Decentralization and the Legacy of Turkish-Arab Separation after World War I

By Kate Danies, PhD Student, Georgetown University

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Seeing Istanbul for the first time after six years living in the Arab world was a revelation. In the geography of my imagination Istanbul had been so closely associated with the other Middle Eastern cities I had lived in and visited. But I was wrong: Istanbul had modern buses to ferry you from airport to city center, pristine parks and street dogs with tags on their ears. Istanbul had imperial palaces and a majestic scale that made London, Paris and New York look provincial. I imagined Istanbul as part of the Middle East, but Istanbul imagined itself as part of the West. Istanbul had every right to do so. Historically, the Ottoman Empire had been a part of the Concert of Europe, the Great Power club only the most powerful and geo-strategically important could aspire to. The Empire may have been a problematic and dysfunctional step member of that family, but a member nonetheless. The Ottomans had many resources at their disposal in the nineteenth century: the example of liberal, enlightenment Europe with its notions of democracy and progress, and the illustrious history of Ottoman statecraft and the Islamic circle of justice. Pieced together to form a patchwork of east and west, the Ottoman state fought for its survival through relentless efforts to reform itself in ways acceptable to Europe and in line with its own history and vision for the future.

There was just one problem: no one would leave the empire alone. From the perspective of the Great Powers, the Ottoman Empire was on its way out, and they wanted to make sure it crumbled favorably. How could they be so sure the Empire was doomed? The whole idea of empire had become passé: the era of the nation state was well underway, and polities that did not fall in line were coming under increasing pressure to conform. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Ottoman state attempted to implement a series of centralizing reforms to strengthen Istanbul’s ability to raise a powerful military and extract resources from the provinces. In Western Europe, this success of state centralization had relied heavily on the ability of the central government to foster a deep connection between the state and the people it ruled over. This was accomplished through nationalism: the connection between a land, its people and its rulers that made increasing state intervention into people’s lives acceptable on the basis of national strength and survival. In the multi-religious and multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, this project was much more complicated and much less successful. The Ottoman state’s centralization policies were seen not as a necessity to save a beloved shared homeland, but as an unnecessary interference into the historically autonomous affairs of the Empire’s borderlands. Local groups responded by demanding both independence from the empire and a return to the decentralized structure of the Ottoman state. The Arab provinces of the empire, tied to the Ottoman state through strong bonds of religion, preferred the latter form of resistance to the centralizing policies.

Decentralization and Ottoman Reform

Arab reform programs were articulated mainly in terms of decentralization during the period between the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 and the end of the First World War in 1918. Decentralization is commonly understood as part of a process of the early twentieth century transition between Ottomanism and Arab nationalism. Decentralization has been viewed as proto-nationalism, emphasizing early signs of national consciousness while downplaying the continued importance of Ottoman unity. This emphasis has obscured the ways in which the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire continued to exist as a viable alternative to ethnic nationalism in the early twentieth century. Decentralization was not a proto-nationalist ideology, but a way to resist the encroachment of the central state within an imperial framework that would preserve the hierarchies and associations that had linked the Arab provinces to the Ottoman Empire for centuries. The history of the 1908-1918 period is essential to uncovering the origins of Ottoman disintegration after World War I and to complicating narratives about the development of Arab nationalism. Rather than trying to identify a transition point between Ottomanism and Arabism, or begin writing the history of the modern Middle East at the moment of emergence of modern nation states, it is essential to arrive at a more complete understanding of how and why Arabs articulated reform demands in the language of decentralization during this period.

The question of decentralization lies at the heart of important historiographical debates about the roots of Arab and Turkish nationalism and Ottoman decline.(1) Western, Turkish and Arab historiographies have narrated the period from the early nineteenth century up until the outbreak of the First World War in divergent ways. In western historiography this was a period of decline for the “Sick Man of Europe”, doomed to disintegration in the face of European power and the contagious ideology of nationalism. Turkish historiography has argued that this era witnessed the birth of a Turkish ethnic nationalism that culminated in the establishment of the Turkish state in 1923. Arab historiography has viewed this period as the cradle of Arab nationalism, tracing a teleological progression of nationalist feeling from al-Nahda through independence from colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century. Each of these narratives suffers from the prejudices of hindsight and from a lack of engagement with broader historical perspectives. Recent scholarship has shown that a more inclusive Ottoman perspective on this era reveals that the Ottoman Empire’s decline was not a foregone conclusion, and that the long nineteenth century was in fact a period of successful consolidation and reform, during which the Empire was able to maintain control over its geographic territory and operate as a major naval and military power in the eastern Mediterranean.(2)

The history of decentralization has been obscured by its treatment as a transitional phase between Ottomanism and Arab nationalism, has a distinct history of its own. Decentralization was a coherent ideology that reflected contemporary concerns and the political ambition of individuals. The ideology developed in the context of major Ottoman territorial losses, burgeoning calls for separatism in the Empire’s western provinces, and growing European economic and political encroachment in the Empire’s economic and internal affairs during the nineteenth century. Understood as a means of balancing local power with imperial sovereignty, decentralization was espoused by both Arab leaders and elements of the Young Turk movement, who acknowledged that the threat of Europe made unity among the Empire’s provinces essential, even if that unity came at the expense of Ottoman centralized power. Decentralization was understood as a reform strategy that would address the Empire’s main challenge: consolidating a strong central government able to resist European encroachment.

Ottoman Roots of Decentralization

Nineteenth century Ottoman leaders recognized the need for reform to fortify the Empire against growing European power, but executed these reforms through increased centralization of the state. Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808-1839) initiated an extensive program of administrative, military and fiscal reforms during his reign. His successors, Abdul Majid I (r. 1839-1861) and Abdul Aziz I (r. 1861-1876) continued to implement this program of reforms, known as the Tanzimat. Ottomanism, an ideology that sought to unite the diverse peoples of the Empire with a unified Ottoman identity, was a core tenant of the Tanzimat reforms. Reform edicts passed during this period enshrined the concept of equality among the Sultan’s subjects, irrespective of religion.(3) As became clear during the early reign of Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909), these reforms ultimately failed to unify the Empire’s diverse populations under the banner of Ottomanism. Between 1878 and 1909, the empire suffered steady losses of territory in Europe and North Africa, ceding more than 144,000 square miles of land and six million subjects in the process.(4)

Sultan Abdul Hamid II reacted to the loss of the Empire’s European hinterland by shifting his focus eastward.(5) Until the Tanzimat, the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire had, as a function of their lesser importance for revenues and manpower, been less integrated with the imperial center than their European counterparts.(6) The Sultan recognized the fiscal and territorial importance of consolidating relations with the Arab provinces. His predecessors had extended administrative control over Arab territory, implementing major land reforms and infrastructure projects in the process. Abdul Hamid sought to fortify bureaucratic control by promoting a new ideology that combined the ethos of Ottomanism with an emphasis on a shared Islamic identity made possible by the loss of nearly half the empire’s Christian population.(7) In contrast to the earlier Tanzimat reforms, which had focused on integration under a single Ottoman identity, Abdul Hamid’s efforts in the Arab provinces emphasized shared Islamic heritage and local notable politics as the basis of social cohesion.(8)

One of the earliest and most active proponents of decentralization in the Ottoman Empire was an Ottoman Turk. Mehmed Sabah al-Din (1877-1948) was an intellectual with family ties to the Ottoman palace and political links to the Young Turk movement. Sabah al-Din’s mother was Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s sister, Saniha. His father, Mahmud Jalal al-Din Pasha, was an Ottoman minister dismissed from his post in 1878 after allegedly participating in a plot against the Sultan. He fled to Paris with his two sons in 1899.9 The young Sabah al-Din became involved in Young Turk politics in the French capital, and co-organized the group’s first congress with his brother in 1902. The Congress of Ottoman Liberals revealed fissures in the Young Turk opposition and paved the way for the emergence to two divergent opposition movements: the Society of Private Initiative and Decentralization, founded in 1906 by Sabah al-Din and his supporters, and the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), re-established the same year under the leadership of Baha al-Din Shakir.(10)

The ideological split between the two groups was based on disagreements regarding decentralization and western intervention. Sabah al-Din believed that the Ottoman state should abandon attempts to unite its subjects under the banner of Ottomanism, and instead undertake mass educational reforms aimed at promoting local identities and mechanisms of governance through decentralization. He thought that decentralization would enhance opportunities for private enterprise, which would in turn make the Ottoman state more financially solvent, allowing it to develop the military power necessary to retain sovereignty over its territories. For Sabah al-Din, decentralization was the obvious solution to the Empire’s main challenges of disunity, insolvency, and European power. Interestingly, Sabah al-Din proposed that decentralizing reforms be designed and implemented with the help of western experts, a controversial proposition at a time when western power posed a major threat to the Ottoman Empire. This emphasis on making use of western knowledge would be a major aspect of Arab decentralization programs as well. By contrast, the rival CUP favored centralization, minimization of western interference and unification under an Ottoman identity.(11)

Decentralization and Constitutionalism

Following the 1908 Young Turk coup that brought the CUP to power, Sabah al-Din’s followers founded the Liberal People’s party, which would become the major opposition party in the new Ottoman Parliament and a focal point for Arab pro-decentralization delegates. (12) The party’s insistence on decentralization posed a significant threat to the CUP’s centralized political and military hierarchy, which it attacked directly in 1912 when it briefly headed the Ottoman government. Decentralization politics flourished among Arab groups in Istanbul and the provinces after 1908.(13) Prior to this time Arab leaders had already voiced demands for reform, but the reintroduction of parliamentary politics opened the door for more rigorous advocacy of decentralization at both the state and local levels.

Various groups were formed to advance decentralization. The Ottoman Arab Fraternity was established in 1908 in Istanbul to support a decentralist agenda focused on the advancement of the Arabic language and culture in the Empire, the protection of the constitution and the promotion of unity under the leadership of the Sultan.(14)This group was banned in March 1909 following a failed counter-coup. The Young Arab Society (Jamia al-Arabiya al-Fatat) was established in Paris in 1909. Al-Fatat, which advocated Arab equality under Ottoman sovereignty, grew rapidly, relocating its headquarters to Beirut in 1913 to work more closely with other Arab decentralization parties.(15) Al-Fatat collaborated with the Ottoman Administrative Decentralization Party, founded in 1912 by Syrian exiles in Cairo. The Decentralization Party’s platform included demands common to Arab decentralization parties at the time, such as the use of Arabic in schools and bureaucracy, local military service, better representation in the Ottoman Parliament, and more local control over tax spending. The Decentralization Party, in turn, worked closely with political groups in Istanbul, including Sabah al-Din’s Liberal People’s Party.(16) The Beirut Reform Society, founded in 1912 by Salim Ali Salam and other local notables, also had links to the Liberal People’s Party.

The Balkan Precedent

Although strong, support for decentralization was not universal among Arab political leaders and intellectuals or Ottoman opposition groups. While pro-decentralization groups believed that decentralizing reforms would improve the Empire’s ability to face rising European power, others felt that decentralization would weaken the Empire’s unity and pave the way for dismemberment. The relationship between decentralization and western intervention was not lost on its opponents; figures like Sabah al-Din and groups like the Beirut Reform Society advocated controlled use of western experts to advance reform goals, a strategy they saw as a boon to their cause, but that could also be interpreted as a lack of faith in the Ottoman government and a means to enhance European influence.(17) Anti-decentralization groups had historical evidence to back up their suspicions: Ottoman territorial losses in Europe and North Africa in the nineteenth century had been foreshadowed by decentralizing reforms in these territories. In 1912, their case was bolstered by the onset of the First Balkan War, which cost the Ottoman Empire its remaining European possessions. This conflict was preceded by a diplomatic campaign for decentralization in the Balkans led by Austria-Hungary, and watched closely by other western powers vying for influence in the strategic area.(18)  While decentralization was one and the same policy, at least on paper, in the Balkans and the Arab provinces, its advocates believed that the situation was different due to stronger European influence in the Balkans and the Islamic ties linking Arab lands to the Ottoman state. Decentralization would result in the loss of the Balkans, but it could, they believed, also preserve the integrity of the Arab provinces within the Empire.(19)

The First Arab Congress

Although the situation in the Balkans and the ambitions of the Great Powers did not bode well for decentralization politics, the majority of Arab Ottoman reformers continued to advocate decentralization as the best solution to the twin threat of European encroachment and Arab demands for more equality in the Empire. The extent to which decentralization remained the consensus opinion among groups advocating Arab causes is evidenced by the proceedings of the First Arab Congress, held in Paris in June 1913. In June 1913 a group of Arab political leaders gathered in Paris to voice their demands to the world. Instead of calling for national independence on the basis of a shared history, culture and language, the Arab leaders called for decentralizing reforms that would raise the status of the Arab provinces while keeping them firmly under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. The 1913 Arab Congress has been understood as a significant event in the Arab nationalist movement. In fact, the Congress was a reaffirmation of the Arab consensus on decentralization as an approach that would allow the Arab provinces to achieve their cultural, political and economic goals, while remaining united under the Ottoman state.

The organizing committee for the Congress was composed of members of leading groups that advocated decentralization, including al-Fatat and al-Ahd.(20) Representatives from the Decentralization Party and the Beirut Reform Society attended the Congress.(21) The Congress’s agenda reinforced Arab commitment to decentralization; the three major discussion items were the rights of Arabs in the Ottoman Empire, the problem of foreign intervention and the need for reforms within the framework of decentralization.(22) The addresses delivered over the course of the six-day conference all emphasized the importance of decentralization. The Arab Congress aimed to pressure the Ottoman government into granting reforms while emphasizing desire for continued unity with the Empire. While the platform of the Congress represented the widely-held consensus on decentralization among Arab political groups, attendance was limited by poor organization and discomfort on the part of some leading figures such as Aziz Ali al-Misri, Amir Shakib Arslan and Sharif Husayn, who objected to direct confrontation with the Ottoman government and questioned the motives of the French in hosting the Congress.(23) Indeed, France’s willingness to host the Congress, and its history of permitting the activities of opposition groups, including the Young Turks themselves, indicates that they had something to gain from Arab calls for decentralization. If, like the other Great Powers, the French understood decentralization as one step along the road to Ottoman dismemberment, as suggested above, then hosting the Congress was simply one more way to forward their long term interests in the region. While the Arab Congress was not successful in bringing about major reforms in the Empire, decentralization continued to operate as the major reformist ideology up until the conclusion of World War I. This is evidenced by on going Arab activism for decentralization in the Ottoman Parliament, supported by Ottoman decentralization parties such as the Liberal People’s Party, as well as the continued activities of decentralization groups like the Beirut Reform Society through 1918. Only at the end of the war, when the Ottoman Empire’s defeat and impending dismemberment became clear, did Arab intellectuals and political leaders begin to think and act in terms of Arab nationalism on a large scale.

Echoes of Separation

Decentralization as a defensive strategy for reform in the Ottoman Empire had its roots in the ideas of Mehmed Sabah al-Din on the Ottoman side, and in strategies of divide and rule from the European side. During the Second Constitutional Period the majority of political organizations interested in reforms in the Arab provinces viewed decentralization as an approach that would enable the Empire to address the demands of Arabs for greater equality while bolstering the Empire’s ability to stand up to European encroachment. Ottoman opponents of decentralization viewed it as a threat to the Empire’s unity and an invitation for foreign interference akin to the involvement of the Great Powers in the loss of the Balkan provinces and the Italian invasion of Libya (1911-1912). The Great Powers themselves understood decentralization as a stopping

point on the way to ethic national independence that could only benefit their commercial and territorial ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean. The only major between decentralization policy in the Balkans and the Arab provinces was the orientation of the population toward the Ottoman center. The commitment of the Arab majority to remaining part of the Empire made decentralization possible as a defensive strategy, rather than a stepping stone to independence, in the lead up to the First World War.


Rather than advocate for national independence from an internally colonizing empire, Empire’s Arab provinces sought to retain their previous autonomy under an imperial state structure. Ultimately, the pressures of the state-driven international system, European intervention into the Empire’s sovereignty through the discourse of minority rights, and the crucible of World War I made nationhood in the former Ottoman lands inevitable. Turkey and the Arab world quickly went their separate ways, following divergent paths of national independence and colonial subjugation. Turkey turned its face firmly towards Europe, while anti-colonial nationalism in the Arab world engendered a range of ideological orientations from Islamism to Communism. Turkey’s status as the former heartland of the Ottoman Empire provided a core from which to build a strong modern state, while the underdeveloped Arab lands suffered from a lack of infrastructure and institutions with which to claim independence and fend off western accusations that they were not yet ready for independence. The different stages of development in Anatolia and the Arab lands at the time of separation still resonates today, as Turkey and the Arab countries turn back towards each other and away from the west.

Southeastern Turkey was the site of historic battles during the First World War and has long been a contact zone with the Arab lands along its borders. More developed than any capital in the Arab east, the area’s cities are now at the heart of Turkey’s flourishing industrial sector, and, for now, economic success is helping to mask the tensions that continue to plague the nation. Kurdish nationalism is a problem intimately linked to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and European attempts to impose a system of national states on a poly-ethnic and multi-religious land.

The social engineering, mass deportations and massacres of World War I failed to exclude Kurds from a Turkish state whose officials felt that they could be brought into the fold. Under the AKP government, the Turkish state has eased restrictions on Kurdish expressions of identity and culture, allowing Kurds more autonomy to manage their own affairs. In return, many moderate Kurds we met rejected the idea of an independent Kurdistan, preferring to enjoy autonomy and freedom of expression under the Turkish state. Meanwhile, war in neighboring Syria had brought hundreds of thousands flooding over the border to camps and temporary existence in the cities of the southeast. The Turkish government was welcoming the desperate refugees with open arms, making Turkey even more of a hero in the Arab world than it had already been since Prime Minister Erdogan’s stand against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2009. In Lebanon in August 2013, two Turkish airlines pilots were kidnapped from Beirut airport as leverage for the release of Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Syria. These events reveal the extent to which Turkey has become bound up in the geopolitics of its former Arab hinterland.

The current Turkish government has been accused of being neo-Ottomans, and the above examples support the idea that Turkey is coming into its own once again as a leader in expressing the shared values and interests of the Muslim world. But, as in the early twentieth Century, the policies of paternalistic Ottomanism are a double-edged sword: reinforcing its bonds with the east entails turning away from the fold of west. Acknowledging suffering in the Arab and Muslim world necessarily entails protest against western support for regional dictators and tacit acceptance of Israeli policies towards Palestinians. Long held up by the west as a model of democracy and secularism in the Middle East, Turkey’s decision to approach its neighbors in a new way is causing discomfort, both within its borders and outside. In late May 2013, mass protests broke out against the government in Gezi Park. These on going protests against the increasing hold of the AKP over the government, perceived authoritarianism and attacks on Turkey’s secular foundations, hold in them echoes of the past and Turkey’s perpetual role at the crossroads of east and west.


1 For a useful overview of some aspects of these debates see Mahmoud Haddad, “The Rise of Arab”

2 See Hasan Kayali, Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire,

1908-1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 3.

3 Erik Jan Zurcher, “Ottoman Labour Battalions in World War I,” Histnet, accessed March 11, 2013,, 2.

4 Engin Akarli, “Abdulhamid II’s Attempt to Integrate Arabs into the Ottoman System,” in Palestine in the Late Ottoman Period: Political, Social and Economic Transformation, ed. David Kushner. (Jerusalem: Yad Izkhak Ben-Zvi, 1986), 74. For a full list of Ottoman territorial losses in Europe see Mustafa Aksakal, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 5.

5 On the impact of Hamidian reforms on the Arab provinces see Haddad, “The Rise of Arab Nationalism Reconsidered,” 204-05.

6 Kayali, Arabs and Young Turks, 32.

7 Christians accounted for 40% of the empire’s population prior to Balkan independence in 1970. See Erik

J., The Young Turk Legacy and Nation Building: From the Ottoman Empire to

Ataturk’s Turkey (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), 69.

8 Hasan Kayali, Arabs and Young Turks, 31.

9 Ahmet Ersoy, “Prince Sabahaddin: A Second Account on Individual Initiative and Decentralization,” in Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States, ed. Ahmet Ersoy, et al. (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010): 331.

10 The CUP had existed as an underground political organization since 1889. See M. Sukru Hanioglu, The Young Turks in Opposition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995): 71 and 89.

11 Ersoy, “Prince Sabahaddin,” 331-32.

12 Ersoy, “Prince Sabahaddin,” 331-32.

13 See Zeine N. Zeine, The Emergence of Arab Nationalism (Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1973), 82.

14 Ceren Abi, “Modern Expectations: Demands for Reform by the Arabs in the Late Ottoman Empire,” Tarih 2 (2010): 96.

15 Abi, “Modern Expectations,” 97.

16 Abi, “Modern Expectations,” 98.

17 Ersoy, “Prince Sabahaddin,” 331. See also Salim Ali Salam, Mudhakkirat Salim Ali Salam, 1868-1938

(Beirut: Dar Al-Jamiyah, 1982), 142.

18 The First Balkan War took place between October 2, 1912 and May 30, 1913.

19 See William L. Cleveland, The Making of an Arab Nationalist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 9-10.

20 Abi, “Modern Expectations,” 100.

21 Zeine, The Emergence, 91-92.

22 Zeine, The Emergence, 92.

23 Abi, “Modern Expectations,” 101.

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