Modernity, Militarism, and Colonialism in the Making of the Middle East

The modernizing Ottoman State had touched the lives of all within its domains in the years immediately before the war. Those who lived through the period shared a range of experiences common to all the major combatant states. The nineteenth-century European state had evolved in the century after the French revolution to become a state that educated, taxed, counted, conscripted, trained, and claimed to act in the name of, and derive its legitimacy from, the collective will and spirit of its population.5 The combatant states fostered a range of public rituals, origin stories, and invented traditions intended to cement loyalty, allegiance, and compliance with the state. In the Ottoman state these centered around Islam, the person and office of the Sultan- Caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad as titular head of the Muslim community. The state also claimed to provide justice and representation to its non-Muslim population, who received quotas for representation in various elected Ottoman bodies. Like other states in Europe, state legitimation included a sometimes contradictory mix of majority religious appeals, claims of popular sovereignty, and claims of legal equality before the law for all religious communities. In this way the state sought to harness the loyalty of its majorities, while attempting more fitfully to insure the compliance of its religious minorities. The appeals to equality were often more theoretical than actual, as France’s Dreyfus Affair of 1894, and the repression and mass killings of Ottoman Armenians about the same time demonstrate.

The colonial legacy of today’s Middle East is no better understood than the Ottoman legacy, and has often been ignored for similar reasons. The Great Powers, and various regional client states planned and discussed the partition of the Ottoman Empire long before the Balkan and Ottoman crises of 1911 13, and World War I. The partition plans, maneuvers, and negotiations were inevitably accompanied by a range of racial, religious, cultural, and civilizational oppositions. Put another way, a host of essential positive attributes claimed to characterize the British and French nations were arrayed against negative attributes claimed to characterize Ottoman Muslims; rationality against fanaticism, civilization against barbarism, evolutionism against timeless primitivism, modern against backward, and Christian against Muslim. These assumptions and preconceptions were not always openly expressed but they underlay all aspects of the post-world war settlement, and in fact made possible the kind of breathtaking hubris the settlement displayed. Notably, as Ottoman intellectuals pointed out at the time, such partitions and colonial arrangements were not contemplated or replicated in the conquered territories of the Hapsburg or German empires in central Europe. The difference was mostly religion, though so-called Oriental Christians, including Greeks and Armenians, were also considered unworthy of full self-rule.

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