SUMMARY:After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the empire’s territories were gradually reorganized into nation-states, albeit for only some of its former subjects. Others, mostly those who had been subjected to state violence during World War I, were excluded. The nation-state building process, therefore, gave new political meaning to the religions people practiced, the languages they spoke, and the ethnicities they belonged to. While some of these identity categories were transformed into bases for national belonging, others were targeted for suppression or even expulsion and extermination by the region’s new states and nationalist movements.
Several persistent problems have afflicted the historiography of the groups bearing these suppressed identities. First, their existence as homogenous groups with static self-perception has been too often taken for granted. Second (and following logically from the first problem), these groups are reduced to passive actors in our histories: victims of genocide and expulsion, tools of European colonizers, losers at the Paris Peace Conference. The political and social agency they possessed, and their impact on the events of this period, are overlooked.
This panel proposes to challenge conventional institutional histories by zooming in on the agencies of four of these excluded groups - Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds and Jews. The first paper examines the role that Armenian refugees in Syria played during the Great Syrian Revolt (1925-1926). The second explores how Kurdish nationalists in the 1920s-40s, finding themselves the targets of secularizing and Turkifying campaigns by the new Turkish state, reflected on the atrocities committed against non-Muslims in Anatolia during the late Ottoman period. The third uses the wartime writings of Assyrian political activists in the United States to demonstrate how the Assyrian diaspora mobilized for their own state-building project. The fourth relates how Jews in Aleppo, Syria, navigated internal leadership crises in their community and competing claims on their loyalty from French Mandate authorities, Arab nationalists, and the Zionist movement.
Together, the panel offers a new contribution to our understanding of how and to which extent subaltern actors were able to construct, shape and/or challenge international, colonial and local elite policies. By putting the agency of the excluded at the center of analysis, the panel highlights the importance of such actors in nation- and state-building processes across the former Ottoman Empire.