Ottomanism Revisited

By Aaron Scott Johnson
Submitted to Session P5310 (War, Nation, Religion, and Identity in the Later Ottoman Period, 2018 Annual Meeting
Anatolia; Balkans; Ottoman Empire; Syria; The Levant; Turkey;
19th-21st Centuries; Arab Studies; Balkan Studies; Colonialism; Historiography; Identity/Representation; Nationalism; Ottoman Studies; State Formation; Turkish Studies;
The history of the late Ottoman state and the early Turkish Republic has often been presented in a teleological manner in which the “emergence of modern Turkey” is viewed as the inevitable culmination of trends dating back to the early nineteenth century. Elements which do not fit this narrative are downplayed, misinterpreted, or ignored. On the theoretical plane, Hans Kohn predicted in the 1920s that nationalism would take the place of religion in the East. Benedict Anderson’s later discussion of “imagined communities,” while incorporating insightful discussion of developments associated with these communities, is in the end merely an elaboration of Kohn’s ideas. The nation is defined as being antithetical to communities based on religion or imperial rule. This definition, then, deems Muslim and Ottoman identity to be outdated and inferior to ethnolinguistic nationalism. However, there is another story to be told, that of an Ottoman or Ottoman Muslim nationalism that was clearly articulated by the 1870s and died with the partitioning of the Ottoman state and the Kemalist reforms. Ali Suavi, who has often been claimed by Turkish nationalists as one of their own, was in fact an Ottoman nationalist who explicitly argued that the Ottomans formed a nation. The works in which he makes such arguments, many of which were published in France, have been for the most part ignored. The Rhodope Rebellion following the Russo-Turkish war is an early example of the type of resistance that followed WWI, but since it was carried out by Ottoman Muslims in what is now Bulgaria it does not fit anyone’s national history today. The post-WWI resistance in Anatolia was carried out in the name of Ottoman Muslims, and Erik Zürcher’s description of this as “Ottoman Muslim nationalism” is one of the rare uses of such terminology. The post-WWI resistance in Syria does not fit the story of either Turkish or Arab nationalism, as it was motivated by the same Ottoman Muslim nationalism as the Anatolian resistance. Finally, the outlook of the Ottoman Muslim nationalist in a post-Ottoman world is poignantly conveyed in William Cleveland’s portrayal of Shakib Arslan’s reactions to Kemalism. Turkish and Arab nationalism then were promoted at the cost of misrepresenting or ignoring a significant aspect of late Ottoman history.