This book makes three central arguments: First, the common legacy of the late Ottoman modernization project is second only to the colonial legacy in shaping the history of the region and its peoples. Second, the colonial legacy on the Middle East is a common experience, whether in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, or Turkey, without which the history of the region is incomprehensible. And finally, the durable tendency to view the history of the region through the lens of national histories of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, etc. obscures commonalities that were clear to all until at least the 1940s.
The book begins with a chapter examining the common structures, themes, and experiences of late Ottoman life. It focuses on the formative experience of military school, and follows the life experiences and adventures of several late Ottoman figures who began life as provincial children, of mostly modest background, and attended subsidized elite state schools. As members of a self-conscious, meritocratic, state elite, together they experienced privilege and responsibility for the fate of the state, war and trauma, followed by defeat, unemployment, prison, and worse, and went on to emerge as statesmen, nation builders, activists, or revolutionaries. The chapter shows that late Ottoman attitudes and structures were formative on the decades that followed, despite the collapse and disappearance of the state. The modernizing Ottoman state broadly shared similar institutions and attitudes with other modernizing European powers, and the Ottoman state and its fate deserves a more central place in the history of Europe and World War I than it customarily receives.
The second chapter examines the theories and practices of post-world war colonialism, as practiced by the victorious powers on the territories of the vanquished. It examines the legal and racial structures and theories that legitimated colonial rule over formerly independent peoples. Part of the effort to colonize the Ottoman realms required a rhetorical removal of the Ottoman state from the story of Europe, and the tacit placement of Ottoman Muslims into racially deficient non-European categories that demanded colonial tutelage. The resulting inconsistencies at the core of the colonial and League of Nations mandate system had consequences for the post-Ottoman region and its people that are still unfolding one hundred years later. The chapter introduces readers to the general themes and narrative of interwar Middle Eastern colonialism, which are explored in more detail in subsequent sections.
The remaining chapters follow the adventures and struggles of the last Ottoman generation through the interwar decades. These chapters make the central argument that for those who lived through them, the borders, states, and national histories that characterize the usual framework for understanding the region would have made no sense. The book attempts to re-imagine a post-Ottoman Middle East of great cities, and rural and pastoral hinterlands, interconnected through modern infrastructure, and institutions, undivided by borders, ruling arrangements, or the constructed barriers of human consciousness.
A century later, the poisonous fruit of the Middle East colonial settlement is still in the headlines. Almost one hundred years after the end of the Great War, one of the Middle Eastern states created in its wake, Syria, where this book was first conceived, is in an advanced state of civil war and social and political disintegration. The conflict is widely claimed to be the gravest humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II. The roots of the conflict in Syria today, like many other regional conflicts, reach directly into the polluted soil sown by the post-War settlement, and my only optimistic hope is that the reader may discern the shadows of these roots, and know that the suffering of today did not come from nowhere, but from the conviction, still nurtured widely, that some people were more deserving of life and liberty than others simply by the accident of their birth, and that the people who have suffered most from this conviction, now and in the past, did nothing to deserve their awful inheritance.
- 1. Peter Schamoni makes this argument in his documentary based on historical footage of Wilhelm’s reign in his Majestat brauchen Sonne: Kaiser Wilhelm II. der erste deutsche Medienstar, 2000.
- 2. Lowell Thomas, With Lawrence in Arabia (New York: Garden City Publishing, 1924), p. 291, www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30083872, accessed July 1, 2015, and correspondence with Mrs. Jane Furlong, Imperial War Museums.
- 3. Pierre La Maziere, Partant pour la Syne (Paris: Audiniere, 1928), p. 191.
- 4. The excellent recent book, Michael A Reynolds, Shattering Empires: the Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908 1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 17 18, makes this point well.
- 5. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875 1914 (New York: Vintage, 1987), Selim Deringil, The Well Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876 1909 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1998).