Across the Bay

Friday, July 02, 2004

Comments and Counter-Comments

There seems to be a confusion about some of the things I wrote in my "Portrait of a Dragoman" post. Two anonymous readers have left comments, and both reflected similar misunderstandings of my post.

The first Anonymous said that I was putting 2 and 2 together to get 5, because of my statement on the Ottoman empire being a "constitutional democracy." Well I thought it was somewhat obvious but that was intentionally an over-the-top sarcastic caricature, which I moved beyond immediately to focus on the real points: 1- the two (grossly oversimplified) examples provided by Khalidi were of non-Arab nations and 2- the role of European intervention in the case of the Ottoman empire (tanzimat) was conveniently left out.

So, in response to the second Anonymous, I am well aware that the ME contains more than just Arabs. But that doesn't address the lack of Arabs in the list of experiments with constitutionalism OR (that's just for you!) democracy. As for the news flash about Ottomans being Turks, I appreciate the heads up, but that wasn't the point. The point was to separate the Ottoman empire from the post-empire Turkish nation-state. The rationale behind that should be rather obvious!

Furthermore, I'm afraid that your chronology is quite confused. The Young Turks had nothing to do with the 1876 tanzimat. The movement began in 1889 and reached its peak in 1908 (the tanzimat were started in 1839). It was in the summer of 1908 that the Sultan yielded to the officers' requests and reactivated the constitution of 1876. Abdul Hamid had suspended it in 1878 and the Young Turks wanted it back. They didn't create it, nor was its creation due to their pressure. Rather, it was due to European pressure, especially on the issue of minority rights and equality (i.e. the fundamental shift from "toleration" to "rights"). But there's another point here. I never denied the presence of a constitution (even when I qualified it). I once again refer you to my two initial points above.

But since we're discussing misrepresentations, let's address your (inadequate) analogy. If you're trying to imply that the extent of the European role was cultural and ideological influence on the Young Turks, you are seriously misrepresenting history. I admitted my caricature, but you seem to actually believe your statement to be serious. Nevertheless, I never denied the role of Turkish reformists, just like I don't deny the potential and crucial role of reformists in the Arab countries today. However, just as the Turkish reformers and minorities benefitted from European pressure and intervention, it is imperative that reformers in the Arab world turn away from their rejectionism (such as that displayed by Khalidi) and their fake mantras about democracy "not coming from the outside" or not coming with the "barrel of a gun" (then don't bring up the Turkish military coup or the fact that the tanzimat remarkably came after a military defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ali, and the European military intervention, etc.) Spare me. (By the way, I will draw another analogy to Iraq. Many Young Turks were exiles in Europe where they got their ideas and had the freedom to express them. So Arab critics today should be very careful when dismissing Iraqi exiles. At least, if you want to do so, don't bring up the Ottoman experience! You'd fail on all levels!) Furthermore, you leave out another crucial point. If the reforms were homegrown and not perceived as European-inspired, why then was there a terrible reaction and opposition to them by the Muslim population in resentment of the new-found rights given to non-Muslims, because of European pressure? I have argued that this resentment is mirrored by the attitude of Arabists today vis à vis the Kurds (to be honest, vis à vis all minorities in the ME).

Finally, the Young Turks had the benefit of appearing towards the end of the Ottoman empire, when it was at its weakest. They also benefitted from a weak brother of the Sultan as well as sympathetic relatives of his. Furthermore, they had much of the military on their side. That's why they were capable of taking advantage of European pressure and drive home their demands (and they still were persecuted in the beginning). Now compare that scenario to Saddam's Iraq. Did any of those conditions exist? More importantly, were the intellectuals of the Arab world actually actively trying to attack Saddam and the ideology that sustained him? On the contrary, they were more fervently defending it. All this meant that a foreign intervention was necessary to provide the Iraqi dissidents with the space they needed. Khalidi therefore has it wrong on so many fronts.