arguing that the different ethno-religious groups within the empire tried to see themselves as part of an Ottoman nation under the label “civic nationalism” is rather misleading.[8]The reality is that constitutionalism failed to create a new understanding of ottoman citizenship, grant equal rights to all citizens, bring them under one roof in a legislative assembly, and finally resuscitate ottoman- ism from the ashes of the Hamidian regime.

Achieving these goals became impossible due to the ambiguities and contradictions of the revolution’s goals and the reluctance of both the leaders of the revolution and the majority of the empire’s ethnic groups to come to a compromise regarding the new political framework of the empire. That the revolutionary ideals were obscure was particularly evident in the prerevolutionary period, when, as Nader Sohrabi states, constitutionalism that satisfied everyone was multivocal, and “multivocality spelled ambiguity.” This multivocality was “a catalyst for consensus and coalition building among groups with contradictory and conflicting interests.”[8] But the expectations raised by the revolution for the formation of a new, constitutional nation under the label “Ottomanism” soon proved to be illusory. The major reason was that the Young Turks were not wholeheartedly committed to constitutionalism. For them, constitutionalism was only a means to an end: to maintain the integrity of a centralized Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Young Turks were determined to preserve the empire even if that meant violating the spirit of constitutionalism itself, as they demonstrated in their coup d’état of 23 January 1913, during the Balkan Wars. The Young Turks pursued all available means of consolidating their power within the empire, including interference in administrative affairs, the ouster of state and military personnel, vast purges of political opponents in the provinces, and most important, rigid enforcement of their own vision of reforms. That vision completely contradicted the Weltanschauung of the non-dominant groups in the new era in which they wanted to preserve their ethno-religious/ethnic identities and privileges in tandem with the new, ambiguous project of Ottomanism.

This book tells the story of the shattered dreams of Arabs, Armenians, and Jews, three diversified ethnic groups representing vast geographic areas, as well as a wide range of interest groups, religions, classes, political parties, and factions. I would like to clarify an important point: my choice to use the concept of “ethnic group” rather than “national group.” ethnic group denotes a population “sharing common cultural characteristics and/or seeing itself as being of common descent or sharing a common historical experience.”[10] In addition, by using the terms “Armenians,” “Arabs,” and “Jews” in the framework of ethnic groups, I do not intend to essentialize them and represent them as consistent or static in both time and space. The ideas of nations and nationalism were confined to only the intelligentsia and political activists who became the harbingers of cultural and political nationalism that emerged in the empire in the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, the majority of the Ottoman Empire’s constituent groups did not see themselves as part of a nation but rather as part of an ethno-religious community. Their identities meshed in an array of overlapping identities, highlighted by religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity, on the one hand, and regional and local loyalties, on the other. For example, the identity of an Iraqi Jew whose first language was Arabic, but who grew up in Baghdad, was not the same as that of a Salonican Jew living in Salonica whose first language was Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Similarly, the identity of an Armenian living in Sivas who spoke the local Ottoman Turkish dialect was not the same as that of an Armenian from Istanbul who spoke fluent Armenian and identified with the Armenian bourgeois class. Despite this diversity in terms of language, culture, religion, locality, region, and class, the various groups falling within the bloc of an ethnic group still had an important common bond in their ethnic boundaries.

Notes

[1] Al-Muqaṭṭam, 31 August 1908, no. 5906, 4. Al-Muqaṭṭam, which was published in Cairo by Ya‘qub Sarruf, Faris Nimr, and Bishara Taqla, maintained an identification with the British policy in the empire. others argue that it was financed by the British. The newspaper had a circulation of five thousand. See Ami Ayalon, Language and Change in the Arab Middle East: The Evolution of Modern Arabic Political Discourse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 177.

[2] Al-Muqaṭṭam, 1 September 1908, no. 5907, 4.

[3] Ibid., 31 August 1908, no. 5906, 4.


[4] See Charles Kurzman, Democracy Denied, 1905–1915: Intellectuals and the Fate of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[5] Nader Sohrabi, Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 6.

[6] Elizabeth Thompson, Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[7] For a critique of ethnic nationalism, see James l. Gelvin, Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 4–22; Hasan Kayalı, Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908–1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 1–16; Keith David Watenpaugh, Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Arab Middle Class (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 55–61.

[8] According to Michael Ignatieff, civic nationalism maintains that “the nationshould be composed of all those—regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity—who subscribe to the nation’s political creed.” for him this type of national- ism sees the nation “as a community of equal, rights-bearing, citizens, united in a patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.” See Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 6.

[9] Sohrabi, Revolution and Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, 26.

[10] Aviel Eoshwald, Ethnic Nationalism and the Fall of Empires: Central Europe, the Middle East and Russia, 1914–23 (London: Routledge, 2001), 6.

[Excerpted from Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in Late Ottoman Empire, by Bedross Der Matossian (p. 1-4), by permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press. © 2014 The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]

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