Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Civilian Politicians and Civil-School Graduates
The Ottoman constitutional revolution of 1908 and 1909 brought military officers of mostly modest background into Ottoman politics. As the influence and power of officers increased, the influence of civilian politicians waned. Such people were often members of famous Ottoman service families, some of which had produced provincial and central state functionaries for generations, or even centuries. The many crises of the last Ottoman decade, and the post-Great War period only hastened the process of militarizing Ottoman society. In the broadest sweep, Ottoman and post-Ottoman history of the Middle East in the twentieth century is the story of the gradual eclipse of aristocratic families and the rise of military officers of mostly modest background in politics. And yet, civilian elites struggled mightily in their way to retain their influence and their claims to speak for society. Like the officers, the sons of such families experienced elite Ottoman education, though in their case, it was usually elite Ottoman civil education.
Musa Kazim Pasa al-Husayni came from a distinguished Ottoman provincial family. He was born in 1853 in Jerusalem and in 1918, when he was 65 years old, he had already had an illustrious career in Ottoman service. He possessed formidable communication skills in Ottoman and Arabic as well as perhaps German or French. He had graduated from the school of civil service (Mektab-i Mulkiye) in Istanbul, which trained a majority of high officials of the imperial civil administration in the second half of the nineteenth century. He served as district commissioner (qa’immaqam) throughout Ottoman Syria, Anatolia, and had most recently been governor (mutassarif) in Yemen, and Bitlis, in eastern Anatolia. At the outbreak of the war Musa Kazim was retired from his administrative career. His younger brother, Jerusalem major Husayn al-Husayni, surrendered the city to British General Allenby in December 1917, and died a month later, at which point Musa Kazim became mayor of Jerusalem, under British army occupation.86
cAbd al-Rahman Shahbandar was the son of a successful, but not prominent, Damascene merchant, born in 1880. His parents made the unusual choice to send him to the Syrian Protestant College (American University of Beirut since 1920), where he completed his studies as a physician and married into a Damascus family far more prominent than his own. In Beirut he also became a political activist, joining the Committee of Union and Progress, and an instructor in the SPC medical school, organizing Muslim and non-Protestant college students to oppose mandatory chapel, thereby edging the college toward its eventual secularism.87
Student activism revealed that Shahbandar possessed a gift for oratory and political mobilization. He was an enthusiastic member of the Unionist Party between the 1908 revolution and 1912, but back in Damascus he became critical of the centralizing and dictatorial tendencies of the Ottoman Unionist leadership. Along with a handful of other politicized intellectuals, he organized a group called the Hizb al-lamarkaziyya al-idariyya al-cUthmani, or the Ottoman Administrative decentralization party, calling for greater autonomy and self-representation in 1913. Criticism of the Ottoman government became dangerous with the coming of World War I, and he fled to Cairo ahead of Ottoman governor Cemal Pasa’s police, in 1916, passing briefly though the village of a Druze shaykh named Sultan al-Atrash, south of Damascus. Shahbandar spent the war years practicing medicine in Cairo. After the end of the war, in 1919, he returned to Damascus, and in the next year, became briefly the Foreign Minister of the short-lived Arab government.
Shakib Arslan was a tireless advocate for the dignity and independence of the Ottoman state and its people, though events throughout his life forced him to adjust the focus of his advocacy. He was born in 1869 in a village in Mount Lebanon where his family enjoyed historic prominence and close ties to the Ottoman authorities. He received at birth the hereditary title of prince, which he used throughout his life, often modified as Amir al-Bayan, “the prince of eloquence,” in tribute to his rhetorical skills in Arabic.88 His father was a sub-district chief, and his uncle, Amir Mustafa, was district administrative head or qa’immaqam. His family sent him to Beirut for his education, which was the finest locally available, first in Maronite schools run by priests and finally in the Sultani state preparatory school in Beirut. The Beirut Sultani school was part of the same late Ottoman system of elite civil preparatory schools that included the Galatasaray Lycee in the capital and Maktab cAnbar in Damascus.
At the Sultani school, Shakib met and studied with famous Egyptian activist-scholar Muhammad cAbduh. The shaykh made a deep and lasting impression on the young Druze man, and Shakib remained his lifelong disciple, and he maintained his conviction, instilled at cAbduh’s feet, that Europe was a threat and a potential enemy to the Muslim people and the Ottoman state.89 While a student Arslan began to publish poetry, essays, and journalism; he was a prolific writer to the end of his life. After completing his studies at the Sultani school, he assumed his hereditary duties as a local political and dynastic leader. Local politics was unsatisfying, though, and he soon departed for Egypt for further study with cAbduh, and then to Istanbul where he was received into lofty literary and political circles. He returned to Lebanon after a tour of Europe, and assumed his role as an astute, and increasingly renowned, Ottoman-Arabic literary figure and provincial politician.
Arslan successfully weathered the deposition of Sultan Abdul-Hamid in 1909, and the rise of the Unionists, with his influence and access intact. He reacted angrily to the Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya in 1911, and resolved to join other Ottoman volunteers. After some ill- fated attempts, he arrived in Libya in 1912, where he met Enver, Mustafa Kemal, and cAziz cAli al-Misri, who were all young staff majors and emerging rivals. Arslan stayed for two months, chronicling the defense, writing a series of rousing calls for Ottoman patriotism, and forming a close and admiring relationship with Enver.90
Early in 1914 he was elected a delegate to the Ottoman parliament for the district of Hawran, south of Damascus. He spent the war enjoying close and trusting relations with both Enver and Cemal, and defending the wartime policies of the Ottoman state vociferously and with conviction. Arslan traveled between Syria and Istanbul repeatedly and put his literary skills at the service of the Ottoman government. At the time of the armistice in late 1918, he was in Berlin as a special envoy to the German government from Enver Pasa.91 Before his departure in summer 1918 Enver promised casually that the mission should only take a month or even less. “After that you can return here and travel to Syria.” But Arslan noted sadly years later, “I have been in Europe since that time, now more than five years away from my home.” 92 His exile would last almost thirty years, and he would not return to Syria till the last years of his life. Of course, the state and sovereign he had sought to serve had disappeared almost three decades before, too.
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