The unintended consequences of constitutionalism: the dynamics of ethnic conflict in the late Ottoman Empire (completed)

Nader Sohrabi


As a visiting researcher to the Max Planck Fellow Group (Koenig), Sohrabi is pursuing two projects that concern the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 to explore the consequences of introducing constitutionalism and of the radical redefinition of citizenship and nationhood that followed in this multi-religious and multi-ethnic context.

The first project looks at the relationship between the Turkish/Ottoman centre and Albanian and Arab territories. A centralist (as opposed to federalist or decentralized) constitution was introduced in order to transform the Empire into a nation state. This called for a double transition that inadvertently pushed the Empire to the brink of breakdown. The first transition was to the ethnic model of citizenship under the nation state, which aimed to replace the Empire’s territorial subject-hood with Ottomanism. As a step toward greater equality, it sought to dismantle the Empire’s identity hierarchy along religious lines, but it also managed to introduce a new hierarchy based on ethnicity that signalled the emergence of an ethnic (Turkish) core. This change in the Empire’s identity orientation intensified ethnic nationalism on all fronts (Turkish, Albanian and Arab). The second transition was to introduce uniform administrative practices befitting a constitutional nation state with ‘equal’ and ‘fair’ relations with its subjects, thus replacing the Empire’s variegated, ad-hoc and contextually specific administrative practices, which had been constructed over centuries. This process challenged, for example, the traditional method of managing non-Muslims (e.g., the millet system) and mixed administrative arrangements with Muslim publics (Albania and Arab regions). Resistance to both transitions had a destabilizing impact that opened the way to wars and the collapse of the Empire.

The second project concerns the 1909 Armenian massacres in Adana which preceded the ethnic cleansing of WWI. Constitutionalism’s promise of equality among religions aimed to end Muslim superiority. Yet, a broad swathe of public opinion that considered the Armenians to have unfairly surpassed the Muslims economically was now unhappy to be placed on par with them politically. Simultaneously, constitutionalism ushered in an unprecedented period of freedom for political parties, the press and cultural-ethnic activity among the minorities, a tremendous expansion of the Ottoman public sphere that brought much visibility to the previously subdued populations. This combination proved fatal. Previous accounts have blamed the outbreak of hostilities alternatively on the Ottoman government, the Armenian revolutionary parties, the Sultan, local elites or the Young Turks (the Committee of Union and Progress or CUP). This project’s findings suggest that the 1909 massacres happened almost entirely at the grassroots level, with only minor assistance from the local elites or government functionaries. This sheds light on the dynamics of the much broader ethnic cleansing of WWI, not because the two events were entirely similar, but because the focus on the large-scale actors (e.g., the state, the CUP, Russia) in WWI has blurred our view of the disorganized, public-level local conflicts that happened in tandem with government-sponsored violence. The study of 1909 thus enables a more layered, complex and ultimately more accurate picture of ethnic violence in WWI.

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