The Ottoman Spring

Review: Bedross Der Matossian’s ‘Shattered Dreams of Revolution’

"Turkey in Revolution" / Charles Roden Buxton
• November 2, 2014 5:00 am

On July 24, 1908, a group of disaffected Ottoman military officers and members of the secretive Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) mounted a successful coup against the despotic rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II, and restored the constitution that he had suspended thirty years prior. What became known as the Young Turk Revolution brought euphoria and optimism to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious populations of the Ottoman Empire, who were enticed by the CUP with the promise, rooted in the rhetoric of the French Revolution, of ‘Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.’

In Izmir, Ottoman Jews marched alongside government dignitaries, shouting "Long live the fatherland! Long live liberty!" In Beirut, Biblical and Quranic passages were posted side by side. In Jerusalem, Armenians, Greeks, and Arabs celebrated under a banner at the city gate that read, "Long live the army, long live freedom. Liberty, equality, and fraternity." All over the Ottoman Empire, Muslims, Christians, and Jews marched in processions together, basking in the dawn of a new era.

But within a year, the last great Islamic empire’s brief foray into secular constitutionalism deteriorated into ethnic and religious violence.

The major consequences of the coup, in real terms, were a genocide that claimed the lives of more than one million ethnic Armenians, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of former Ottoman citizens in Eastern Anatolia, and—following the First World War—the loss of the Ottoman Arab lands, which were carved into unwieldy nation-states controlled by British and French suzerains.

In Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire, historian Bedross Der Matossian addresses the fraught ethnic relations that played a significant role in the failure of the Ottoman constitutional experiment.

According to Der Matossian, the goals of the revolution were doomed nearly from its inception because of their own internal contradictions.

CUP leaders, including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, sought to unite disparate populations of Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds and Turks under the banner of "Ottomanism"—a nebulous concept that could be molded to advance either a commitment to a multi-ethnic Ottoman political project, or to a Turkish nationalist agenda, depending on the context.

Due to linguistic limitations (perhaps ‘limitations’ is an inappropriate word, as Der Matossian conducted research in Arabic, Armenian, French, Hebrew, Ladino, and Ottoman Turkish for the book) the author chooses to examine the dissolution of Ottoman unity among three primary non-Turkish ethnic groups: Arabs, Armenians, and Jews. Although all three groups played instrumental roles in bringing the CUP to power in the 1908 coup d'état, it soon became clear that the Young Turks’ version of Ottomanism—assimilation and promotion of Ottoman Turkish as the primary language of the empire—clashed with the promotion of their respective identities, languages, and ethno-religious privileges.

This clash precipitated a collective disillusionment with the ideals of the revolution, which had failed to satisfy each community’s desire for autonomy within a decentralized Ottoman framework. Loss of prestige among the empire’s Arab population gave rise to Arabism, violence against Armenians "shook their trust" in the CUP, and Zionism was met with significant hostility from both Arabs in Palestine and the Ottoman government.

As early as 1909, the semblance of ‘brotherhood’ in Palestine that had existed in the brief euphoric moment following the revolution had devolved into bitter ethnic rivalries that manifested themselves in the pages of the local Arabic and Hebrew press.

Der Matossian has sought out primary sources—including newspapers, political communications, speeches, and religious sermons—which help to paint a picture of late Ottoman society unavailable in official repositories like the Ottoman Archives. It is well-known among scholars of Republican Turkey that Ataturk hired scholars to construct a historical narrative that suited his political ambitions, advanced the notion of a modern and secular Turkish state, and eschewed the inconvenient blemishes of its Ottoman past, especially the Armenian genocide.

Thus, utilization of the Ottoman Archives becomes problematic for the historian seeking the truth. It should further be noted that access to the Ottoman Archives is difficult and in many cases impossible to achieve for those of Armenian origin, depending on the ‘nature’ of his or her research.

Der Matossian’s ambitious project (the 260 pages of which may seem modest when one considers that they are distilled from a 600-plus-page dissertation completed at Columbia) breaks sharply from the ‘microhistorical’ approach employed by many scholars of the period. Rather than examining one locality and attempting to extrapolate larger conclusions about the empire as a whole, Der Matossian’s work analyzes the complex revolution from both central and peripheral areas, sifting through the "study in contradictions" that is the Young Turk Revolution to establish a comprehensive narrative about the feverish rise and fall of the 20th century Ottoman dream.

The lessons of the failed Ottoman experiment, however, extend far beyond the limited historical scope of Shattered Dreams of Revolution, which covers a period between 1908 and 1909. Like other modern revolutions, Der Matossian writes, the Young Turk Revolution was driven by the notion that the predicaments of society "should be solved through the kind of political reform that had transformed the West into a successful entity: constitutionalism and parliamentary rule vehicles to curb the power of the monarchy." Constitutionalism alone, however, "failed to create a new understanding of Ottoman citizenship," and could not stem the rising tide of nationalism that enveloped the rapidly decaying multi-ethnic Empires of the era—including Czarist Russia and Austria-Hungary, both of which crumbled at the end of the First World War.

Even in the 21st century, we continue to see a similar template in Middle Eastern revolutions. In the book’s conclusion, Der Matossian includes an excerpt from a speech given in an Egyptian church at the peak of the Arab Spring’s optimism in December 2011. The Anglican pastor, Reverend Sameh al-Qasim, welcomes a prominent imam from a Tahrir Square mosque along with a delegation of hundreds of Muslims to celebrate the New Year side by side. The imam, Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, invokes Egyptian patriotism and describes the relationship between Christian and Muslim Egyptians as one of "love and harmony."

"The pillars of this country were founded with the sweat of the Egyptians…Muslims and Christians [alike]," Shahin says. "Egypt will remain a safe country, guarded by whoever walks on it, be they Muslims or Christians."

It is, sadly, clear just how that worked out.

Der Matossian rightly points out that in the wake of both the Young Turk and Egyptian revolutions, "continued tensions between Christians and Muslims quickly became part of the post-revolutionary political milieu." These parallels make Shattered Dreams of Revolution essential to a sober and honest understanding of the Middle East in the 20th century—and in the 21st.