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Middle EastThe Emergence Of Modern Nationalisms

The nineteenth century was the seedtime of nationalism in the Middle East. The region's geographic, linguistic, and religious heterogeneity has provided the basis for numerous and competing nationalist movements.

Fueled by their religious distinctiveness and their contacts with the European milieu where nationalism was becoming the hegemonic referent for collective identity, some of the region's Christian minorities developed nationalist movements prior to the region's Muslim majority. Most prominent in this regard were the Maronites of Mount Lebanon and the Armenians of eastern Anatolia, among whom constructs emphasizing their historical separateness and right to political autonomy took hold in the nineteenth century. Thanks to European assistance, Lebanon gained autonomous status within the Ottoman Empire by the 1860s. Such was not the case in historic Armenia, where an active nationalist movement came into conflict with the Ottoman state as well as with the area's Turkish and Kurdish population in the later nineteenth century, and where fear of nationalism led to the mass expulsion and massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman government in the early twentieth.

In both Egypt and Iran, distinct geographical areas existing as autonomous polities with their own ruling structure (Iran since the sixteenth century, Egypt since the early nineteenth) led Westernized Egyptian and Iranian intellectuals to assert the existence of historically unique Egyptian and Iranian "nations" by the later decades of the century. Egyptian nationalism took political form by the later 1870s, when indigenous Egyptian elites sought greater control over an originally Ottoman ruling family and the European financial domination that dynastic extravagance was producing; their movement's slogan "Egypt for the Egyptians" succinctly expresses its overall thrust. Active nationalist activity in Iran dates from the 1890s and was produced by much the same combination of dynastic incompetence and foreign economic penetration; in the Iranian case it generated a formally successful Iranian constitutional movement in the early years of the twentieth century.

For the Turks of Anatolia and the Arabs of the Fertile Crescent, both living under Ottoman rule through the long nineteenth century, the causes producing nationalism were parallel. A precondition for modern Turkish and Arab nationalism was the development of a firm sense of ethnic identity. This was stimulated in the Turkish case by the discoveries of European Turkology, the uncovering of the pre-Islamic history of the Turkic-speaking peoples in Central Asia and beyond that fostered identification with a historic ethnie distinct from both the Muslim community and the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, in the Arab case by the process known as the "Arab Awakening," the blossoming of Arabic literature and history that occurred in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. As elsewhere in the Middle East, increasing elite contact with Europe and a growing awareness of European ideas also played a role. Nationalism is a modular concept, "available for pirating" (to pirate Benedict Anderson's phrase) by all those impressed by Europe and the world supremacy its nations were able to achieve in the modern era.

The catalyst turning a heightened sense of ethnic identity into visible Turkish and Arab nationalist movements was the trajectory taken by the Ottoman Empire over the course of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, the empire's territorial crumbling as European powers established their control over its African dominions and the peoples of the Balkans gained independence raised the possibility of a similar dismemberment of its Asian heartlands, thereby generating a search for an alternative base for viable community. On the other hand, the Ottoman government itself assumed a more reactionary character by the later decades of the nineteenth century. For educated Turks and Arabs, who were absorbing the values of individual liberty and participatory politics from their European mentors, the Ottoman Empire increasingly came to be seen as an undesirable framework for modern life.

Turkish and Arab ethnic nationalism became active movements only in the early twentieth century, specifically in the "Young Turk" era (1908–1918). Among Turks new organizations with an explicitly Turkish emphasis (the Turkish Society, formed 1908; the Turkish Hearth Clubs, formed 1912) emerged; in the press, extravagant ideas of uniting all Turkic-speaking peoples in a ethnically based "Turanian" state were voiced; on the governmental level efforts at increased centralization emphasized the primacy of the Turkish language within the state and sometimes gave precedence to ethnic Turks (although not to the degree once assumed). Similar organizational and intellectual trends occurred in the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Fertile Crescent: new Arab societies with a political agenda (the Ottoman Administrative Decentralization Society, 1912) emerged; demands for Arab autonomy were expressed in the press; and an Arab Congress was held in Paris in 1913 to promote Ottoman decentralization. The continued drive for centralization being undertaken by the Young Turk regime ran counter to what was originally an Arab demand for provincial decentralization. By the eve of World War I, a new trend was developing in the Arab provinces as prominent individuals and secret societies began to think of Arab independence as the only way to avoid subjugation within what politicized Arabs were coming to see as an oppressive "Turkish" state.

Modern Jewish nationalism (Zionism) did not require a similar process of the rediscovery of national distinctiveness. A sense of collective uniqueness and solidarity existed among Jews well before the nineteenth century. This sense was solidified by Judaism's liturgical language (Hebrew), the rich tapestry of distinctive customs, and the shared isolation of and discrimination against Jews living in European countries. An active Jewish nationalist movement based on this sense of distinctiveness was produced on the one hand by the gradual process of emancipation and assimilation experienced by Jews in parts of Europe during the nineteenth century, a process of historical change that also involved the acceptance of modern nationalist concepts, and on the other by growing European anti-Semitism, a phenomenon that led Jews to question their future in national states where powerful movements were now defining Jews as an alien element. In direct response to rising anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire, in the 1880s Zionist societies emerged in eastern Europe and began to organize Jewish immigration to Ottoman Palestine. By the late 1890s an international organization of Jews, the World Zionist Organization (WZO; established 1897), had been founded "to create for the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine secured by public law" (its founding declaration), and in the years prior to World War I the WZO worked to encourage Jewish migration and the initial development of distinctive Jewish national institutions in Palestine itself.

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