100th anniversary of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire

Published 17.06.2016 00:52

When the Ottoman Empire was divided as it collapsed like several other empires during World War I, some eight countries were founded in the Middle East. The presence of large Arab communities in the empire that remained faithful to the caliph until the last moment had a major role in that. For instance, the dissolution in the Balkans had started long before World War I and had almost ended by that time.

On the 100th anniversary of the Arab revolt, which began in June 1916, it would be useful to go over the causes of the situation. The ideas of Arab nationalism and independence from the Ottoman Empire were mainly advocated by the Christian Arab intelligentsia starting in the 1860s. However, the influence of Arab nationalism escalated after the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) overthrew Abdülhamid II, who was renowned for his investments in Arab regions and the value he attached to it, in 1909 and seized power in 1913 with tyrannical methods.

Although their power lasted five years and 268 days, the CUP had some practices whose traces lingered in every aspect. During this period, two questions came to the forefront and cast doubt on two vital aspects of the Ottoman Empire's founding principles, namely the consciousness of community and faithfulness to the caliphate.

First of all, due to the rising nationalism that extended from the Young Turks to the CUP that overthrew Abdul Hamid II, even Arab groups who were faithful to the Caliphate and the Empire started to question why they did not involve themselves in nationalism. Secondly, the dethronement of Abdülhamid II, who was also the caliph, with the use of force undermined the solemnity and influence of the caliphate. People started to ask: why they would abide the caliphate while even those in power do not respect it.

Also, Cemal Pasha, who came to be called "Al-Saffah" (shedder of blood) by Arabs, executed or deported the Arab community's leading religious and opinion leaders in the Biladu al-Sham region on allegations of secessionism and treason. Gradually getting involved in the life of the public while evolving into a modern state apparatus, the Ottoman Empire adopted increasingly centralized policies and stopped addressing local peoples' demands and wishes. Moreover, while Arabs' representation declined in Istanbul, non-Arab officials were appointed to Biladu al-Sham. These can be listed among some of the main reasons for the Arab revolt.

Despite all, it must be noted as a historical fact that the number of Arabs fighting for the preservation of the caliphate as part of the Ottoman army was far more than the number of rebels during the war. To illustrate, at the Battle of Gallipoli, Arabs comprised half the fighters repelling the British attack in Arıburnu at the command of the Col. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). Arab soldiers and civilians also made great contributions to the victory of Kut al-Amara in Iraq, which was one of the British's biggest defeats. The Ottoman military post in Medina also did not surrender for a long time, even after World War I, thanks to the Arabs there.

Meanwhile, the British left Syria to the French on April 29, 1916, and Palestine to Zionists a year later with the Balfour Declaration, although they promised to give Syria and Palestine to the Arab rebel leaders.

World War I history is also the history of how foreign countries manipulated and exploited the areas Muslims could not negotiate or agree on.

Until recently, history books in Turkish schools, which were written according to t Turkish nationalist, Kemalist ideology, referred to Arabs as a community that betrayed the Ottoman Empire. This discourse has revolutionarily been changed over the course of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule. The expressions stigmatizing Arabs and other ethnic groups were omitted from text books.

A habitus has been recently formed in Turkey. In this habitus, Arab war martyrs at the Çanakkale Martyrs' Memorial, who were from Aleppo, Gaza, Jerusalem, Mosul and Raqqa, as written on their gravestones, are remembered. The victory of Kut al-Amara has been officially remembered under the auspices of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this year. Arab-Turkish cooperation has also been flourishing in many fields from the economy to mutual regional interests. It is possible to observe that a similar habitus has been formed in some Arab countries, which seems promising for the next 100 years.

Today, neither the Ottoman Empire nor the caliphate exist. However, we currently have utterly different dynamics, potentials, strengths and weaknesses. But we still have so much to learn from the past when we look back on 100 years ago.

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