Workshop Report: “Arab Nationalism: From the Ottoman Empire to the Colonial Mandates,” University of Basel, September 11-12, 2014

Nova Robinson's picture

What is Arab nationalism? Where did it come from and how did it transition between the Ottoman Empire and its successor states? How has the topic been studied and how is the topic being studied today? These were the guiding questions for the 2nd Annual MUBIT Doctoral Workshop in Late- and Post-Ottoman Studies at the University of Basel on September 11-12, 2014. Professor Maurus Reinkowski, Dr. Selen Etingü, and Alp Yenen from Middle Eastern Studies of the Department of Social Sciences in Basel organized the workshop. The assembled graduate students represented ten universities from five countries. The students were given the opportunity to discuss the existing historiography and the emerging trends in the study of post-Ottoman nationalisms with two of the leading scholars on the subject, Professor Hasan Kayali and Professor Michael Provence, both of the history department at the University of California, San Diego. Following last year’s workshop on “Turkish Nationalism,” the title of this year’s event “Arab Nationalism: From the Ottoman Empire to the Colonial Mandates” captures only one of the workshop’s focuses. The workshop addressed the origins, development, and symbiotic relationship between two of the nationalist movements that evolved as the Ottoman Empire centralized its control over its shrinking imperial holdings in the first two decades of the twentieth century: Arab nationalism and Turkish nationalism.

The first day of the workshop addressed “Arab Nationalism in the Ottoman Period.” Professors Kayali and Provence paired the selected readings with trenchant analysis of how the study and representation of Arab nationalism has evolved since George Antonius published The Arab Awakening in 1938. Professor Kayali identified three generations of scholars who studied Arab nationalism after Antonius produced the foundational text. The first generation produced scholarship between the 1950s and 1970s. Loosely labeled “the critics,” these scholars identified some of the flaws in Antonius’ narrative and worked to reintegrate Islam into the origin story of Arab nationalism. The second and third generations came along in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. The second group of scholars studied Arab nationalism from the perspective of journalists, educators, and the Middle Class. The third generation argued that Arab nationalism was not a phenomenon cultivated and circulated by the elite, but rather that Arab nationalism was a bottom-up phenomenon.

Analyzing the interrelatedness of the three generations of scholars of Arab nationalism gave way to discussion about common tropes of the “origin” and “demise” of Arab nationalism. Professor Provence asked why scholastic output about Arab nationalism is caught between two investigatory frameworks: one that studies the origins of the movement and a second, which heralds the decline of the movement and proposes factors about why the movement “failed”? Focusing on how the ideology of Arab nationalism operated on the ground through the actions of individual soldiers, writers, and diplomats was offered as one way of challenging the origin-defeat binary.

The first day looked at macro questions about how Arab nationalism has been studied in the past; the emphasis of the second day—“Postwar Quest for Nationhood”—presented examples for challenging the entrenched “wisdoms” about the origins of Arab nationalism. Provence reconstructed the fluidity of Ottoman and Arab allegiances through an analysis of the life Yasin al-Hashimi, a Major General in the Ottoman army from his youth as a pupil in an Ottoman military school until his death. He was buried next to Salah al-Din in Damascus as a hero of the Arab nationalist movement. Kayali addressed how debates about local and international decrees at the end of World War I, such as the President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Armistice of Mudros, and the Turkish National Pact, exposed the lack of consensus about the exact contours of the Turkish-Arab border. Both professors illustrated that the histories of Arab and Turkish nationalism were much messier in the years following the war than the existing literature presents. While the assigned readings for the workshop focused on Arab nationalism, it proved challenging to discuss this nationalist movement at the expense of other ideologies (Ottomanism, Islamism, Turkism) that were vying for adherents as the Ottoman Empire suffered defeat at the end of the First World War. Indeed, some individuals floated between these ideologies in the period immediately after World War I. For both the Arab and Turkish nationalist movements, Professors Kayali and Provence stressed the importance of highlighting the temporal and geographic context when analyzing either national movement.

Studying how individual actors absorbed, articulated, and enacted their understanding of Arab nationalism surfaced during the workshop as the new direction in the study of Arab nationalism—the study of Turkish nationalism follows a similar trend. Examining individual experiences requires detailed analysis of personal records, such as diaries and correspondence. However, individual experiences alone do not tell the story of Arab nationalism; those individual experiences need to be fitted within the larger historical context. The workshop ended with a working answer to the first guiding question about what Arab nationalism meant: a movement for Arab unity and independence that is highly contingent on time and location, one that cannot be understood in isolation from regional and global factors. The workshop underscored the relationship between Arab nationalism and Turkish nationalism as the nationalist ideologies emerged under the Ottomans. Using the experiences of a women’s charity organization or a Beiruti shopkeeper to layer the other competing regional nationalisms—Kurdish, Syrian, Palestinian—into the origin stories of Arab and Turkish nationalism will keep the field of Arab nationalism vibrant as it enters a new “generation.”

-   Nova Robinson – Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (